Category Archives: sexuality and age

Update in Genarlow Wilson Case

Today Wilson’s supporters were in court petitioning for his release. They report on the Wilson Appeal web site that the judge will issue his ruling on Monday. Watch that space (and this one) for information.

Genarlow Wilson is the young man, now 21 who was sentenced to 10 years in prison without parole — and lifelong registration as a sex offender — for having consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old girl when he was 17. He has served more than two years of that sentence. Since his conviction of aggravated child molestation the Georgia state laws have been changed to make what he did a misdemeanor rather than a felony, but those laws were not made retroactive and so have not affected the outcome of his case.

The Georgia Assembly has grappled with that omission and, though hard to believe, some have actively argued that the new law should not be applied to Wilson or any others similarly situated. In fact, Georgia Senator Eric Johnson, who believes Wilson’s sentence to be just, continued to trot out the videotape of a rape that occurred at the party where Wilson’s sex act also occured — a rape Wilson was found innocent of having any part in — in such a way as to inflame the moral panic around teens and sex, and to conflate force and consent.

I hope the judge who presided over today’s hearings is a reasonable one.
Click here for all Sex in the Public Square posts that make reference to Genarlow Wilson’s case.

And a tip of the hat to JanieBelle for sending this CNN story on Wilson’s hearing today just as I was finishing this post!

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Filed under Genarlow Wilson, moral panic, News and politics, sex, sex and the law, sexuality and age

Will New York Stop Treating Teen Prostitutes as Criminals?

Keep tabs on these two bills making their way through the New York State Senate and the New York State Assembly. Assembly bill A.5258, the Safe Harbor For Exploited Youth Act passed last year but didn’t make it to a vote in the Senate. It’s up again this year (its bill number in the Senate is S.3175), and I hope the Senate takes it up and passes it.

If it were to pass it would mean, as the New York Times pointed out in an editorial this morning, that we would treat American born teen prostitutes much the way we treat internationally trafficked teens caught working as prostitutes: that is, we would treat them as people in need of protection and services rather than as criminals. Here’s the lead paragraph from this morning’s New York Times editorial:

Sexually exploited children can be helped by the law or victimized by it, depending on where they are from. An Eastern European child smuggled into this country as a sex slave is offered protection under the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act. An American child who flees abusive parents and ends up selling her body on the streets is labeled a criminal and sent to the juvenile equivalent of prison.

That statement is important because it points out one reality of young prostitutes: they are sometimes engaged in prostitution because, as runaways, there are few options open to them that will allow them to remain free of the homes they are trying to escape. The National Runaway Switchboard sites a 1998 study published in the journal Child Abuse and Neglect, indicating that 34% of runaway youth (girls and boys) reported sexual abuse before leaving home and forty-three percent of runaway youth (girls and boys) reported physical abuse before leaving home.

In addition to offering treatment and care to teen prostitutes (instead of detention and punishment) the law recognizes that the needs of sexually exploited “boys, girls and transgendered youth,” may be different from each other, and should be treated as distinct where necessary. The inclusion of transgendered youth is important because transgendered youth are at high risk of family conflicts that are often behind running away in the first place, and the needs of transgendered youth certainly are distinct from those of other youth in important ways, and need to be met in appropriate ways.

Services mandated by the bill are to be provided in safe houses specifically for sexually exploited youth and will include: “housing, diagnostic assessment, individual case management, medical services including substance abuse services, counseling and therapeutic services, educational services including life skills services and planning services to successfully transition residents back to the community.”

The law is not without its problems. For one thing, the youth in question would not have a choice about participating in the state’s protection. Services would be “made available” to them whether they are “accessed voluntarily, as a condition of an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal issued in criminal court,” or through other court proceedings. In other words, if picked up for prostitution, protective services will be mandatory if not chosen voluntarily. This is likely to be a good thing for many youth engaged in prostitution, but not all teen prostitutes are operating in the same conditions nor do they all have the same needs. In addition, state care is not always effective, and until we know more about the quality of the services to be provided, and the culture of the safe houses, it is hard to have an unrestrained enthusiasm for the program. If the treatment options pathologize teens and their developing sexualities, they will not be helpful, and they may do more harm than good. Not only that, the law still separates sexual exploitation from other kinds of exploitation, and quite possibly will result in the release of youth “back into the community” where they are forced to choose some other kind of exploitation as a way to earn an independent living. Until we solve the fundamental economic problems of our society, exploitation would seem to be a necessary condition of many lives. We should not be concerned only with exploitation of a sexual nature.

Lastly, the comprehensive needs of abused or neglected youth will not be met by this bill alone. This bill makes an important step in the direction of humane treatment for young people in desperate circumstances, but we need to continue to work to solve the problems that lead teens to run away in the first place. Those reasons sometimes, themselves, have to do with sexuality. Teens are thrown out of their homes or run away from home because their sexual orientation or gender expression is rejected by their families. They are abused (whether sexually or otherwise) and run away to escape their abuse. They sometimes run away to be with boyfriends or girlfriends or lovers they have been barred from seeing. In other words, the denial of teens self-hood and sexuality is, itself, sometimes what leads to the sexual exploitation this bill is trying to address. If it does nothing more than offer treatment instead of punishment, this bill will have helped. I hope, though, that it will do more than that: I hope that the discussions generated by this bill will encourage us to move further down the road toward recognizing and affirming teens’ developing sexualities, and toward treating young people in our society with greater dignity.

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Filed under Gender, Health, inequality, News and politics, public discourse, sex, sex and health, sex and the law, sex work, sexuality and age

Sex Ed(itorials) in the New York Times.

The New York Times had two important editorials in the past three days dealing with important issues of sex and policy.

Today‘s took up the case, again, of Genarlow Wilson, the young man in Georgia who is still serving time in prison for the consensual oral sex he had when he was 17 with a girl who was two years younger. Specifically, the Times chastises the DA in the case for continuing to focus on the rape that occurred at that party (of which Wilson was acquitted) and even circulating the video that was made of the rape, as part of his lobbying effort against Genarlow Wilson’s release. This after the legislature in Georgia corrected its own laws to make the sex that Wilson had a misdemeanor rather than a felony as it was when he had it. (My other posts on Wilson’s case here, here, and here.

And this past Saturday, the Times called on Congress to drop the “abstinence only” and encourage teaching about abstinence to be a part of a comprehensive sex education program. This after a major study, mandated by Congress, of four abstinence only programs implemented in middle schools showed absolutely no impact on the choices that subjects made about whether and when to engage in sex. Saturday’s editorial mentions that at least 9 states have given up the federal matching grants because they could not, in good conscience, bring themselves to “forbid the promotion of contraceptive use and require teaching that sex outside marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects” which is what the federal program requires.

It’s good to see sensible sex talk in the mainstream press, and since it happens not-as-frequently as I’d like, I’ve decided to spotlight it when I can. If you come across an editorial about sex that you think is particularly appropriate for this site, please feel free to send it along! (Use the Email Elizabeth contact form.)

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Filed under abstinence only, Education, Genarlow Wilson, Health, News and politics, public discourse, sex and health, sex crimes, sex education, sexuality and age

My Way or the Highway’s Way?

I still haven’t received a reply from the New York State Thruway Authority to my e-mail about their filtering software and its settings. I thought I’d look for a customer service phone number, but the two on the Thruway Authority’s WiFi brochure are automated lines for technical assistance. I’ll go through their web site soon and find a real-person phone number. I’ll also resend the email.

Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking: highways are like public utilities. They are infrastructure supported by government money because without them the economy would wither. They are “public goods” because we all get to use them regardless how much we contribute to their upkeep. (Another blogger can discuss highways as “public bads” given that they encourage too much driving and discourage funding for rail and other public transit.)

Would you allow the electric company or the phone company to tell you what you could use their services for? While its true that many “public utilities” are privatizing, we still expect them to behave like protectors of public goods and back when there was only one local electricity provider we’d never have put up with their telling us what appliances we could buy, or what television stations we could watch. Likewise with phone companies. They don’t tell us who we can call, only what it will cost to do so. The Thruway Authority is offering a public good by providing WiFi access at its rest areas, and it should not be restricting the use of that access, even if their motivation is to “protect children.” I wonder what their rationale is. Perhaps they are acting preemptively, imagining that they will face the same kinds of challenges that public libraries have faced.

Libraries have already been around and around on this issue, and generally speaking, have lost. The Child Internet Protection Act requires public libraries that receive federal subsidies to install filters on their Internet access so that kids don’t accidentally come across pornography. Of course these filters also block a lot of mainstream informational web sites. But in any case, the US Supreme Court found CIPA constitutional and it remains the law. (Libertine reports in the comments on the previous post that his public library has never blocked access to his blogs, one of which is sexually explicit. Perhaps they have a better filter! Or perhaps they don’t receive federal funding?)

I would argue that the Thruway is more like a utility than like a library. And even if someone wanted to argue that the Thruway might be like a utility but that the rest areas are like libraries (libraries filled with McDonalds and Burger King and Dunkin’ Donuts), I would point out that you can only even get to a rest area if you have a legal driver, and that person would have to be at least 16, and so nearly an adult (age-wise, anyway). Any young children would very likely be with their parents who could certainly make decisions about their Internet usage (and would probably be providing the machines).

Another issue raised by this policy is the differential treatment of print and electronic media. This is one focus of Susie Bright’s post from a few weeks ago, and also a comment made by Alex on my previous post. The Thruway doesn’t tell you what you can read, by way of magazines, in their public spaces. You could sit with your Big Mac and a Penthouse and presumably nobody from the Thruway Authority would throw you out. “Ah, but they’re not selling Penthouse in the little convenience store,” you say? Well they’re not selling the WiFi access or directing you to any specific sites, either. They’re simply providing the connectivity. Why do they care what you look at? It isn’t as if you are displaying it for all to see (and even if somebody caught a glimpse, how is that different from catching a glimpse of a dirty magazine?

All this filtering is said to be a way to protect children. But do parents really want the government deciding what is appropriate for their own individual kids? Wouldn’t parents typically want to decide that for themselves? Again, we’re not talking about what is being displayed on the ubiquitous rest area TVs. We’re just talking about what you, on your own portable wireless device, might browse while drinking your coffee.

I’m thinking that the New York State Thruway Authority is just trying to play it safe. They’re probably worried, given the case of public libraries, that Congress will require state thruway authorities to install filtering software at rest areas in order to be eligible for Federal highway dollars.

This false and unnecessary “safety” irritates me, as I’ve written many times before, and it certainly points to a continued need for people to speak out against censorship, and in favor of sexually explicit material, and to advocate for reasonable policies around public access to the Internet, which is not a trivial thing. The US Supreme Court, explained the value of public Internet access in libraries by noting that they provide “a vast democratic forum, open to any member of the public to speak on subjects as diverse as human thought.”

Meanwhile, in New York, the next time you see a “Your Highway Dollars At Work” sign, you’ll know that at least some of those dollars are used to ineffectively limit access to that diverse range of human thought.

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Filed under censorship, culture, moral panic, public discourse, sex, sex and the law, sexuality and age

Our kids are born sexual. Now what do we do?

My mother says I don’t write enough about positive things in this blog, and she’s right. So I’ve decided to start a book review section where I’ll tell you about books I think help to create a healthy and open sexual environment. This is a great moment to begin, because I just read a fantastic book about kids and sex.

The book is called Everything you never wanted your kids to know about sex (but were afraid they’d ask: The secrets to surviving your child’s sexual development from birth to the teens by Justin Richardson and Mark Schuster, published by Three Rivers Press (2004) and I think the title says a lot, but not enough. For one thing, the book is clearly intended to not only to help parents survive their child’s sexual development, but to help the child survive the parents’ anxiety about his or her sexual development. In that way it teaches parents how to help shape their children’s sexuality in healthy ways. For another thing, it acknowledges the fear that parents often have about dealing with their kids and sex, and yet I think for many parents the issue is the “afraid they’ll ask” not the “never wanted them to know” part. I think a lot of parents want their kids to figure it out without having to talk about “it.” This book helps parents figure out how to talk about “it.”

One reason I like the book so much is that it starts out with an important-but-difficult-to-accept reality: talking to kids about sex isn’t going to make them sexual. Kids are already sexual. They lead into this with a short bit about observing a male fetus on an ultrasound and pointing out that it has an erection: sexual arousal occurs even before birth. Sexual response is biological. It is shaped, structured, and channeled by culture and socialization, but it is at its base a biological reality and it exists in babies just as it exists in adults.

Richardson and Schuster, both doctors with very down-to-earth attitudes (a psychiatrist and a pediatrician/public health specialist both with very impressive resumes), take on subjects like childhood sexual development, kids and sex play, masturbation, the Internet, discussions about abstinence, safer sex practices. And in all these areas their main focus is on open discussion, accurate information, and remaining calm. They explain that their approach to sexual development is based on putting children’s health first and they define health in a very comprehensive way:

Our definition of health includes physical health, by which we mean the absence of sexually transmitted disease and unintended pregnancy, and safety from sexual abuse and violence; and emotional health, by which we mean the ability to take pleasure in sex, the freedom of mind to make choices about love and sex, the possession of a meaningful value system to guide those choices, and the presence of strong self esteem. (p. 9-10)

They do all this with great humor and an sensitivity to the real strain, concern, and fear that parents really feel around these matters. I discovered this book while browsing for parenting section of Books-a-Million with my sister, a mother of two young boys. We were so engaged by the book that we sat on the floor in the aisle and read out loud to each other. We read the section about what to do when your kid walks in on you when you’re having sex. One reason I’m telling you about this book: one real life scenario used as a model by the authors involved a same-sex couple — two men — and the authors presented this without comment on the sexual orientation of the couple. Instead, their focus was on the quality of the reaction that “Jack and Simon” had in the moment:

We still marvel at the composure of Jack and Simon. When their four-year-old boy walked in on them having sex, Jack managed calmly to say, “Oh, you found us doing the special thing that people in love do when they want to make each other feel good; now, which of us do you want to put you back to bed?” (p. 103)

They point out that the most important thing is not to hide, not to ignore it, to try an explanation that is simple and clear, like “When you came in we were having sex. It’s a way that grown ups like us show that they love each othe. Do you understand?” They recommend answering any questions that the child has, and then reminding the child to knock if the door is closed. In other words, they recommend treating it without alarm, as an everyday act, and moving on. (An example of the humor they bring to the book. They end that section with the remark, “You can now tuck your little one into bed, go back to your room, and perform CPR on your partner.”

Another reason I’d encourage you to take a look at this book is because of its strength in addressing questions about kids, sex, and the Internet. First, they point out that if your child or your teen is online in any interactive forum, there is a chance that she will be approached for sex. You can’t prevent this. What you can do is prepare your kid for it when it does happen. Richardson and Schuster recommend telling young Internet users that they’re safe as long as they don’t respond to such requests and don’t give out any personal information about themselves to people they don’t know. Teach them how to block senders of unwanted IMs and to let you know about the incident. (Then, when they do talk to you, don’t freak out, but calmly discuss it with them to get the details, and, I’d presume, to support them for having done the right things!) Second, Richardson and Schuster talk about the near-inevitable event that your child surfs to a porn site or some other site containing explicitly sexual content. They discuss the benefits and drawbacks of web browser filters and again focus on being open with your kids about sex so that they’re willing to talk to you about what they see.

There are lots of good reasons to check out this book. I can’t mention them all now but I’m sure I’ll be referring back to the book in future posts.

I encourage you to check out the website for the book. You can read selections from the book, read more about the authors, and ask questions, too.

It takes guts to talk to kids about sex. In this time of moral panic about kids and sex, though, it is as important as ever that adults step up to the plate early and create a healthy environment for their kids’ developing sexualities. This is truly the best way to protect them from harm.

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Filed under book reviews, culture, Education, Family, life, moral panic, public discourse, sex, sex and health, sexuality, sexuality and age

Some light reading while I’m out of town ;)

It’s been awfully exciting around here since Tom Joaquin piped up! His fantastic post on what’s becoming known as the Alabama Vibrator Law brought a lot of new visitors, and a new liveliness to the comments. I’m very excited by both of those things.

And, as it happens, right in the middle of all this excitement I have to go out of town. Tomorrow I’m headed to Georgia, as a matter of fact, home of Genarlow Wilson and also a ridiculous proposal on keeping sex offenders from living near school bus stops (see the first post mentioned below).

What does this mean for you? It means no new posts, at least not from me. Tom, if you feel like jumping in again, go right ahead! It also means a slower moderating of comments. I’m going to visit my sister and her family, and I have two adorable nephews who will be taking most of my attention. Surely you will be understanding 🙂

Since we do have so many new and interesting folks here, though, and since you all have raised lots of interesting questions and issues in the comments, I thought I would offer a brief review of some past posts, related to the ones that have sparked so much recent interest. I’ve chosen five posts from the archives, one for each day I’ll be away. Pace yourselves!

Note: Some of these posts mention legislative attempts, or court cases, that may have been updated since I first wrote about them. If you have new information, please share it in the comments. (I will moderate comments at least once every day, and I’ll try for twice.)

So, here you go:

June 27, 2006 — The absurdity of sex-offender free zones: I admit that the title of this post is a bit awkward. Does it mean free zones for sex offenders, or zones free of sex offenders? (The second, of course.) But it was posted on my first-ever day of blogging, and it’s a good post for teasing out some of the problems with rules that restrict where registered sex offenders can live.

July 26 — Risks and complications (and necessity) of reconceptualizing sexual orientation: (I swear I’m going to learn title-writing skills from Tom Joaquin. I mean how can you beat “Q: When is a vibrator more dangerous than a gun?”!). This post argues that it is no longer helpful to retain traditional SO categories because they divide us much more than necessary and prevent us from seeing sexual diversity and civil rights clearly.

August 23, 2006 — Age, consent, position, power, agency and privilege: This post was written in my frustration about the way the New York Times was increasingly raising the alarm about sexual predators on the Internet. The post asks questions about sexuality and kids and teens and adults that are difficult to answer.

October 3, 2006 — Going out on a limb: Mark Foley is not a “Child Sex Predator” and then, So hard to talk about, but we must get it right! These two posts were posts were written during the fall out from the Mark Foley scandal. I was angry about Foley’s behavior, but I was even more angry at the way that people in the mainstream media talked about it.

January 15, 2007 — Don’t panic about teen sex: This post tries to counter some of the media inspired panic about what teenage girls are doing, sexually, with teenage boys. As an aside, isn’t it interesting how we’re always concerned about the girls, but very rarely about the boys?

So, there you are. I said there would be five and there are actually six (because I’m giving you the Mark Foley ones as a set).

Read, think, comment, enjoy. Talk to each other. And I’ll be back on the 5th.

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Filed under culture, moral panic, News and politics, public discourse, sex, sex and the law, sex crimes, sex offenders, sexual orientation, sexuality, sexuality and age

Update on Genarlow Wilson and Georgia’s laws about sex and young people

And while we’re doing updates, here is one on the Genarlow Wilson injustice I mentioned in “More Harm Than Good“.

The New York Times reported two days ago that a piece of legislation aimed at helping the young man is hung up in the Georgia General Assembly. According to the Times:

Senator Emanuel D. Jones, a Democrat, sponsored the legislation, which would make it possible for judges to reconsider the cases of hundreds of young adults, including Mr. Wilson, who are serving long mandatory minimum sentences in prison for having consensual sex with teenage minors. Mr. Jones said the bill was mysteriously left off the agenda of the Senate Judiciary Committee last week.

And on Monday, the Senate’s leader, Eric Johnson, publicly denounced the bill and said that although Mr. Wilson, now 20, was serving a harsh sentence, he deserved no leniency.

Remember, Genarlow Wilson was only 17 when he had consensual oral sex with a girl who was 15.

What troubles me most in the Times story is the change of heart apparently experienced by Senate Leader Johnson. Last year he supported legislation that made the kind of sex that Wilson had a misdemeanor instead of a felony, but now he rejects legislation that would allow Wilson’s case to be reconsidered in light of that very important legal change. His spokesperson, curiously, is quoted as explaining his change of heart this way:

“His line of thought is that we’ve already visited this instance once. If we were to go back, there would be hundreds of these cases that could be reopened, and there are victims in all of those cases.”

I think Mr. Johnson is confused about who the victims are. If we’re talking about consensual sex between minors, or between very young adults and minors (the law applies when the age difference is not more than 4 years), then the real victims are those who have been convicted of crimes. And if we want to help the victims, we should be letting judges revisit those cases. That’s what this legislation would allow.

If you live in Georgia, and perhaps even if you don’t, you might check out the Georgia General Assembly web site. If you’re a resident of Georgia write to your senator and your representative and urge them to do what they can to pass this legislation. And even if you aren’t a Georgia resident, consider writing to Senator Jones, telling him about your support for his legislation and encouraging him to fight. Write a letter to Senator Johnson urging him to change his mind.

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

Help Keep Julie Amero Out of Prison

Julie Amero is the Connecticut teacher I wrote about a few days ago — and that many others have written about — who was convicted of exposing children to pornography. The exposure was accidental, yet she is facing 40 years in prison if her conviction is not vacated. I don’t think she deserves this, and lots of readers agree. So, what can you do about it?

Steve Bass, at PC World, has more information about the case, and some suggestions about how to help :

You can check the Julie Amero blog and consider helping by way of the Julie Amero Defense Fund …

You can also use the power of e-mail. The State’s Attorney responsible for supervision of David Smith, the prosecutor in the Amero case, is Michael L. Regan. You might want to write him and strongly urge he help Smith file a motion to vacate the conviction. An e-mail to the Chief State’s Attorneys of Connecticut Kevin T. Kane and Connecticut Governor M. Jodi Rell can’t hurt, either. (There are more e-mail links on the Julie Amero site.)

If you write, however tempting, try not to go on a rant. Use your computing expertise — and a civil argument — and you’ll likely get better results.

The case has the public’s attention and it’s taken on an energy that won’t be stopped. Stay tuned.

I think Steve Bass is on target. Writing letters is helpful. Donating money, if you can, is also helpful. Talking about the case and keeping it in front of people’s minds will also help. Most important, in doing all of these things, is to keep framing the issue in a way that generates more and more support for Amero.

Here is a link to the Julie Amero Blog.

For Steve Bass’s previous writing on this case, click here and here.

Thanks to Viviane for reposting the BoingBoing story that linked to the Bass article.

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

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).

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