Academic journal article Hecate

Seduction and Punishment

Academic journal article Hecate

Seduction and Punishment

Article excerpt

During the last two decades of the nineteenth century, the sexuality of female children occupied a significant proportion of the debating time of many parliaments in the western world. It had been placed on the agenda by a series of skilfully orchestrated public campaigns, and resulted in a significant rise in the so called "age of consent" from an average age of thirteen, to an average of over sixteen years. The history of the age of consent laws has been well covered by historians.(1) However what has not been researched is the manner in which the campaigns which swept in laws designed to protect children were part of a general surveillance of sexuality, and which, when turned upon the post-childhood daughters of the working class, acted as a mechanism for control and regulation.(2)

This article looks at how young girls, emerging out of childhood, became conceptualized as a special category of person whose newly emerged sexuality required particular scrutiny. This young person, for some, occupied a space framed by the age brackets of ten to twenty-one; for others, intent upon stretching the reaches of childhood until sixteen, it occupied a more elastic space, ending only in marriage. The crude dichotomy of the good and bad woman, so often noted in the historiography of both feminists and Victorianists, assumed most of its meaning in this group. It was a category without a name, although in the post second world war period the term teenager probably came closest to a label.

Historians of childhood have noted that the discursive construction of childhood innocence played its most important role within middle class morality, during the late nineteenth century.(3) Some have argued that even the stifling of language can be contextualized as a part of the discursive construction of the child. The inability to speak about sexuality, and such bodily functions as menstruation, was felt most strongly amongst Victorian middle-class females. Brumberg has described this taboo of silence, and the resultant ignorance of girls, as "a source of pride, and probably, middle-class self-definition".(4) By keeping a female uninformed about sexual activity, or reproductive knowledge, the Victorian mother self-consciously extended the period of her daughter's "childhood".(5)

Whilst this paper is concerned primarily with middle class regulation of the sexuality of young women of the working class, it can be seen that the campaigns to single out this group for special surveillance followed similar, but less juridical, regulation of middle class females. From the beginning of the nineteenth century, this class of youth had been the targets of a wealth of etiquette manuals, designed to publicise acceptable courtship practices. These manuals provided the ground rules for regulation of the pre-marriage young, and they were united in their adamancy that mingling of the sexes had to take place indoors, under the watchful gaze of the mother of the family.

As Foucault has shown, especially in Discipline and Punish, regulation and discipline within the bourgeois world relied upon institutional architecture which facilitated constant watching. In modern prisons, the prisoners are watched by one layer of guards, and they in turn are watched by a smaller group of guards.(6) In the factories the workers stood at assembly lines in rows which were visible from verandas above them, whilst nineteenth century boarding schools, following the example set by eighteenth century military schools, arranged the beds such that every child could be seen at all hours of the night, and enforced rules which prevented them from removing themselves from the gaze of supervisors at any hour of the day.(7) Behaviourial rules within the bourgeois family also facilitated constant vigilance, by the parents, over the children and the servants. Etiquette manuals were a crucial medium through which mothers were educated in the appropriate levels of surveillance, and their instructions acted as a method of homogenisation of the sets of behaviours which were deemed acceptable amongst the young. …

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