Sunday, March 05, 2006

When Sex, Liberalism, Parenting, Advertising, Law, Risk-Aversion and Puritanism collide

When both libertarian Mark Brady and progressive Anne Zook recommend a piece, it's worth a look.

In this case it's an anonymous attack on sex-offender law which makes a very strong case that we've panicked ourselves into a situation we would condemn if we were looking at it from anything like a rational position. Anne Zook's distinctions between crimes of action and crimes of thought, crimes of production and crimes of consumption, is a powerful one. So is her commentary on the role of media and advertising -- of culture -- in creating the situation.

I am torn, and without the time or energy to sort things out at the moment. As a parent, the impulse to destroy the lives of any who would threaten the well-being of the Little Anachronism (or any of the other children [or former children] who are in my life as friends and relatives) is one that, frankly, appeals to me. The liberal impulse (classical liberal, actually, which is something the libertarians will need to contend with) is to put the responsibility for preventing harm to citizens on the government, rather than making it a private affair, and our present cultural aversion to risk is very, very high ("zero-tolerance" being the operative buzzword in this, as in so many, situations).

As the original article points out, it's very, very hard to find even hard-core civil libertarians who will defend anyone accused of sexual offenses, and very hard for concrete research into currently criminalized sexualities and relationships to be published, for fear of the backlash (the article itself is anonymous, for that very reason). It's a Catch-22: you can't do research on whether these things are actually harmful or penalties effective because they're criminal; they're criminal because we have this intuitive reaction to penalize those things that we think are harmful, but we really don't know. And we will never know as long as the research remains off-limits, and the research remains off-limits as long as the criminalization and scapegoating continues.

Unfortunately, the blurring of lines that will come with real research into what does and does not do harm plays directly into the rationalizations of those who do harm. Ambiguity is part of the price we pay for clarity, ironically. The current "science" with regard to sex, sexuality, development and pathologies is pitiful, frankly; it's alchemy, and what we need is chemistry. But we've legislated alchemy...


Anonymous said...

Although not a parent, I'm entirely on your side about the need to fiercely protect the innocent and the vulnerable. I do have young nieces and the idea that some predator might hurt them...well, there aren't many lengths I wouldn't go to, to protect them.

But I think we have to look beyond the immediately personal, the kind of fear that leads to demonization. Partly because I think it dilutes the will and the attention that needs to be focused on actual criminals.

If we, as a society, would stop obsessing about and glorifying the sexual desirability of youth, maybe we'd find fewer people in our society being socialized and even "trained" to find young people sexual.

I'm not saying it's a clear-cut cause and effect. I'm just speculating that it seems to make sense.

Anne Zook

Ahistoricality said...

I agree, though I think you've hit on a long-term cultural dimension and I'm focused more on the short-term policy issues. I know we have to get past the personal and knee-jerk reactions, but it's important to acknowledge their strength (and provisional validity), too, so that we can make arguments that don't seem irrelevant to people.

As for "actual" criminals, I think the entire country needs a refresher course in statistics and risk analysis: requiring journalists to actually cite numbers (where numbers are available) in their reportage could go a long way to clarifying things.

Speaking of numbers, this post is attracting considerably more traffic from the search engines than usual... because "sex" is in the title! Tells you something, doesn't it?

L said...

In my short time here in left blogistan I've learned that the search engines love sex, (recently) dead people and fundamentalist preachers who manage to electrocute themselves in their own baptismals. The last category being a special subclass of recently dead people, of course.

I think this is part of an even bigger issue of how and why we (as a society) go off on these moral panics. Other examples would include the Satanic Ritual Abuse brouha in the 1980s, and the neverending "wars" on drugs and obesity. Certainly innumeracy plays a role, as does a moronic press, and the purposeful distortion of scientific and statistical evidence toward political ends.

But above all that, very few people are taught (or figure out) how to critically think about complex issues, especially those that carry a lot of emotional baggage. And I'm not sure how we get there, because critical thinking is just not something we value much in society as a whole anymore.

Anonymous said...

Anne Zook:
Although not a parent, I'm entirely on your side about the need to fiercely protect the innocent and the vulnerable. I do have young nieces and the idea that some predator might hurt them...well, there aren't many lengths I wouldn't go to, to protect them.

Well, yes. That urge to protect your family is part of what's being exploited here. But you also need to think about what it means to actually do that, to protect them. Jokes aside, you can't just lock them in their rooms until their 18 -- and if you look at the real statistics, the people most likely to abuse them are the people closest to them.

And then too, part of any witch-hunt is a purposeful blurring of distinctions. In this case, everything from mooning to rape gets lumped together as "sexual abuse", under the identical zero-tolerance-or-less policy. So, for example, the only way to deal with a 6-year old who's flashing his (or her) classmates becomes prosecuting the kid as a sex criminal!

And if the responsible teacher tries to handle it in any lesser, sane, fashion, they can be punished for "tolerance of sexual abuse". It quickly becomes impossible to make sensible policies, or to deal with the specifics of an incident. Let alone if you actually have a rogue teacher, cop or social worker on the scene!

Worse, the kids' consensual activities get thrown in the same bin -- but of course, if they're not 18, they can't actually "consent", can they? Not as far as the law's concerned, they can't. So, if a cop someday catches your 14-year old niece giving a blowjob to her boyfriend, then that cop "owns her ass", because he can arrest both of them, and stick them with the Scarlet Letter to boot. Never mind if she's supposed to be "the victim" -- if she doesn't want to cooperate, she's "interfering with a sexual abuse investigation", and the cops can keep "examining" and "interviewing" her, until she does or says whatever they want. (Another feature of witch-hunts is lowered standards of evidence, and "railroading" in general.) Now, what was it you wanted to protect her from again?

And then of course, there's the point that "a sexual abuser cannot be rehabilitated". That's not a statement about psychology, or correctional techniques -- we actually know a fair bit there. It's a statement of public policy. Once someone has been tarred as a "sex criminal", it doesn't matter how long they spend in jail, or what kind of therapy they've had. They can never be forgiven.

Even if they served their sentence with the best behavior, found God in jail, and also got raped every day for fifteen years straight, it's not enough -- they can never, ever, be allowed to rejoin society as a full member. And since there are no distinctions allowed among "sexual abuses", that all applies no matter what they did. Whether they flashed a 16-year-old, fondled a 6-year-old, raped a 10-year old, talked a 13-year-old into a blowjob, or got seduced by a 17-year old, they're "sexual abusers" forever, and the state will make sure that everyone in their neighborhood knows them by name, face, and Scarlet Letter.

And then, of course, comes the really nasty part.... When it's that easy to destroy someone's life, there will inevitably be people in power who use that against their enemies. Somebody's poking around your labor practices? Set them up with a "friendly" teenager. Somebody's in your way on the corporate ladder? Make an anonymous call to HR. Running for office against somebody who's got you beat on the issues? Start a whispering campaign about how they buried some half-told "incident", far enough back that they can't show evidence of innocence. The possibilities are endless....