Thursday, September 24, 2009

Three Reasons to Lower Age of Consent

If you're an adult, how comfortable would you be if the age of sexual consent were 13? Does the idea of replacing an arbitrary line in the sand with another one send you into a moralistic rampage? If that's the case, then you'll probably have quite a few words against John Spencer, a law professor in the UK, who has been recently arguing for lowering the age of consent from 16 to 13. If such is the case, you may follow the conventional logic of Tory MP David Davies, who recently made the classic "protect-the-children" argument for keeping the age at 16:
"It is vital that the law protects vulnerable young people from exploitation by adults."
1. "Vulnerable young people" are going to be exploited by adults regardless of whether the age of consent is 16 or 13, or anything for that matter. In fact, "vulnerable children" are exploited by adults from the moment they are born in all kinds of ways (unless you think the commercial breaks during Dora the Explorer are there for any other reason), but I suppose the kind of exploitation we're talking about is sexual harm caused by molestation and rape. In which case, it's hard to argue that the law shouldn't prosecute people who molest children--that's not what's being argued. The problem is, too many people are hyped into believing the function of the law is to "protect children," and governments like to spread this lie to continually enforce the status quo. The law prosecutes those who harm children, it doesn't protect them from anything--in fact, it often prosecutes the very "vulnerable children" it's supposedly protecting (story 1, story 2.):
John Spencer will argue that the current age of consent, fixed at 16, criminalises "half the population". Two years ago, Chief Superintendent Clive Murray argued that the law does not distinguish between sexual abuse and "youthful natural instinct".
If you're still not convinced that status crime sex laws do in fact harm young people, take a look at the facts. If you look at the age group break down of registered sex offenders, you'll find a whole lot more 14 year olds than the "dirty old men" you hear about on the news. Now no one is saying that all those 14 year olds are innocent--the majority of them probably did commit acts of rape and "child corruption,"--but one has to wonder why we have politicians talking about protecting young people from "adult sexual exploitation" when in reality the highest amount of offenders are under 20. In fact, you're just as likely to find 5 year old sex offenders as you are 55 year old, and more likely to find 10 year olds than 55 year olds. Ignoring this seems to have more to do with trying not to upset those who were abused as children (the most vocal political constituency on this issue) than it does with conforming our opinions to reality.

2. Firstly, if you start out defining the age of consent law as "a law that protects children," you create a tautology whereby you can criticize anyone arguing against the law as arguing against "protecting children." This is a politically convenient attack, but it's false. Secondly, once you start out saying the law protects children by definition, now you have to ignore the problems the law causes for young people in the cases where it doesn't protect them (such as when two minors have consensual sex with one another and each get charged with statutory rape). Once again, this is an efficient excuse if you're a politician, but not if you're a rational person.

One has to congratulate Classically Liberal for pointing out a reality that so many choose to ignore and so many more don't know exist:
It takes so little for this happen to a child. A girl in school has oral sex with a boy in school. She becomes a sex offender for the rest of her life. Streaking a school event, as a practical joke, becomes a sex crime in the new America. Two kids “moon” a passerby and are incarcerated in jail as sex offenders, where they may well learn a lesson or two about rape. A teenager, who takes a sexy of photo of him, or herself, is paraded around the community as a “child pornographer” for the rest of his or her life. Two kids in the back seat of a car have fumbling sex. The law says one is an offender because the other is a “victim.” One week later, a birthday passes, and it is no longer a crime. One week’s difference and a life is ruined. In other cases an act that is legal on Monday is illegal on Tuesday because the older of the two turned one year older. That becomes enough to qualify him, or her, as an offender.
Or maybe you share the opinion of Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe, who said:
"The proposition that the age of consent should be lowered is absolutely appalling. The situation is bad enough at the moment with high rates of teenage pregnancies and sexual diseases."
3. Every country has its own domestic problems that need different laws to cover them, and since many governments have exhausted the "it is immoral" excuse, (for some reason, they think it is more moral for 16 year olds to avoid being labeled as sex offenders for consensual sexual activity than it is for 13 year olds), they decide to throw in some horror-story domestic issue to latch onto it in order to justify their morality-based opinions. There is always going to be the floodgates theory--if we do this, it'll open the floodgates for rampant sex abuse and teenage pregnancy, therefore, the status quo ought to be preserved. Well, I'm going to give Widdecombe here the benefit of the doubt, and assume that Britain does have high rates of teenage pregnancy. If that's the case, that's not a shining endorsement of the status quo now is it?

Anyone can play the let's compare countries age of consent with their teenage birth rate game and come out with a pairing that supports whatever conclusion they want to draw If we were to compare Spain (age of consent is 13) to the UK (age of consent is 16), we'll find that more pregnancies are correlated with a higher age of consent. There are no doubt countless comparisons one could make. The fact is, teenage pregnancy is going to happen regardless of what the arbitrary line in the sand is. Culture determines sexual deviancy more than the laws do because laws only prosecute, they don't in fact uphold the cultural moral sentiment as much as people would like to think:
The Government's controversial teenage pregnancy strategy, which has cost taxpayers more than £300million, was meant to halve the number of conceptions among girls under 18 in England between 1998 and 2010, but teenage pregnancy rates are now higher than they were in 1995.
We know from experience here in the US that "Abstinence Only" and abstinence pledges increase unhealthy sexual promiscuity in young people rather than decrease it. It seems the UK's teenage pregnancy strategy (sex education and better access to contraceptive use for young people) has had better results, but it's still mixed. It seems no matter how restrictive or free a government is when it comes to sexual activity with young people, teenage pregnancy is always going to be an issue. The argument that such a move to lower the age of consent would "open the floodgates" doesn't appear to be all that powerful. If anything, evidence seems to be pointing in the opposite direction--for instance, condom distribution programs have been found to promote condom use and therefore stimulate healthier sexual activity among young people (source 1, source 2, source 3.)

Given all this, it's unlikely that the age of consent in a particular country has much to do with the rate of sexual promiscuity, and certainly lowering the age of consent isn't going to let child molesters and rapists off the hook, seeing as there are laws against rape already. It seems more likely that upholding an age of consent at 16 is done for the same reason as keeping condoms out of school for fear they'll promote pregnancies...more so out of personal opinion than out of reason.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Let Kids Mature

Liberal thinker John Stewart Mill defended liberalism over two hundred years ago:
"The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign." --On Liberty
But denied it to children:
"It is perhaps, hardly necessary to say that this doctrine is meant to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties. We are not speaking of children, or of young persons below the age which the law may fix as that of manhood or womanhood. Those who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others, must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury." --On Liberty
It's easy to see just how important Mill's liberalism (in the US, more so libertarianism) has come to be so commonplace in western society that this view about the inhumanity of children still prevails to this day. I argue that while setting up certain social provisions to protect and nurture young people is important, cutting them out of the adult world entirely by force of some arbitrary law is not necessary. Furthermore, I argue that restricting young people from maturing is not in their "best interests"--something those very same laws were designed to protect.

Children have a innate sense to go and do as they please from a very young age. Only in the time of infancy are they docile. In later stages of development they have a "freedom of movement" as Henry Jenkins described it.

This comes into conflict however, because a child can often get themselves injured or in jeopardy because they've passed a threshold whether physical or artificial, that they did not know it improper or dangerous to cross. Such a threshold could be a street curb in busy traffic or a status crime law saying they can't behave sexually with each other. It is easy to suppose a very young child could step out into a street and be hit by a passing car because they didn't understand that the street is a dangerous place to be. This is where Mill says we have a duty to exercise oppression and restrict that child's freedom of movement across these certain dangerous or improper thresholds. It'd be hard to argue with that.

However, you could also say that by crossing certain thresholds in life, one learns about life and therefore "matures" as Mill would put it. This is easily imagined, and therefore society generally allows children to cross certain thresholds on their own, just so they can have the experience of doing so. This is part of the maturing process and is as essential to children and young people as protecting them from hazards--if not more.

But when does it become too much? When does restricting children access for their own safety turn into paranoid over-protection that marginalizes them and keeps them from properly maturing like we want them to?

We say things like, "children are incapable, and therefore should be kept from doing this."

Mill attacks the argument that women are naturally less good at some things than men, and should therefore be discouraged or forbidden from doing them. He says that we simply don't know what women are capable of because we have never let them try (since one cannot make an authoritative statement without evidence). We can't stop women from trying things because they "might not" be able to do them.
"The anxiety of mankind to intervene on behalf of an altogether unnecessary solitude. What women by nature cannot do, is quite superfluous to forbid them from doing." --The Subjection of Women
Note he says "the anxiety to intervene on behalf of nature..." That's what motivates parents and lawmakers to subject anyone, whether they're female, or young. The anxiety forces them to fear the harm a kid could get into, and adults will often go to great lengths to suppress young people if only to quell the anxiety--intervening with a child's natural journey of maturation by condemning it and suppressing it. It has little to do with what the child or young person is capable of, and everything to do with the adult's anxiety for them. Able young people are turned into pacified infants, those that challenge convention (reasonably) are lumped in with the criminals, those who behave differently are pathologized.

The problem here is, how do we raise a child to the "full maturation of their faculties" to grow up and participate in the liberal society when we keep them from doing that very thing for their own safety and our own "peace of mind?"

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Dads Photographing their Kids

You're a father of two children and decide to take them to the park for a family day out, and as you watch your children play on the inflatable slide, you decide to take some pictures of them enjoying themselves. It isn't long before you're stopped by some irate women demanding why you're taking pictures of kids in the park. You insist you're only interested in taking pictures of your own, and a park official gets involved. The women call you a pervert and continue ignoring what you say and claiming that you're just going to put the pictures on the internet. Meanwhile, your kids are left baffled atop the slide wondering what's going on.

This is the state of the UK these days, a society on the verge of, and in need of a serious wake up call. It's hard to overstate the paranoia over children in the UK, because not a week goes by where something doesn't land in the paper critical of the bizarre and sometimes downright insane hysteria afflicting its law enforcement, its government, and a very vocal minority of it's citizens. In this story, even the police agreed with the father and allowed him to continue his legal behavior at the dismay and shock of all those attempting to stop him. Even the park official backed off once she'd seen that he was indeed telling the truth, so the outrage here (for once) doesn't involve what actually happened as much as it involves why it happened.

The argument could easily be that hindsight is 20/20, and that there's no way of knowing beforehand what some guy with a camera is doing, but it shouldn't make a difference. It is legal to take pictures of anything on public ground. And if they were concerned that much, just having the park official ask and perhaps review his shots is enough of an intrusion (which is all the police and the park official did in this case). You don't have to stand there and fight with him and call him a pervert, or steal his camera and smash it (which didn't happen, but I wouldn't put it past them), or stand around shouting "pervert!" to alarm everyone.
‘This parental paranoia is getting completely out of hand. I was so shocked. One of the police officers told me that it was just the way society is these days. He agreed with me that it was madness.’‘
People react to the obvious non-threatening situations like these because they are oblivious to the truly harmful things around them. The truly harmful thing here is that actual kids are growing up in a harsh world that is created by adults for their own protection. This is not a protection meant for "actual kids" (as in, the two kids on the slide), but one meant for the protection of the adult's perception of "children": children are helpless, strangers are dangerous, anything is justifiable so long as perceived harms are thwarted and those that are perceived as helpless are percieved as "saved." As you can see, little of it has to do with protecting actual children from actual harms.

In a world where most child predation happens in the home, between relatives and associates the parents trust, people pay a whole lot of attention to this "stranger danger" phenomenon than it actually deserves. But what else is new? People are scared of things they don't know--things they know to be harmless, as far as they are concerned, are harmless (even if they're not). All a child predator would need to do, knowing this, is gain the trust of a parent, and then it seems they'd have free reign.

But we can't blame parents for this. Parents are made to feel, in such a society, constantly intimidated for bringing their children with them anywhere, they're alienated from their parent responsibility and served with all kinds of needless "safety devices" (tags, microchips, leashes, content locks) that promise to do the work of parenting for them, and then called "perverts" when they try to do anything with their kids in public. With all this hysteria, it's amazing most people out there seem to agree that it has gone too far.