One of my pet issues is the many stupid ways society and the state handles minors who color outside the lines, so to speak, especially when it comes to criminal behavior. Tangential to that is the sex abuse scare, and perhaps nowhere have these two issues intersected more absurdly than in the prosecution of minors who engage in sexting.
Before I get to my point though, let me clarify something: when it comes to the actual sexual abuse of children, I have no problem at all with the state throwing the book at such people. It’s sad that I need to point this out at all, but the problem is that in today’s hyper-paranoid environment there seems to be little room for nuance in the eyes of many people: it’s all black and white, and the black applies to absolutely every intersection of the concepts of ‘child’ and ‘sex.’ Therefore, anyone who disagrees with any part of that is automatically suspect in their eyes. Frankly, I say fuck that noise. There are important nuances with these issues, and this is one of them. I say that both as a rational human being and as a victim of molestation myself.
Thus, when I’d read that parents in Virginia called the police after discovering nude photos that their 13-year-old daughter had taken of herself on her phone (and sent to friends), I was far more horrified by the parents’ actions than by the girl’s. First off, Virginia again? What the hell is it with that state? Secondly, it’s not that I dismiss the girl’s actions–I think they were ill-considered, to say the least. It’s that I am well aware that, in society’s well-meaning attempts to protect kids from abuse, it has clearly lost sight of the reason for its actions and has far too often hurt the very people it intends to protect. One way this has occurred is through the prosecution of kids for sexting. In the eyes of the law child pornography is child pornography, whether produced by abusive adults or by the kids themselves just having a little fun, and it’s just as illegal for minors to own it and produce it as it is for adults. Which means it is possible–and indeed likely–for kids caught doing it to be prosecuted and treated like sex offenders. The argument goes that these kids have to be stopped because the images might ruin their lives . . . as if subjecting them to criminal prosecution and labeling them sex offenders won’t. Go figure.
Clearly society has lost it’s mind when it comes to kids and sex. We need to treat these cases differently than we treat Chester Molester photographing himself raping a 9-year-old. Heads up, people: teenagers have always been sexual beings. It’s just that the technology available now makes it much easier for them to record and distribute their sexual activities, which means there’s hard evidence that sexual behaviors by kids doesn’t always equate to victimhood, and that, I think, is the real crime in society’s eyes: people just do not want to be reminded that their precious, angelic offspring sometimes behave sexually all on their own. I can sort of understand–even if I don’t condone such thinking–why parents might want to see other people’s teens prosecuted for such things: serves as a nice lesson for their own kids, right? This can happen to YOU, Junior/Missy, if you don’t keep your private parts to yourself until you become an adult. But it’s hard to fathom parents turning in their own youngsters over to the cops . . . until you put it into the context of the zeitgeist in terms of kiddie sex.
This reminds me of the 80s and 90s when the big cultural bugaboo was drugs. The War on Drugs got so insane that kids were being asked to inform on their own parents, never mind that having Mom and Dad arrested for smoking a doobie was likely to break up their family and destroy their parents’ marriage (not to mention getting the kids put into foster care where they were much more likely to be abused). Kids were frightened because they were taught that drugs were such a horrible, all-consuming evil that NO cost–whether monetary, physical, mental, emotional, or whatever–was too high to get drugs off the streets. And, of course, juvenile drug offenders were just as legally culpable as adults. Several years and many billions of wasted dollars and lives later, it’s clear that the War on Drugs was a massive failure. Drugs are no less widespread than they were back then, and the underworld that capitalized on their illegality has only gotten fatter and richer over the years. Have we learned our lesson from that? We’re only just starting to, it seems. The atmosphere of fear surrounding drugs was so powerful that it warped the fabric of society in some dark and disturbing ways. The sex abuse scare is now doing the same.
To be sure, there are some distinct differences between the drug issue and teen sexuality issue, but there are also a lot of similarities in the way we as a society deal with them. For one thing, it seems we’d rather treat all cases with the blunt hammer of the law rather than try to find alternatives. For another, as stated earlier, kids themselves are far too often hurt by the very laws and taboos that are meant to keep them safe. Something has gone horribly wrong, and that something is called a moral panic. There have been many of these throughout the history of human civilizations, and no doubt there will be more. At their most extreme, moral panics can culminate in large-scale violent events like riots and even genocide, but mostly they just result in things like this, where the fear of a terrible outcome causes people to behave irrationally and do things that ironically tend only to make the situation worse.
No doubt these parents meant well, but they likely just ruined their daughter’s life. Before, a handful of teens at the girl’s school knew about her actions. Now, the whole world knows. Before, she was a normal teenage girl with a (not particularly shocking) secret. Now, she is a legally designated sex offender, and all that that entails. And to what end? Who exactly is being protected in this case?
Come on, people, we can do better than this.