A Question on Innocence
Dominque Swain as Lolita, Lolita, Pathé, 1997
by Joel Gn
It might not seem perplexing that a sexualised aberration of innocence deserves to be protected from criminal prosecution, but consider a prominent incident in the city-state of Singapore, where 44 men were recently charged with having paid sex with a minor via an online vice ring (Teo). Formal details of the acts were recently disclosed by the media. While these men would suffer significant and perhaps irreversible damage to their reputations, nothing is revealed about the girl, except for the fact that at 17 years of age, it was illegal for her to offer sexual services. Aside from a defence lawyer’s claim that the girl deliberately lied about her age and some unverified photographs of her circulating on the Internet, her identity remains protected by the law.
Protection, in this instance, functions under the assumption that neither sexual experience nor the profession of a social escort should justify consensual sex as part of a mutual agreement. The girl may have voluntarily advertised her services online and agreed to sexual intercourse in exchange for money, but these—according to the regulations of Singapore’s Penal Code—do not effectively rule out the possibility that she was unaware of the implications pertaining to an illicit transaction.
Given that girls may ‘consent to sex for foolish and mistaken reasons’, it then becomes the responsibility of the law to protect their innocence in spite of these reasons (Oberman 69). It matters not if the girl was sexually active, or if she was aware of the potential consequences. As a resolution to the ambiguities surrounding consensual and coercive sexual relations, only a number is imposed as an age limit. Age, like an unsuspecting eyewitness, becomes the sole determinant for the rationality of a person’s actions, as if it is only the adults who ‘know better.’ This makes the men morally culpable for an act completely non-coercive on their part.
Such a controversy also draws attention to the level of autonomy given to youths with regards to decisions on sexuality. Although consensual sexual activity implies the right to choose (i.e. it is the prerogative of the individual to agree to intercourse), it does not follow that the conditions for such consent are equal or free from exploitation. A girl might say ‘yes’ to sex, but psychosocial research has called such compliance into question by postulating that adolescent sexual activity can be a symptom of problematic expectations. Studies have also shown that ‘adolescence is a time of acute crisis, in which self-esteem, body image, academic confidence and the willingness to speak out decline precipitously’ (Oberman 22).
This suggests that girls of a certain age are not capable of making an informed choice when consenting to and engaging in sexual activity, but it should be noted this attempt to recognise the exploitation of her innocence presupposes the denial of her agency, or the possibility that she was capable of initiating the affair. Through this particular process of separating innocence from the transaction of commercial sex, the law implicates innocence as an object requiring explanation and analysis, a variable defined in relation to a state of ignorance.
In safeguarding her innocence, there is at once silence in the face of a taboo and a proliferation of information and expert opinions on the girl’s actual motivation, with the latter culminating in the discovery of structural tensions, such as financial difficulties and psychological factors. As contended by Michel Foucault in The History of Sexuality, it is not triviality, but a ‘regime of discourses’ underlying this particular imposition of silence (27). An activity traditionally regarded as a furtive ‘white-collar’ indulgence is now the subject of an inquiry directed towards sanitization and medico-legal elaboration. Were the men succumbing to paedophilic or other repressed inclinations? What sort of trauma drove the girl to become a social escort and prostitute?
Beneath the veil of silence and the defendants’ refusal to comment, there persists an ‘entire grid of observations regarding sex’, an essential tool of governance aimed at delivering an adequate differentiation between the normal and the deviant (26). Innocence is objectified to the extent that it becomes possible to construct a profile of the victim’s dispositions, but this only leads to an antinomy concerning her own knowledge of the act. In other words, to conclude that the girl was somehow coerced into prostitution is anything but absolute proof that she was completely ignorant of what she was doing.
But it is in this concatenation that one must confront the impossibility of absolute innocence, or in more succinct terms, the façade of unadulterated innocence. It should be evident that no one, including the court and the psychiatrists, will ever be fully cognizant of the girl’s true intentions for becoming an illegal prostitute. This is not to say that the men are not at all responsible for their actions, but as a consenting and arguably professional partner in the sexual act, the girl’s innocence is clearly not innate.
Rather, it is placed upon her by the law and it is the law that will endeavour to explain it, to speak on her behalf, regardless of what her intentions may be. Ignorance, where she is concerned, can never be used as a personal excuse. The semantics of innocence provides a useful basis for a preliminary examination. In the book of Genesis, the Hebrew words arowm and eyrom both denote nakedness, for that was the physical state of the man and woman when they were fashioned in the Garden. The differences in use, however, are rather subtle. The first refers to an ‘unclad state’ or ‘bareness’, whereas the second is not a ‘prior descriptive state’, but a process of subjugation, of being made bare (Walton 244). It is precisely in this movement from ignorance to knowing—of acquiring the law that exposes and shames—where the image of innocence reveals itself. In The Fall, the man and woman were only aware they had lost their innocence after they were conscious of their nakedness.
Hence, the invocation of arowm, or the state of innocence as ignorance, can only take place only when it is conceived as eyrom, an object subjected to the rights and wrongs established by the law. One is also permitted to say that it is arowm which seduces the law unto eyrom, since the latter can never be recovered in isolation, but must always be subjected to another, to be an object of its gaze, or simply an image of itself. If the law concedes that the girl was not mature enough to understand the ramifications of the act, then the men are pronounced guilty because she knew not what she was doing. This is the inevitable fallacy, for innocence cannot be known since it is ignorant before the event; it is only understood and experienced in relation to an awareness of an anomaly, the burden of knowledge that is only grasped when something has ceased to be the same.
In effect, the trouble is not simply the outcome of reckless debauchery, but a fiction of innocence surrounding the object of desire. Just as the men were seduced by her ‘girlish’ or innocent charm, the law is likewise compelled to reveal and recover the innocence embodied in the girl’s victimisation. In Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, it is Humbert who desires, but Dolores (Lolita) who seduces and invites him to sexual intercourse. What is Lolita’s desire? Where is her innocence? There is no mention of it since Lolita, after that moment of seduction, remains indifferent to Humbert’s advances and eventually leaves him for another man.
Parallel to this disappearance of the object is the example of the pubescent girl (lolicon) in Japanese popular culture and her objectification within psychoanalytic discourse. Because of her appeal to older men, she is positioned as an innocent, but perverse object for the ‘infantilized and feminised’ consumer, a figure of fascination that distorts the sexuality of young girls (Galbraith 84). Innocence, in this sense, is expressed as a malevolent and immaculate object. It must be destroyed for its forgery and redeemed for its purity, only to be undone to a point where it is rendered meaningless. In all of this, the girl makes no confession of her innocence, but toys with it, such that it is eventually emptied of itself. To draw reference from Jean Baudrillard, it is a moment where ‘discourse becomes absorbed within itself and emptied of its truth in order to fascinate others’ (Seduction 54).
This resonates with the Singaporean scandal of the prostitute, for the men enjoyed her naivety when she was staging it for their pleasure, while the law, in desiring the same, absolved her of all blame by being the custodians of an illusory innocence. It is through such a play of appearances that innocence seduces in its absence, for the precise objective of seduction is to ‘provoke and deceive desire, which exists only to burn for a moment and then be disappointed—it being deluded to its own power, which is given to it only in order to be withdrawn’ (Baudrillard, Seduction 86).
Whether or not the girl was aware of her own artifice is immaterial; innocence has acutely, dealt its hand by eclipsing its own presence. Like a droll tragedy in a comic book, the girl is not the villain; she is the absence of the villain. The masked vigilante, on the other hand, is both saviour and perpetrator, a character tragically fated to submit to his own sentence.
All that is left then is the deafening silence of innocence in the face of the law. By her power to deny possession, the young prostitute personifies Lolita by being the object that seduces. In contrast to the subject, whose fragility is intertwined with desire, the object thrives in the absence of desire. Seduction occurs in this absence, not to reclaim desire, but to ‘play on the other with the effect of desire’ (Baudrillard, Fatal Strategies 142). Disappearance confounds possession and the trial proceeds without the girl warming the pew. It is also not wrong to claim her presence is not required, since the innocence the verdict refers to does not belong to her. The men pursue the girl, but they are shamed. The courts protect her, but they are undermined. Things might have taken a different turn if the law denied the existence of the liaisons, like how it pragmatically turns a blind eye by licensing brothels and escort agencies. It hardly matters now if the girl had voluntarily or involuntarily offered sexual services; the blame should have fallen only on the enterprise that profited from her trade.
For the girl and her clients, it would have been easier for this to have persisted as the secret in the dark, a performance of pulchritude taught and passed down but never divulged—like how the ancient courtesans would have it—than for it to be apprehended in complete absence. Darkness is, quite simply, the absence of illumination or the lack of knowledge, for to be ‘kept in the dark’, is to not know and to be completely innocent of the matter. Alas, it is the law that could not resist taking off its blindfold, only to realise there was nothing to see.
Baudrillard, Jean. Fatal Strategies. Trans. Philippe Beitchman and W G.J Niesluchowski. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2008. Print.
—. Seduction. Trans. Brian Singer. London: Macmillan, 1990. Print.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Trans. Robert Hurley. London: Penguin, 2008. Print.
Galbraith, Patrick W. “Lolicon: The reality of ‘virtual child pornography’ in Japan.” Image & Narrative 12.1 (2011): 83-119. Print.
Oberman, Michele. “Turning girls into women: Re-evaluating modern statutory rape law.” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 85.1 (1994): 15-79. Print.
Teo, Xuanwei. “44 men charged with having sex with minor.” 17 April 2012. Today Online. Web. 9 May 2012..
Walton, Stuart. Humanity: An emotional history. London: Atlantic Books , 2004. Print.
About the Author:
Joel Gn is a doctoral student at the Department of Communications and New Media, National University of Singapore. His dissertation will critique the aesthetic of cuteness and its relationship to the configuration of desire within a technological space. Joel’s other research interests include Japanese popular culture, animation studies and critical theory.