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Criminalizing Childhood

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When I look at the world it fills me with sorrow
Little children today are really gonna suffer tomorrow
Oh what a shame, such a bad way to live…
–Marvin Gaye, ‘Save the Children’

Oh, make me wanna holler
The way they do my life…
–Marvin Gaye, ‘Inner City Blues’

Sexual healing is good for me
Makes me feel so fine
Helps to relieve the mind
And it’s good for us
–Marvin Gaye, Sexual Healing

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It’s been in the ether for quite some time now. I’ve been picking up intimations of yet another wave of intensified sex hysteria: a five-year-old suspended for “stalking” a classmate; a seven-year-old sent to therapy for kissing a “nonconsensual” playmate. Finally comes How Can You Distinguish a Budding Pedophile from a Kid With Real Boundary Problems? in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine to pull it all together. Notice the use of the word Real, as if they’re afraid to come off as trivializing the issue. More significant, notice there are only two interpretations of childhood sexual exploration: pedophilia or boundary problems. Whatever happened to playing doctor?

Unfortunately, it isn’t just this kind of headline that’s troublesome. After reading Maggie Jones’s pretty thorough article, which is somewhat more balanced than its title, I’ve deduced that what schools, the judicial system, therapists and parents are doing to children is beyond horrible. Makes me wanna holler—or weep.

“Johnnie” is one of several kids whose story Jones tells. When he was 11, Johnnie put his hand on his four-year-old sister’s vagina, over her panties. A few months later he had her perform oral sex on him. Okay, this is more than just playing doctor, and the age discrepancy is cause for concern. But did Johnnie’s mother have to call the cops on her son? His name went into a registry of sex offenders—for life. That registry is accessible on the Internet, and four years later the mother of one of Johnnie’s friends learned from it that he was a rapist; he’d been charged with “rape, second degree.” Thereafter Johnnie’s life became a living hell, as he was taunted and marginalized by his schoolmates. Five years later Johnnie is suicidal; he’s done time in a psychiatric institution; he’s plagued with guilt for what he did to his sister; and his future looks mighty bleak. (I also wonder what happened to Johnnie’s sister; ten to one she didn’t get through this unscathed.)

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My first reaction to Johnnie’s story was, why the hell did the mother call the cops? But another mother whose 11-year-old son engaged in sexual activity with his younger sister had the sense to call a therapist—who, obeying the laws in his state, reported the kid to the cops. He too ended up on the national sex offender registry for life.

Make no mistake about it: people pay attention to these lists. Their information shows up in simple background tests done by employers, landlords or credit bureaus. They’re viewed by curious parents who want to know about their kids’ friends. And they’re seen by vigilantes who attack and sometimes kill: one 19-year-old who’d been convicted for statutory rape after having consensual sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend was murdered by vigilantes.

That case was fairly typical: teenage sex between boys considered of age and girls considered under age—the so-called Romeo and Juliet cases, like that of Genarlow Wilson–comprise a large portion of names on the registry. Each state has its own magical number at which a person is considered an adult, but whether it’s 14 or 16, the one undisputed legal fact is that anyone under the age of consent cannot, ever, in any way, shape, form or situation, consent to engage in sex. A girl might have been crawling all over a guy, tearing at his jeans and fishing for the goods—and even admit it in court—but her boyfriend, if he’s old enough, will be punished for statutory rape.

In some states a child as young as five can be considered a sexual offender. Texas has more than 3400 predators listed for offenses they committed as juveniles. A news story on CNN this morning reports that “30,000 sex predators are listed on MySpace.” Shocking, isn’t it? They don’t tell us, though, how many of these so-called sex predators got on the list when they were 5 for touching a little girl’s heinie, or when they were 16 and lost their virginity with an enthusiastic 15-year-old girlfriend.

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Sexual Predators?

If the laws in place today had existed when I was coming up, most of my male friends would be on the national registry of sex offenders, some for having sex with me and other girls (it doesn’t have to be intercourse), others for the crazy pranks they were constantly pulling on us. For instance, one sunny day in May, after bowling league was over, Joe and George took Carole and me across the street to a meadow where each respective couple made out, fully dressed—a typical Saturday afternoon activity. On some pre-arranged signal, Joe and George somehow got each of our brassieres open, and hooked them, still on our bodies, to each other. Then they stood up, laughed their asses off, and left us alone to disentangle the mess. We were furious—but for years afterwards we laughed about it.

Another time, Jimmy and Billy came into the candy store and told Ellen and me they had taped footage of Alan Freed’s Rock ‘n’ Roll show, and took us over to one of the guy’s houses to watch. I sat on Jimmy’s lap, and Ellen sat on someone else’s while some grainy washed-out black-and-white footage appeared on a sheet set up as a screen–footage of women in lingerie crawling around the floor. When we realized it was a “French film,” as we then called pornography, we smacked our respective guys and stormed out of the house, to the sound of their raucous laughter.

Then there was the strip poker game up in Jimmy’s pigeon coop…but you get the idea. Sure, it was harassment. But not only didn’t we even know that term, we took it all in stride. I wouldn’t say we actually enjoyed it, or thought it was good clean fun–but we did think it was funny. We were tough chicks who would’ve died rather than call ourselves “victims.”

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Besides, these pranks weren’t all there was to our relationships with these guys. They were our friends. They would’ve killed anyone who tried to seriously hurt us. Some of them were our lovers, whether we’d actually gone “all the way” or not. We learned about sex in the back seats of their cars. We learned from and with each other. I’m grateful I got to explore sex with my peers, rather than hear about it from school teachers telling me to just say no, or religious leaders pushing me into a chastity club. As Bob Seger sang in Night Moves, “I used her, she used me, but neither one cared/We were gettin’ our share.”

My parents, god forbid, knew not a thing about my sex life, and that privacy is something else I would’ve died to protect. Today, kids who’ve experimented with sex get sent to therapy groups—attended by their parents!—where they’re told to write down their masturbation fantasies, which the therapists read and discuss in the group. Can you imagine anything more mortifying for a teenager? This is beyond a doubt cruel and unusual punishment.

These practices are, at least, still being debated among professionals, not all of whom endorse them. Most professionals don’t like the national registry either, or at least some aspects of it, like listing young kids, or Romeo and Juliet cases, and making the names available to the public for life. I find it inconceivable that anyone in their right mind thinks such practices are okay in any way, shape or form. But then, the whole tone of the dialog on what the Times calls predatory behavior and I call childhood curiosity or adolescent experimentation is one of “us versus them”—us being nice, polite middle-class families who play by the rules and teach our kids how to behave; them being some kind of bad seed spawned by Satan.

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During the Democratic presidential debate on CNN, a Planned Parenthood employee asked via You Tube if the candidates are educating their kids with age-appropriate, medically accurate sexual information. Only Edwards and Obama responded, and both addressed just one aspect of sexuality: proudly they proclaimed that they’ve taught their kids to recognize if someone is touching them inappropriately. Somehow I don’t think that’s what the woman was asking. Yet their answers were in keeping with today’s atmosphere, where sex education equals fear of sex.

In reality, the people who are being hurt most by these laws and attitudes are the so-called predators. Once their name is on that list, a whole lot of doors can be closed to them forever. Dreams of becoming a doctor or even an accountant could be out of reach because of problems getting accepted into college—assuming they even get so far as to dream after the psychological damage that’s done to them. The Times story ends by saying just that, quoting a professional: ‘If kids can’t get through school because of community notification, or they can’t get jobs, they are going to be marginalized.’ And marginalized people, she noted, commit more crimes.

I’m just hoping that, like the 1980s accusations against Satanic sexual cults running day care centers and pre-schools, most of which were debunked, this too shall pass. The pendulum has swung so far right concerning sex, it just has to swing at least to the center again soon. Frankly, I worry about my grandsons, loving and affectionate children whom I can easily imagine touching a classmate “inappropriately” and calling down the wrath of a society gone mad.

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One response »

  1. I so agree with you. There’s Bristol Palin going around preaching against premarital sex. What a bunch of hypocrites.

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