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Good Sex Illustrated was originally published by Les Éditions de Minuit in 1974 as Le bon sexe illustré; it has now been translated for the first time by Bruce Benderson and published by Semiotext(e), an imprint of MIT Press. Its author Tony Duvert was born in 1945 and has written several novels and monographs. His novel Quand mourut Jonathan (1978) depicts the loving and sexual relationship between a man in his thirties and an eight year old boy. It has been translated and published by the Gay Men's Press with the title When Jonathan Died; the translation out of print and is available at online sellers only in used form at considerable cost. His novel Paysage de fantaisie (1973) is described by the publisher as having themes of childhood sexuality was translated as Strange Landscape and was published by Random House in 1976.
In Good Sex Illustrated, Duvert argues against conventional morality with an attack on a child's book on sex, Encyclopédie de la vie sexuelle, published by Hachette, in two volumes. The book is available today in a modern edition, now with its two volumes separated into separate books, the first being for children between 7 and 9, and the second for children between 10 and 13. Duvert ridicules the book for being so conventional, medical, and for completely denying the pleasure children can get from their sexuality. It emphasizes the reproductive function of sex, and since children can't reproduce, implies that it is inappropriate for children to be enjoying their sexuality. Duvert quotes extensively from the book, casting scorn on both its imagery and its text. He points out that sex isn't just for reproduction, and so the implication of the book that children can't enjoy sexuality is mistaken. He ends this monograph with a call for the sexual freedom of minors. Along the way, he also largely dismisses the problem of sexual assault and sexual abuse of children by adults by pointing out that conventional families can be dangerous to children. He cites statistics of children being beaten and murdered by their parents, and also points out that children and teens have a high suicide rate. It seems that he does acknowledge that children can be sexually abused by adults, as adults can be sexually abused by other adults. He does not believe that it follows that all children's sexual interactions with adults should be prohibited, but rather, damaging sexual relationships with children should be condemned.
Of course, Duvert's views are shocking to most people, and were presumably shocking in the 1970s. Even if he is right that children should be able to enjoy their sexuality in some way, his assumption that there can be non-damaging sexual relationships between adults and children is naïve and maybe even self-serving. His mode of argument, with its focus on the book for children, is a bizarre piece of cultural interpretation. Presumably this book was somewhat progressive in its day, in taking a non-judgmental view of children's sexual questions. It seems that Duvert would only approve of it if it contained many pictures celebrating children's sexual organs and the pleasure they could experience. He is probably right that the book does serve as a gauge of parents' expectations: it would not sell otherwise. His interpretation of the awkwardness of the book is that it is a sign of the parents' desire to control their children and deny them pleasure. It's a very unsubtle take on the difficulty that parents have with accepting the sexuality of their children. Most parents feel awkward about talking to their children about sexuality, masturbation and experimentation, and most parents will discourage their children from sexual exploration. It's reductionist and unwarranted to conclude the reasons must be a desire for control and deprivation.
Maybe if he had been able to read Michel Foucault's important work from 1976, The History of Sexuality (Volume 1), Duvert would be the resources for a more subtle analysis. As gay intellectuals active in the 1970s, it is likely that they knew each other, and they both shared a strong suspicion of the pleasantries of bourgeois life and a preference for radicalism. Duvert's particular bête noir was the family, while Foucault focused more on institutions such psychiatry and the law. While Foucault's work is still profoundly influential, Duvert is largely unknown, at least in the USA. It is unlikely that Good Sex Illustrated will do anything to improve his reputation. The problems with his argument are not just his pressing on the taboo subject of childhood sexuality and his idealistic view of a future without sexual repression. More fundamental is his failure to do the work in linking his analysis of the children's book to his understanding of the rest of society. It's as if he thinks that through a criticism of one book, he has successfully shown the problems of all society. But he almost entirely lacks any theoretical structure to understand society, the nature of families, the role of children, or the place of sexuality. In short, all he has is polemic, with no supporting theory. It's not enough to show that contemporary society has some contradictions and tensions. If one is going to be a radical, sexual or otherwise, one has to have some model of the fundamental nature of the problem, and if one is going hope for a change, one has to have a model for how people could be liberated from their oppression. Foucault was famously pessimistic about the possibility of revolution or even improvement. From our perspective, more than thirty years after this book's publication, Duvert's calls for the sexual liberation of children seem utterly out of place. Childhood sexuality is just as difficult a topic as it was in 1974, if not more so, and while Duvert does highlight the tensions in our attitudes towards it, it doesn't help us think about it more clearly.
© 2008 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.
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