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Review of "Erotic Innocence"

By James R. Kincaid
Duke University Press, 2000
Review by Heather C. Liston on Apr 24th 2002
Erotic Innocence

James Kincaid, a thorough researcher and an engaging writer, has produced a baffling book about child abuse and pedophilia, Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting.  Reading the book is sometimes interesting, sometimes even entertaining, but always at least a little disturbing.  It is like walking in on the private tirade of a tormented man and wanting to help but being unable to pinpoint just exactly what is bothering him.  

I searched in vain for a thesis sentence.   Even when he claims to be offering it to us directly, it is hard to find.  “Now for a blunt statement of my argument:” he says.  (p. 13)  What follows, though, is not a blunt statement but a rather lengthy paragraph. Some of the highlights: “Our culture has enthusiastically sexualized the child while denying just as enthusiastically that it was doing any such thing. . . .We allow so much power to the child’s sexual appeal that we no longer question whether adults are drawn to children.”  And the point is . . . ?  Should we question this assumption?   Later in the same introduction Kincaid says, “I believe most adults in our culture feel some measure of erotic attraction to children and the childlike; I do not know how it could be otherwise.”  Whether this statement is true or not, it does not answer the question of what his point is.

If the statement of point cannot be found in the beginning, I thought, let’s try the end.  His concluding chapter does have a few statements that may be taken as summaries of his argument.  Here’s one, in relation to his plea that we “tell new stories”: “. . . tell about child sexuality and our response to it as if the issue were of some importance and considerable interest but not terribly special, certainly not a cause for panic.”  And another: “Political and legal action should begin to consider all the dilemmas that touch the lives of children, not just those transgressions (abductions, incest, sexual abuse generally) we enjoy talking about.”  Probably true.  And here’s one more: “We’ll be better off armed with good sense (a sense of decorum, a sense of humor) and native kindness than with all the police and horror tales and harum-scarum tactics in the world.  So will the children.”  OK . . . now how does his book contribute to the solution?

In the ten chapters following the introduction and preceding that final section, Kincaid retells, describes, and interprets many recent scandals involving children and sexuality.  He writes about the (now largely discredited) rash of “recovered memories” which were used to accuse adults of long-ago sexual abuse of children.  He tells the plots of movies; he reviews “myths, legends, folktales, and lies” (the title of chapter six); he shows photographs of child stars and analyzes their cuteness; he laments Hollywood’s abandonment of child stars when they hit puberty; and he recounts some horrible cases of kidnapping, molestation, and other kinds of abuse.

Thanks to this book, I now have a better idea what Michael Jackson and Woody Allen were accused of; I had a chance to review the sensational (in both senses) New Yorker article from 1993 about a bizarre satanic ritual abuse case; I learned exhaustive details of a case I never even heard of before, about a female teacher whose teenage male student put her on trial for sexual molestation.  Did I need to know all this?   I skipped the coverage of the Menendez brothers’ murder trial the first time around because I figured I did not need to know.   After being thoroughly filled in by Kincaid, I now believe my original judgment was correct.

This is a disturbing conclusion to come to, but . . . I always ask myself, after reading a book, to whom should I recommend this?  What sort of person would be educated, entertained, or enlightened by this?  . . . and in Kincaid’s case I can only think that the best audience for his book is those who are intrigued by scandals regarding sex with children.

            Kincaid has read Time and People and watched Hard Copy and summarized a lot of it for those of us who don’t make time for such things.   He has watched everything from Forrest Gump to Flipper and analyzed for us their pedophiliac content.  He tells us the entire plot of a 1996 film called Sleepers, right down to saying “I hope I’ve spoiled the ending for you.”

Kincaid’s writing style is creative, imagistic, direct, even funny.  He intersperses his telling of the tales with strong expressions of opinion, often well-written and refreshing in their biased clarity.  What he was trying to achieve with this book, though, remains a mystery.   He seems to be on some personal crusade, which costs him endless, countless hours of research.  How could a respected professor (Kincaid is the Aerol Arnold Professor of English at the University of Southern California) possibly have spent so much time studying Ann Landers and Roseanne?   Where does all this research and analysis lead?  To a general suspicion of everyone, maybe.  Kincaid’s penultimate chapter is called “The Backlash, the Counterbacklash, the Reaction, the Resurgence, the Return, the Reform, the Restating the Whole Thing for Clarity.”  Presumably, the people covered by every one of those labels have bad, ulterior motives.  In this chapter, he says, “I hope to show that all camps find such echo chambers useful: the conservatives, backlashers, counterbacklashers, and those imagining they are above the fray.”  In the margin, naturally, I wrote “What about HIM?” and then I checked the footnote.  Kincaid has anticipated my reaction—nobody said he wasn’t bright—but he does not explain it.  “And by me too, you’re thinking I should be saying; but you’ll follow the argument better if you repress such cynicism for now; recover it later if you feel you must.”  It pains me to say this, Mr. Kincaid—I wanted to get it—but I’m afraid I must: I must bring my cynicism out of the closet and admit I do not understand how you are different from everybody else and why you are right and everybody else is wrong. 

            He is angry at children who accuse adults of abuse; at adults who write books about their abuse; at people who focus more on sexual abuse than on caning and psychological abuse; at lawyers, therapists, and the media; at people who blame lawyers, therapists, and the media.  . .   In chapter nine, he ridicules those who blame past sexual abuse for their current problems.  In chapter ten, he ridicules Alan Dershowitz (mercilessly) for criticizing those who blame past sexual abuse for their current problems. 

Everyone except Kincaid himself, it seems, is exploiting the idea of child abuse and sexual molestation for his own ends.  It is impossible not to imagine this book as part of an endless regression of criticisms of criticisms.  Whoever writes the next work on the exploitation of children and the sensationalizing of sexual abuse by the media will no doubt include Kincaid as an example in his or her list.  As part of the debate, as a moment in the stream of discussion, this book is interesting.  As the last word, it fails.  


© 2002 Heather C. Liston

Heather C. Liston studied Religion at Princeton University and earned a Masters degree from the NYU Graduate School of Business Administration. She is the Director of Development for The Santa Fe Children's Museum, and writes extensively on a variety of topics. Her book reviews and other work have appeared in Self, Women Outside, The Princeton Alumni Weekly, Appalachia, Your Health and elsewhere.