Children and Sexuality: From the Greeks to the Great War, edited by George Rousseau is a compilation of texts written by a group of authors that tackle the difficult notion of discussing, defining and identifying the conception of childhood and sexuality. As Rousseau notes early on in the introduction, the book does not seek to include discussions concerning childhood and sexuality while ignoring issues of sexual abuse, but the focus lies in "…the conception of childhood, and what it means to be a child, at a few defined historical moments when we could construct adequate contexts to account for the versions of sexuality found in the lives of these children" (p. xii).
The historical moments described by Rousseau stretches over a great period of time, beginning with fifth century Athens and Alcibiades and ending with accounts of child prostitution in Thailand. Included in the texts are also discussions about Baden-Powell, the inventor of the Boy Scouts, Lewis Carroll, author of the Alice books and other rather prominent figures, such as the poet John Addington Symonds, and the theologian Benjamin Jowett. After most main texts one or more responses are also provided by authors who either agree, disagree, or would like to expand on the ideas provided by the author of the main text. Even though many of the accounts focus on males, there is also an interesting text about nineteenth century Victorian girlhood. As such, the accounts of childhood are varied, both in time and space, and offers readers a distinct look at each time and place and how childhood was defined and conceived.
As varied as the stories are, it is interesting to note that gender, sexuality, age and class are discussed widely throughout. As important as these markers of identity are today (we often discuss them in terms of inequality and discrimination) they are also integral parts of the text. Many texts (such as the one on sex in reformation Geneva, and the responses discussing England and Italy) are concerned with the issue of age. For example, the younger the child, the harsher the punishment if found guilty of sexual abuse. In terms of age and class, the chapters and subsequent responses to the main texts that discuss sexual relationships between men in eighteenth century Oxford explain how power was an integral part of many relationships between upper class academics and their working class, often much younger, sexual partners. Gender is also described throughout the book as being important, especially in terms of age of consent. In many instances, the age of consent for girls was lower than that of boys, usually by two or more years. In terms of sexuality, the book describes both how in fifth century Athens, sexual relationships between a man and a boy were at times accepted, especially when the man was considered a social companion, or a mentor, and how in eighteenth century Oxford, sexual relationships between men could end careers and cause much pain and suffering to those involved. In many cases, and often mentioned in many of the texts, gender, sexuality, age and class also overlap.
As Children and Sexuality includes so many accounts of childhood, written by a varied group of authors, it can be difficult to follow along with the information given in the texts. An understanding or knowledge of all the historical accounts is almost integral when reading the book. Therefore, it can at times be confusing when the author/s include the personal accounts of people featured in the texts. Also, there are rather lengthy discussions of certain historical events and people (for example, discussions of Addington Symonds and Jowett stretches across more than one chapter and includes several authors), whereas others are much shorter (the account of child prostitution in Thailand is not provided a response by a different author). A balance between the length of chapters and the responses could therefore be beneficial to the reader. Overall, the texts are fairly easy to engage and understand, but the target audience might be those more familiar with the various historical accounts. At the same time, the text is useful to those studying sexuality, history and anthropology or to those already familiar with these disciplines. The book could also be used in the classroom when discussing historical accounts of childhood and sexuality.
© 2013 Hennie Weiss
Hennie Weiss has a Master's degree in Sociology from California State University, Sacramento. Her academic interests include women's studies, gender, sexuality and feminism.