Joan Smith: The child-women of paedophile dreams

The death arouses uncomfortable sensations in the American psyche
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The Independent Online

It didn't take long for doubt to be cast on the confession of a man who claimed to have been responsible for one of the most notorious killings in the US in the 1990s. An American teacher told police in Thailand last week that he was with the six-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey when she died, and he certainly seems to be obsessed with the child. But what John Mark Karr said at a bizarre press conference in Bangkok bears all the hallmarks of a paedophile fantasy.

The murder in Boulder, Colorado, almost 10 years ago attracted huge media attention. For years the little girl's parents struggled to shake off suspicions that they were involved in JonBenet's death, an accusation that seems to owe more to the hostile feelings they aroused than actual evidence. First there was that pretentious first name; then the photographs of her dressed up as an adult beauty queen, turning her into the child-woman of paedophile dreams.

John Karr, who fled the US several years ago to avoid facing unrelated child pornography charges, has insisted that JonBenet's death was an accident and that he loved the child. This is a common claim among adults who have sexual feelings towards children, motivated by a desire to put a romantic gloss on abusive and illegal behaviour. But whether or not his confession is supported by forensic evidence, the murder still arouses uncomfortable sensations in the American psyche.

People who got angry with the child's parents - her mother Patsy died of cancer earlier this year - were employing a distancing mechanism, disassociating themselves from something that has gone wrong with American (and British) culture. Sometimes referred to as the pornification of popular culture, it has created a situation in which young women undergo the torment of constant under-eating and cosmetic surgery to achieve a biologically impossible body type.

Inevitably, if young women are distorted in this way for sexual purposes, it will also happen to children, as exemplified by the tragic photographs of JonBenet posing in ostrich feathers like a Las Vegas showgirl. It may be that her mother, a former beauty queen, was reliving her own youth through JonBenet, and that the child's parents persuaded themselves they were encouraging her to make the most of her natural assets. The murder exploded this notion, highlighting the dangers of exposing children in this way.

There are plenty of puritans in the US who make a similar critique and call for a return to modesty in dress and self-denial outside marriage. It is an issue on which they agree with strict Muslims, whose only answer to "decadent" Western culture is to cover women and girls. They're both wrong and we shouldn't forget it, even when confronted with pictures of poor JonBenet or indeed Victoria Beckham, who has been photographed with her hip bones sticking out and impossibly large breasts.

The dominance of the child-woman body type, which makes women over the age of 30 feel marginalised, obviously has something to do with the troubled relation between the sexes; it has filtered into mainstream culture from the commercial sex industry, which is expert at spotting and supplying a market. It's a problem which is becoming more widely recognised as young women rebel against the pressure to be sexual at all times and older women refuse to put up any longer with a widespread denial of their sexuality.

This is a more sophisticated response than anything offered by contemporary puritans, who are exploiting the opportunity to put female sexuality back under wraps. I don't much like being bombarded with the highly sexualised images of raunch culture, but I'm certain that stripping the female body or veiling it are not the only alternatives.