Taboo, transgression, transformation: child abuse and the politics of acceptability

The fear of online paedophiles may be obscuring some deeper drivers of child abuse, as well as the potential offered by the web to prevent harm.

Lizzie O'Shea
15 March 2016

The concept of taboo crossed many boundaries to find its way into the Western lexicon. Its linguistic origins are Tongan; it was one of the few genuinely productive cultural exchanges initiated by Captain James Cook. During a ceremonial engagement with local people, Cook invited some aboard his boat for dinner and noted:

Not one of them would sit down, or eat a bit of anything that was served up. On expressing my surprize at this, they were all taboo, as they said; which word has a very comprehensive meaning; but, in general, signifies that a thing is forbidden. Why they were laid under such restraints at present was not explained.

The word may originate from corners of the globe remote from the West, but its meaning feels instinctively close, familiar. Yet although the concept is universal, its object – as Cook’s interaction suggests - is culturally specific. There is nothing innate or natural about what we conceive of as un-doable. It is a politicised question about identity and negotiating the boundaries of which identities are acceptable.

Child abuse headlines.jpg

The internet now undermines taboos in a way that is unparalleled. Through providing a perception of secrecy, anonymity and autonomy, a networked society creates a commons in which people are able to engage in a range of fantasies - particularly sexual fantasies - that would otherwise be unspeakable, solitary or clandestine.

Paradoxically, these virtual forays, so often considered private, occur in plain sight. The sexual proclivities of the everyday web user are unconcealable and indelible; the internet knows everything and never forgets. The associated transparency of the data of desire has created all kinds of moral panics, from frowning at the culture of Tinder hook-ups, to worries over pornography taking over the internet. Much of this finger-wagging tends toward fusty or insipid, yet there is a significant and troubling exception that warrants further examination: child abuse.


The threat of child abuse and paedophilia presented by the internet appears unprecedented. Society holds children in a particular esteem, creating what Richard D. Mohr has called ‘a moral museum of innocence and purity - our Eden - and we have labelled it childhood.’ The desire to protect this shrine from violation is literally unassailable: as Amy Adler observes, there is no ‘acceptable ‘liberal’ position when it comes to the sexual victimization of children.’ The paedophile is therefore at once non-existent socially and politically, and yet omnipresent, lurking in online shadows. This development has in turn generated an equal and opposite reaction in the form of an inexhaustible well of social and political capital in defence of innocence and purity. Political careers, hefty executive government budgets and law enforcement agencies have all been built on the back the most 'monstrous of monsters', the paedophile. The spectre of this criminal has spurred legislative reforms, but also bodies of inquiry. Britain’s Operation Hydrant has seen police investigate over 1,400 men, many high profile politicians and celebrities, about historical allegations of child abuse. In Australia, a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was convened in 2013 and continues to hear witnesses.

Where's the paedophile.jpg

Campaign advertisement for innocenceindanger.com

In the US, the law has responded with particularly rapacious reach, seeking to dam a putative flood of child pornography. Such action is a relatively modern phenomenon, beginning in the late seventies with Congress’s Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation Act, from which the UK soon took its lead. The US Supreme Court had long held that obscenity did not enjoy the protections offered by the first amendment. In 1982, it ruled that child pornography fell outside the constitutional protection of free speech for similar reasons to obscene material, but without the requiring that the material meet the test of obscenity set out in previous cases.

The response has also been vigorous. Legislation addressing child pornography has infiltrated our personal lives to an unprecedented scale, teaching us for example, that there is no legal requirement for children to be naked for an image to be sanctioned. Contextual defences that might traditionally render such conduct innocuous, such as being a professional artist or family member (or both) can be stripped away by the law - as was the case for a New Jersey grandmother charged with endangering the welfare of her grandchildren when she photographed them naked. Instead, the law resists defining an inherent quality that makes any depiction of a child unlawful. Nor is there any judicial opposition to this legislative enthusiasm, as Amy Adler points out, ‘the response of the courts, to much of this has been acceptance. There is a sense of boundlessness in child pornography law.’

The combination of zealous legislators and the internet’s existential threat to purity has created something of a perfect storm of law and order. This has led to the criminalisation not just of acts but of thoughts, as Mohr describes: ‘social conventions simultaneously insist on and convulse the existence of a certain type of mind, one that - quite independent of what it sees and does - can be branded as perverted.’ This is not merely a metaphor, for it is established in common law. In the case of New York v Ferber, where an adult bookseller was charged for selling films of young boys masturbating, the Supreme Court justified an exception to the First Amendment around child pornography, holding that ‘[t]he distribution of photographs and films depicting sexual activity by juveniles is intrinsically related to the sexual abuse of children.’ Legislation around child abuse therefore, is not just designed to prevent actual harm or protect an actual victim; it is literally about policing a certain type of thought.


Ironically, the ubiquity of regulation aimed at child abuse is matched only by the omnipresence of transgression. Taboo may be about defining boundaries of what is acceptable, but the unacceptable is by no means quashed. Taboo enforcement and taboo transgression actually belie the mundane and persistent presence of paedophilic imagery in modern society. Calvin Klein has notoriously walked this line of transgression for decades, including with a 15-year-old Brooke Shields proclaiming that ‘nothing comes between’ her and her Calvins, photographing a 17-year-old Kate Moss topless, and an ad depicting young boys jostling in their underwear. A celebrity news site meanwhile ran a countdown until the day Kendall Jenner reached the age of consent.

Psychoanalysis offers one explanation for this; as Freud observed, ‘desire is mentally increased by frustration of it.’ But this is also more than simply a response to repression, it is about creating an identity that is acceptable to contrast the shadowy monstrosity of the paedophile. As Mohr observes, ‘society needs the paedophile, his existence allows everyone else to view sexy children innocently.’

Graffiti, Portugal, denouncing the Catholic Church abuse scandal. Wikicommons / Milliped

This dialectic of transgression and taboo – of counter-veiling forces of child pornography regulation and society’s eroticisation of children - has sought to define sexuality outside the heterosexual family as perverted or different and regulate when transgression may take place. And yet, it is well established that the majority of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by a man known to the child, not by the proverbial ‘stranger’ or virtual paedophile. Such a dialectic thereby also reflects what Yvonne Jewkes and Maggie Wykes describe as a ‘cultural tendency to represent child abuse as a problem of cyberspace rather than, and as if there was an absence of, occurrences in familial settings.'

This reality demonstrates how misplaced legal responses have been to the problem of child sexual abuse, particularly in the context of the internet. But it also exposes the objectives of this kind of regulation we have seen in the US, UK and Australia. Our preoccupation with online violations has shifted the focus away from the family home, exonerating the real context in which children are abused. It therefore seems that the shedding of sexual norms that many commentators have associated with the digital age is perhaps more a reshuffle: sexuality is neither repressed nor liberated, but continues to be circumscribed in a variety of different ways.


The failed efforts of the law to deal with the problem of child abuse do not absolve us of the need to do so. There is no doubt that there is a concrete, inescapable threat of harm. The dialectic of taboo and transgression does create an opportunity for change, but moralizing around the sanctity of children has rung hollow and proved ineffective.

Transgression need not necessarily lead to stigma, punishment or the entrenching of taboos. Rather, if permitted, it might equally open a space for honest discussion and critically, for genuine harm-minimisation. Consider the recent story of Adam, a teenage paedophile who developed an internet support group for fellow teens who identified as paedophiles, but had not offended and were committed to not using child pornography. Where tested, this kind of approach has been validated as a strategy for harm-prevention in places like Canada and Australia. However, it is made possible only if we let go of the punitive dialectic of taboo and transgression, specifically in relation to the internet. Instead, the law acts as a barrier to self-activating community-based harm prevention. Mandatory reporting of child abuse, while the product of good intentions, reproduces taboo and thereby denies agency to those we prefer to fear and loathe than identify with.

The dissolution of taboos by internet society might be seen in two ways: first, as an absolution from normative values accompanied by a real risk of harm to the vulnerable. Or second, as liberation from oppressive social rules that give us the opportunity to see where the real potential for harm lies and how we might begin to address it most effectively.

Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData