The debate over Cuties, Netflix’s maligned and muddled take on the pornographication of pre-teens, is really a debate about markets, and whether sex should be governed by one. In the interest of furthering that debate, let me offer three theses about Cuties, each of which is independently plausible, and all of which might be true. They are listed in ascending order of controversy.
Thesis 1: Cuties may not have been exploitative, but its marketing clearly was. This one shouldn’t be controversial. The film’s advertising campaign belied its ostensible critique of child exploitation, with glitzy images of half-nude 11 year olds that were clearly meant to generate buzz and, through buzz, profit. Even if the director did not exploit these children in the process of filming them (a debatable proposition, given their clothes and dance moves), Netflix certainly exploited them in its choice of how to present the film—a choice in which the children had no say, and in which the company had much to gain. At best, it muddied the message of an otherwise moral movie; at worst, it did the very thing Cuties claims to critique.
Thesis 2: Cuties is a critique of child exploitation, but also an act of it. As the Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg points out, the film is an “argument about the effects of near-pornography on young girls,” not an argument that pornifying young girls is OK. Most people who’ve watched Cuties, including those who’ve objected most strongly, agree with this exegesis—so what’s the problem, other than some icky marketing?
Well two things. First, there is the problem of consent: if 11 year olds aren’t old enough to perform stripteases over the internet, why are they old enough to perform stripteases in a film streamed over the internet—scenes from which, shorn of their critical context, could easily appear on a porn site? That the film critiques child exploitation does not mean it was produced without exploiting children; after all, the whole premise of its critique is that kids are too young to make certain decisions about their bodies. You can only draw so sharp a line between deed and depiction when what you’re depicting verges on child porn. Given this ontological fuzziness, it’s far from clear that a child’s non-sexual intent negates the sexual nature of a child’s act—which means it’s far from clear that child actors in Cuties could consent to the film in a meaningful way.
Second, there is the problem of the market: Even if the film’s production was not intrinsically immoral, there was a moral risk intrinsic to its distribution. On a widely accepted theory of classical liberalism, markets let people with different and sometimes incompatible ends cooperate in pursuit of their own projects, absent any central, value-laden plan. The advantage of this system is that agents can transact and benefit each other without agreeing on contested moral questions—but the disadvantage, as market skeptics often note, is that someone working toward a good end can inadvertently benefit someone working toward a bad one, such as the social acceptance of pedophilia. Cuties may serve to critique child exploitation, in other words, while also serving to sate and normalize the pedophilic gaze. That it can do both at once is not a bug but a feature of the free market, which ignores intention by design.
And it is doing both, as a quick survey of the reviews makes clear. The Telegraph calls Cuties a “powder-keg provocation in an age terrified of child sexuality”—implying that children have a sexuality of which we have an irrational fear—while the New Yorker’s Richard Brody says that the film is “about the absence of knowledge…that help[s] young people avow and confront” sexual drives “constructively”—implying that there is a constructive way for 11 years olds to express sexuality. Each implication admits of an innocent reading (kids have crushes, talking about puberty is good), but also some not-so-innocent ones, and you can imagine how pedophiles might react to the news that kids need “help” expressing their sexual identity.
In fact, you don’t need to imagine it. The North American Man/Boy Love Association, formed in 1978 as a pederastic advocacy group, claims sexual feelings in children are a “positive life force,” defends the “rights of youth…to share and enjoy their bodies,” and calls sex “an important medium of personal expression.” That the reviews of Cuties echo this rhetoric does not imply that NAMBLA and the New Yorker want the same thing—but that’s the point. One advocates abuse, the other critiques it, but both belong to the same discursive dance, in which the concept of self-discovery serves two competing agendas, two conflicting desires. Where there’s demand, capitalism’s instinct is to supply; if the supply can be laundered as a critique of capitalist exploitation, so much the better for the exploiters.
Thesis 3: Cuties caused an uproar because post-60s liberalism lacks the resources to justify a taboo against pedophilia—and deep down, everyone knows it. Ask your garden-variety liberal or even your garden-variety conservative why pedophilia is wrong, and you will likely recieve the following answer: “because kids can’t consent.” In effect, this answer presents pedophilia as a special case of rape, the wrongness of which inheres in consent’s absence. Since no child is mature enough to consent to sex, it follows that sex with children is always wrong, and that the taboo against pedophilia—unlike other sexual taboos we’ve struck down—is justifiable and just.
The garden-variety reasoning hinges on what the French novelist Michel Houellebecq calls “sexual liberalism”: the application of free-market principles to a once-regulated sphere of sexuality. Where past sexual regimes constrained who could have sex with whom, and for what ends, today’s attacks such constraints as benighted and domineering—promising, like classical liberalism, to let individuals do as they please. A marriage, a one-night stand, a “throuple,” a hook-up, a brothel: these are all equally valid means of getting sex, which has no inherent value beyond what consenting adults assign to it. If the scientific revolution disenchanted the world, a la Weber, the sexual revolution disenchanted sex in the process of deregulating it, with free “love” a sterile spin-off of the free market. “Having consensual sex with other people has always carried a mix of possible risks and benefits,” a Yale health bulletin, entitled “Safer Sex During COVID-19,” began. Under sexual liberalism, that is just about all it could say.
The “consensual” qualifier gives this system a certain level of plausibility. It rules out rape and other consent violations, and suggests that, insofar as consent requires reason, reason’s absence vitiates the power of consent. So sexual liberalism can explain why pedophilia is wrong, even if it cannot explain why polyamory or prostitution is wrong—assuming, of course, that that is what they are.
But suppose we were to ask a slightly different question: not “why is pedophilia wrong,” but why is pedophilia so much worse than other wrongs? Why is it that hitting children does not elicit the same moral disgust as molesting them, or even just presenting them in a molester-friendly way? For that matter, why is it that kids can’t consent to sex, but can consent to hugs, meals, and piggyback rides? And why don’t nonconsensual hugs, meals, and piggyback rides appall us like nonconsensual sex, which, excepting murder, is rightly regarded as the worst consent violation, for adults as well as children?
Sexual liberalism cannot answer these questions, because it denies that sex has any intrinsic, standpoint-independent value. If sex were an intrinsically bigger deal than other acts—if it had some fixed meaning beyond what consenting adults assigned to it—then we could easily explain why sexual violations have intrinsic disvalue, derivable from sex’s role in human life. But if sex is not an intrinsically bigger deal than other acts, as sexual liberalism suggests, then it is not clear why sexual consent violations should offend us more than non-sexual ones, or why sex is the kind of thing that requires cognitive and emotional maturity to engage in.
Liberals may be tempted to invoke the harm principle here, on the understanding that rape and molestation cause more psychological harm than other consent violations. But this just pushes the problem back a step. Why do rape and molestation cause more harm, if sex has no more significance than other acts? Furthermore, suppose Jones rapes Jane in her sleep, such that she remains ignorant of the transgression and experiences no harm (psychological or physical) as a result. By hypothesis, the harm principle cannot condemn Jones; morally well-adjusted people will have to search elsewhere (probably pre-liberal ethics) to justify their intuitions.
Of course, most morally well-adjusted people do not try to justify their intuitions at all: that may be why they’re well-adjusted! And as a logical matter, it is perfectly consistent to say that sex is both special and multivocal, its intrinsic value having a variety of expressions and instantiations. But the more variety you add, the harder it gets to discern a common moral denominator, a coherent narrative thread about what sex means. And as transactional modes of sexuality become more accepted (as hook-ups, porn, and prostitution have), the lower that common denominator may sink, until it is sociologically coterminus with the sexual liberalism I’ve been describing—at which point lay intuitions may shift enough to make pedophilia, and certainly pedo-friendly cinema, more transgressive than taboo: not permitted, but not quite shunned either, as remains the case in parts of Europe.
Nor is it that tough to imagine how neoliberal feminism, with its emergent emphasis on criminal justice reform, might begin treating rape as one women’s issue among many, rather than a uniquely heinous crime to be combatted at all costs. In an extreme scenario, feminism might even look askance at rape victims who feel overwhelmed by their trauma. Such feelings give the lie to the carefree sexual ethic popular with today’s activists, and in that sense pose a threat to it.
These are all hypotheticals, obviously. They’re what could happen if you pushed the logic of sexual liberalism toward its conclusion, against the currents of mainstream moral intuition. Those currents remain stronger in the United States than elsewhere—partly due to the demographic resilience of Evangelicals, but also due to the unromantic, underappreciated fact that ideas only sometimes have consequences. Many theists believe God grounds morality, for instance, while recognizing that atheists can be good people in spite of their metaphysics. If you are a garden-variety liberal, and this post has pissed you off, that just goes to show how moral intuition can arrest cultural logic—indeed, how cultures can resist their own inner tendencies, preserve their inchoate contradictions.
But culture logic is a bit like cancer: it may lie dormant indefinitely, kept at bay by countervailing forces … or, under the right circumstances, it may reassert itself and metastasize, invading previously healthy organs (here, the reproductive organs) of society.
And it is the knowledge of that potential illness—that “invisible enemy,” as Donald Trump might say—which has made Cuties such a fierce flashpoint in our culture wars. Conservatives know the cancer is there, and worry it won’t stay in remission forever. Liberals know it’s there too, but prefer not to dwell on it, for fear of implicating their own commitments. So they pretend Cuties isn’t a symptom of the sickness they created, just as the right pretends capitalism isn’t a cultural carcinogenic, while both sides wait to see if sexual morality will survive its colonization by the market, or at least by its consumerist variant.
Thus far, the prognosis seems grim. But (and after this I will retire the metaphor) that’s arguably because the cure could be worse than the disease.
Economic liberalism transformed sex in much the same way it transformed pre-industrial society, sweeping away old traditions and institutions to make space for a new, notionally progressive order. In both cases, at the risk of understatement, a lot of what got swept away sucked: feudalism privileged a few to the detriment of many; 1950s America privileged men to the detriment of women. Medieval Europe did not look kindly on religious minorities; postwar Europe, as Alan Turing tragically learned, did not look kindly on sexual minorities, and it would be years before gay and transgender people enjoyed a modicum of mainstream respect from any Western establishment. The market dissolved social ties, in other words, but it also dissolved a great many social shackles, none of which we should (or could) reconstitute with the revolution now complete. Like it or not, enough people experienced sexual liberalism as liberatory for its wholesale reversal to become impractical—and I would note that several would-be reversers do not practice what they preach, to put the point more gently than is deserved.
So while Cuties may serve as a wake-up call about the commodification of sex, it should not serve a rally cry to undo the sexual revolution root and branch. That will not, and cannot, happen, even as conservatives rightly worry about how this experiment, still ongoing, will ultimately end. If sexual liberalism failed, then so did the repressiveness from which it arose—and you could even understand Cuties as a case for sexual post-liberalism, for a sexual ethic that resists the market without romanticizing the past. In the film’s final scene, one of the main characters rejects both her conservative upbringing and the laissez faire libertinism that disrupted it, choosing a middle ground only after she’s exhausted her socially proximate alternatives. The implication (which most reviewers have ignored) is that critiquing the sexual revolution needn’t imply support for the old regime—or, put differently, that supporters of the old regime aren’t the only ones critiquing the revolution.
Those critics testify to a moral vertigo it will be hard to transcend. But they also signify a desire for transcendence, a domain of human longing untouched by market forces. In that domain lies the possibility of a plausible sexual ethic, between hedonism and helotry, Brave New World and The Handmaid’s Tale. As accusations of both antipodes fill our politics, let us not lose hope of realizing it.