Friday, March 27, 2009

When it comes to sex, the government needs to pull out.

An article in my local paper describes a case where a couple of 13-year-old girls are being threatened with criminal prosecution because photos of them in their bras have been circulating among their friends via cell phone. The DA says he will charge them with violating "child pornography" laws unless they confess their sins and attend mandatory counseling. The teens and their parents are outraged, and have filed a countersuit with the backing of the ACLU. The same article mentions a girl last year who got in trouble for circulating pictures of herself post-shower, topless and in a towel.

This so-called "sexting" is increasingly common, and increasingly troublesome to parents and schools alike.

But is it
should it bea crime?

For one thing, we see worse in the Sunday ci
rculars every week. There are photos from the lingerie ads of major department stores that would have someone of my father's generation blushing and turning the page if he were in polite company. The ad shown here is for an import line of lingerie called, appropriately, "Blush." I would adjudge it more provocative, certainly in intonation, than most of what appeared in the recent issue of Playboy that contained my story about NFL refs. (One cannot gauge "prurience" solely by the percentage of naked skin depicted. Calvin Klein has often pushed the envelope in this regard, frequently using very young models.) Not to put too fine a point on it, but these ads are apt to contain photos with clearly visible lumps and creases and sometimes even telltale pubic shadows. We see this same imagery on TV nightly, and not just on HBO, either, these days. We've seen it (and worse) for decades at the beach. Does a 14-year-old girl in a wet bikini look that different from a 14-year-old girl in a bra and panties?

I'd even take it a step further: From a strictly legal standpoint, does it matter, and really should it matter, if young girls are showing themselvesor even giving themselvesto their peers?

I threw in that last part because I'm betting that you think you have a much better understanding of statutory rape than you actually do. It doesn't just affect adults who take advantage of teens. In truth, the laws are all over the map
literally, given the state-by-state variancesas this matrix indicates. To give you some idea of how silly and arbitrary this gets, scroll down to the laws listed for the state of Delaware and see how long it takes you to figure out exactly (a) which pairings are unlawful, and (b) which pairings are punishable by what consequences under what circumstances. Go ahead; start the egg timer now and let me know when you're done. It's a joke...almost like one of those "If Train A leaves Chicago at 10:40 heading east, and Train B leaves New York at noon heading west..." problems that you used to get in introductory algebra, except in this case with more variables.

Don't laugh, but I really think the question of virginity also must be considered in this equation. While it's true that we don't want 30-year-old married band teachers routinely having sex with eighth-grade clarinetists in the instrument room after practice, I think it does makes a difference
or at least, ought toif that eighth-grader has already had sex with a dozen other eighth-graders. To me, it just isn't the same crime once the seal is broken, as it were. (And let me be clear: Despite the artistic license I take in using a phrase like "seal is broken," I'm referring to either gender here. Virginity is virginity. Once you lose it, there's no going back, despite that new surgery that's catching on.) And ironically, the proof that it isn't the same crime is inherent in the language of many of the statutes: "corrupting the morals of a minor." How can you corrupt the morals of someone who has already established a track record of doing the very thing that you're supposedly corrupting them by doing? Not to seem glib and tasteless, but if a teenager has already had sex with a number of peers, doesn't he or she come into any ensuing relationship pre-corrupted? (In fact, in such circumstances, if somebody must be arrested, I think a case could be made for arresting the teenager: "corrupting the morals of a band teacher"?*)

When it comes to policing voluntary sex... Well, let's put it this way, I think the government has no business involving itself in 90 percent of the matters of morality and sexual behavior that are now regulated in some way. I think students have every legal right** to send each other naked pictures of themselves. No, they shouldn't be doing it during class...but there are a lot of things they shouldn't be doing during class. And if they're going to be told not to do it, it should be their parents who make those rules and enforce them. Not teachers, not school boards, not state legislatures; certainly not Washington. If we must have laws governing the way the images and likenesses of children are used, then those laws should not be written so broadly. Maybe tie the offense to the commercialization of sex: Define child pornography as the endeavor to profit off the depiction of children in compromising positions. Just leave the civilians alone.

No, I am not serious. Just trying to look at the situation from every reasonable angle.
** Remember: We're talking legality here, not morality.


Anonymous said...

So you don't think governments, be they state or federal have any right to prohibit sex between adults and juveniles?

Steve Salerno said...

Anon: That's not what I said. I'm simply raising questions about the arbitrariness and unfairness of certain laws, and the extreme penalties that are imposed for infractions that are rooted more in a certain moral "touchiness," if you will, than in any factual harm that has been done, at least in some cases. I think that sex amid serious power imbalances--say, between teacher and student, or boss and subordinate--can be handled administratively by the school or the employer via policies that are established in-house. I'm not convinced that the government, "be it state or federal," has any legitimate interest in policing such scenarios.

As for sex between consenting juveniles, no, I don't think the government has any business regulating that.

RevRon's Rants said...

I wouldn't go so far as to limit legal intervention to profit-based activities, but I do think we need something more sensible than the zero-tolerance attitude upon which current laws are based. I think that *all* circumstances should be considered before initiating any kind of criminal proceedings, since as we know, in the current atmosphere, there's no such thing as "innocent until proven guilty." As it stands, it's too easy to ruin lives where no real abuse has occurred, and even exacerbate the trauma that molested children suffer.

Chad Hogg said...

I haven't read the most recent article yet, but please see my blog for responses to the last two similar local stories.

Cosmic Connie said...

Another excellent post, Steve. I too was appalled to read that those 13-year-old girls are facing child porn charges. This is beyond ludicrous.

Zero-tolerance policies have a way of quickly becoming intolerable policies. The drug policies are bad enough; when it comes to the point that a kid can't take an aspirin to school without being hauled off to jail, something is seriously wrong. The sexual activity policies may be even worse. Like you, I think that for the most part the government has no business regulating sexual activities between consenting juveniles.

Back when I was a sixteen-year-old high school student, my then-boyfriend (also sixteen) and I used to spend our lunch break use of the darkroom in the journalism lab. As sports editor of the yearbook, he had free access to this private spot. (Years later, when interviewing for a job, I was asked if I had darkroom experience. I demurred.)

I'll note that this was a long-term relationship and we were truly in love, as much as sixteen-year-olds can be. But I suppose it was fortunate that my former b.f. and I were never caught, though I imagine that if we had been, we would have received lectures, perhaps detention, or at worst suspension. We might have faced expulsion; I don't know. We were both good students and didn't get into trouble, didn't indulge in alcohol or other drugs, so maybe the school would have gone easy on us. Our parents would not have been pleased, of course, but they sort of suspected we were carrying on anyway. Who knows?

Nowadays, though, if we had gotten caught at something like this, we would have probably been arrested, expelled, made to attend counseling sessions for gawd knows how long, and, of course, the incident would have been on all of the local nightly news shows. It might even make the national news. Serious-faced reporters, looking barely older than sixteen themselves, would have tripped over themselves putting together investigative stories about the problem of teenage sex in the schools. Both of us might have even had to register as sex offenders.

Then again, we both probably would have gotten a lucrative book deal and/or been the subject of a Lifetime movie.

Damn. Guess I was born too early.

Noadi said...

The government has absolutely no business dealing with minors having sex with each other or even minors having sex with an adult within a few years of them in age (say 19 and 16 year olds). However when it's a 30 year old and a 14 year old the implication is one of authority being used to gain sex (especially when it's a teacher, coach etc.) and that is where it crosses the line into something which should have legal consequences.

Steve Salerno said...

Noadi: I don't disagree (about the 30/14 pairing), and I guess it was my careless phrasing that made some folks think otherwise.

Connie: "Darkroom experience"! That is hilarious.

Elizabeth said...

Years later, when interviewing for a job, I was asked if I had darkroom experience. I demurred.


Anonymous said...

What this country really needs is more children who can support themselves having more sex at younger ages.

I really don't think that Hollywood and the Madison Avenue Advertising types are doing enough to promote the virtues of lots of recreational sex amoung pre-adults. We really need to "get over" this nonsensical morality hang-up and get on to encouraging kids to get-it-on.

After all, sex feels really great when you are doing it, and everybody needs to be able to empower and express themselves through sex. And if they aren't sexually active by the age of 15, something is wrong with them.

Come on America! A sexually active teen culture is a great teen culture. Teens need to watch and distribute more porn! And it's about time that young girls started using their cell phones for something more than talking and texting.

There are no consequences to having teen sex; only unfairness for the repressed teens who don't participate. Come on kids - put down those books and get in the game!

Anonymous said...

At some point, someone decided that walking around with no clothes on was a bad idea. Now bodies are so hidden that flesh becomes something special, to be hidden and wrapped in taboo.
How did we let that happen?

Anonymous said...

My point being that maybe we have problems and hang ups (and industries) that simply don't exist in societies where nudity is the norm. I don't know. Any anthropologists?
(p.s. I'm not the anonymous two posts above)

RevRon's Rants said...

Anon 8:55 - Those societies have hang-ups and problems, as well. Some are just different than our own. Dig deeper... :-)

RevRon's Rants said...

anon 5:25 - Sounds like the preamble to a fiery sermon. Putting my hands on the radio and breathlessly waiting for the punch line! :-)

Lana said...

LOL!!! Just read this post headline again after drinking a glass of lemonade and rum.

Steve Salerno said...

...after drinking a glass of lemonade and rum.

Lana: So I guess that old line is true, then: "Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker..."?

Lana said...

Seems so. Chocolate didn't give me the insight!

renee said...

I have a serious question for Connie -

In all those memorable moments in the darkroom, did it ever once occur to either you or your boyfriend to photograph yourselves in the act and then share the images with the rest of the student body?

I didn't think so.

That's the difference between now and then. Not only does it occur to students to share their sexual selves, they are thrilled to do it. And not one of us appears to be horrified by it.

Sure, adolescents have always found a way to have sex. But at least one generation ago, it was a two-person adventure, not a porn star audition or a testament to one's own exhibitionism.

Doesn't anyone else see something wrong with this?

Steve Salerno said...

Renee, I'm going to (hope) that others weigh in here, but let me emphasize again--for the benefit of anyone who may be quietly horrified by this post--that I'm talking about legal issues here, not moral ones. There are many things in life that I (privately) think are wrong--in other words, those behaviors violate my own personal standards in the area of this or that. At the same time, I would never presume to think that my personal tastes should be imposed on others--and I certainly don't want the government dictating behavior in those areas.

Is it "wrong" for kids to text pictures of themselves in sexual circumstances (or even actually having sex)? Yes, I think it probably is. Is it the government's job to police that? No. And I truly believe that the fact that some people want such behaviors policed is a greater threat to American society than sexting per se.

RevRon's Rants said...

"I would never presume to think that my personal tastes should be imposed on others--and I certainly don't want the government dictating behavior in those areas."

I think that the tendency to use the criminal justice system to dictate and enforce every aspect of human "morality" is merely another manifestation of the eagerness to abdicate personal responsibility that you describe in SHAM.

When I was a kid, if I did something that my parents considered morally wrong (which I did... frequently), they would be the ones to impose discipline, not some civil servant. Had I been inducted into the system for even a few of my typical pre-adolaescent infractions, I'd have had no chance at living a productive adult life.

It's so much easier for us to leave enforcement to the government. Doing so allows us to posture, preen, and tell ourselves how righteous we are, without ever having to assume responsibility for the effects of our posturing upon others' lives.

As a nation, we incarcerate a larger percentage of our population than all other nations. As Sen. Jim Webb has stated, "With so many of our citizens in prison compared with the rest of the world, there are only two possibilities: Either we are home to the most evil people on earth or we are doing something different - and vastly counterproductive." Perhaps it's past time we quit manufacturing criminals and placed moral decisions where they belong, rather than in the hands of the government.

Cosmic Connie said...

Renee, in answer to your question, my ex-b.f. and I never considered making a public display of our private party. But I'm not sure what we might have considered doing had we been teenagers in today's technological and moral climate. Given the current milieu, which all of us helped to create, I think we have to cut contemporary teens a little bit of slack on this one -- morally as well as legally. In any case, I stand by my opinion that the government has no place prosecuting teens for "sexting."

As Ron said, "Perhaps it's past time we quit manufacturing criminals and placed moral decisions where they belong, rather than in the hands of the government."

By the way, Renee, I really like your blog.