More harm than good

I keep thinking about this discussion we’ve been having about “protecting” people from sex, or sexually explicit material. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that quite often our efforts at protection do more harm than good.

Think about the following recent cases:

A Florida appeals court has upheld the convictions of two Florida teens, a 16-year-old girl and a 17-year-old boy (or should we call them a young woman and a young man?) who have been charged with producing and possessing child pornography. They took digital pictures of themselves and she emailed them to his private email account.

Genarlow Wilson was sentenced to 10 years in prison without parole, for having consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old girl when he was 17. After serving time in prison for most of his 20s he will have to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. In December of last year an appeals court in Georgia decided not to hear his case. He’s been offer a deal to plead guilty to a lesser charge and serve less jail time, but he’d still have to register as a sex offender. He doesn’t want to take the deal.

A substitute teacher in Connecticut let some kids in her classroom use a computer on which porn pop-ups appeared. She has been convicted and is facing 40 years in prison if her conviction for exposing children to pornography is not overturned.

Often these cases have bizarre ironies woven through them that come from our inability to get sex policies right. For example, in the case of the Florida teenagers mentioned above, the sex they were having was legal. It was the photos of the legal sex that were illegal. In Genarlow Wilson’s case, had he had intercourse with the girl, he’d have been fine. There was an exception made in the law for intercourse between teenagers. But not for oral sex. He was charged with aggravated molesting. Even more tragically in his case is that the Georgia legislature — after his case had been prosecuted — modified its laws such that most consensual sex between teens was counted only as a misdemeanor (one might well ask why it should be a crime at all). But they did not make the change retroactive.

In the case of the Connecticut teacher, she was not in control of the computer when it was being used. According to one story, she had “chased away” some students who were using to browse hairstyle web sites and then later in the class the porn images started popping up on their own. Totally plausible. She could serve 40 years because, in her shock at an event that was certainly surprising to her and that she did not control, she couldn’t think fast enough on her feet to turn the machine off or cover it with something. I can absolutely imagine being too stunned to act quickly, myself.

Were the children in her classroom really harmed by unintentional and short-term exposure to images of adults having sex? I don’t think so. I think they were surprised, I think some were shocked, and a few might even have been upset. Some might have been curious, and some might have been excited by what they saw. But I don’t think that any harm was done that a thoughtful conversation about sex would not have cured. Is that worth convicting a teacher of a sex crime and sending her to prison for what could essentially be the rest of her life?

Was the 14-year-old girl harmed by her consensual oral sex with Genarlow Wilson? She didn’t think so. And even the Georgia legislature later agreed that such sex, while illegal, shouldn’t be considered anything more than a misdemeanor.

Because we, as a society, as a culture, and as communities, cannot talk rationally about sex, we create policies that do more harm than good. Because we are unwilling or unable to remember our own sexual curiosity as children, and because we are so invested in denying childhood sexuality, we create policies to protect children — often from themselves — and we do them more harm than good.

I do not dispute that children need protection from those who would do them harm. But we are casting much to wide a net. It lets through most of the people who do actually harm kids — people who are known to them — and it creates these unreasonable and unintended outcomes that ruin the lives of people who do not seriously do harm to anybody.

It might seem unrelated at first, but this morning’s New York Times reports that a Newbury Award winning book for children will not be shelved in many school libraries because it contains the word “scrotum” on the first page. One librarian, from Colorado, calls the use of the word a Howard Stern-like shock treatment. A New Jersey school librarian says if he were a 3rd or 4th grade teacher he “wouldn’t want to have to explain that,” (meaning what a scrotum was). And a librarian from Brighton, New York, said she didn’t think the teachers in her school would want to do that vocabulary lesson.” It becomes clearer and clearer to me that we are not, really, trying to protect children here. We are trying to save ourselves, as grownups, from the discomfort and anxiety we have in confronting kids’ questions about sex and bodies.

Third and fourth graders are roughly 8 and 9 years old. Certainly that is old enough to know the names of the parts of their bodies. In fact, without understanding and being able to name the parts of their bodies, we can’t expect kids to be able to talk about the very things we are trying to protect them from. And if they can’t talk about it, they can’t talk to someone who could help them.

We need smarter policies. We need honest discussion. We need to confront our own discomfort around sexuality, as adults, before we can responsibly protect children.

(For an excellent and much more thorough exploration of this idea that we harm kids through our efforts to protect them from sex, see Harmful to Minors, by Judith Levine).


Filed under News and politics, public discourse, sex, sex and the law, sexuality, sexuality and age

9 responses to “More harm than good

  1. There’s a scene in the film “Kindergarten Cop” in which it is revealed that one of the students (in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s class) is the son of a gynecologist. The youngtser pronounces, “Boys have a penis. Girls have a vagina.” Schwarzenegger’s character replies, “Thanks for the tip.”

    I wonder how many of the self-righteous would suggest that the California governor be charged with exposing children to explicit sexual material?

  2. Actually, the woman who wrote the book I mentioned isn’t being charged with doing anything illegal or wrong. In fact she won an award for the book. What troubles me is that elementary and middle school libraries might not shelve the book — and for that matter public libraries in communities might not shelve the book — because, apparently, they don’t want to make adults uncomfortable when kids ask perfectly reasonable questions.

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  4. Wonderfully written article Elizabeth. I think that one of the often people need to step back from making everything a “law” and actually think about what it is they are doing. There seems to be a prevailing system whereby we panic, make a law to protect us, and then pretend it was a rational decision.

    As to the issue of educating children, we as a western society have a huge issue that needs addressing here. We have made sex and our bodies such a huge taboo topic that adults are scared to go near it with children, theirs or others. I was the coordinator of an all girls school, a group of the 11-12 year old girls started talking about periods one day and I had one of my 8 year olds ask me what they were talking about. I could have run from the subject and told her to ask her parents later, but I didn’t. I informed her parents when they came to collect her about our conversation and her mum was so pleased that I had told her, because now she wouldn’t have to. I also spent some time that day with the older girls talking about menstruation and puberty because the teacher had given them very little information in class (it was a class about puberty apparently) and they had all left with more questions then answers. When I spoke to the parents of these girls, they were also grateful that I had been there to answer these questions and not them. It was a busy day, but not a challenging one for me.

    We need to be open with our kids, it’s when everything becomes an issue and a secret that more and more cases of sexual abuse are hidden. If we teach our kids about sex and their bodies and keep them covered in a veil of secrecy children will never learn what is right and wrong, never feel they can talk to anyone and always carry around a feeling of shame.

    Is it so hard to say “boys have a scrotum, it’s the dangley bit of skin under the penis.” Then the kiddies will go outside and play “you show me yours and I’ll show you mine” they’ll get a good look at the differences between boys and girls and everyone will feel better.

  5. Tracey, what a thoughtful comment. Thank you.

    And thank you for your willingness to talk to those girls. If we all wait for somebody else to do it, nobody does it. And best it be done by somebody smart, calm, and compassionate 🙂

    I’m really grateful to my mom for being so open and calm and willing to talk to my sister and me. I have since read and heard told many stories by adults who, as kids, though they were diseased because of their first erections, bleeding to death because of their first menstruations, going crazy (or turning into an evil person) because of their blooming interest in sex.

    It’s amazing how much harm we can do to kids by shame and secrecy.

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  7. WhoreChurch

    Fundamentalism is the problem

    *imitates best Arnold voice*

    …and I om ze cuare!

    …thank you, thank you, I’ll be here all week…

    Seriously, great post.

    It doesn’t seem to matter what fundamentalism is involved (Christian, Muslim, etc.) the belief in an absolute book written thousands of years ago in a completely different culture destroys common sense.

    Politicians know they do harm catering to the fundys, but they also know they have a better shot at getting elected if they do. So they order us to bend over and, um, well, let’s put it this way: Do something that is illegal in Texas.

    [ /soapbox]

  8. Actually, I think since the Lawrence case it’s legal in Texas now … as long as you don’t own/use too many toys.

  9. JJ

    All this ‘hysteria’ over sex and the draconian legislation that follows, is nothing more than a hypocritical response to the Boomer’s and, to a lesser degree, Gen-X guilt over their wild youths.


    “Sex is natural, sex is fun, sex should be for everyone”(past puberty) -George Michael ‘I Want Your Sex’