Monday, September 21, 2009

Last Chance to Lose Control

One of the best articles on sex crime hysteria I've read (via Balko, of course).

The hysteria over sex doesn't exist in a vacuum, of course. Previous generations didn't have this hysteria because sex was hidden from view. We didn't allow ourselves to think of children as sexual beings, even though starting with puberty (about age 11 for most kids) that's exactly what they are. (And studies have even shown that even younger children have sexual thoughts.)

Now? There's been a growing movement since about the mid-60s to view sex positively. And there's been one hell of a backlash to said movement from the puritan Right. When the puritans started losing the battle against positive views of sexuality, they decided to embrace big government and attempt to force others to have their views on sex. In the conservative mind, adolescent sexual exploration is not a natural urge to be explained and guided by adults but a "sinful nature" (to invoke my least favorite philosopher of all time) to be controlled and subdued by adults. But that's not all - as the puritans lost the battle even more, they looked at the changing culture and concluded that more mature reactions to adolescent sexuality were destroying America. So why did the government get involved? Well, if people wouldn't adopt conservative views anymore, and liberal views were destroying American culture, conservative views had to be imposed. Hysteria over children's sexuality is a way of using government to convince kids that sex is evil and dirty and should be avoided at all costs, because in the conservative mindset, the stakes are too great to not invoke Big Government. It's a combination of cranky get-off-my-lawnism and apocalyptic nuttery - imagine if the old man became convinced that his house would blow up because kids kept cutting across his yard.

If anyone wonders why I tend to scoff at crisis/emergency language in political discussion, this is why. Such talk leads to destroyed lives.


Mike said...

Why does the government ever get involved? Easy - because somewhere along the line, people got uncreative, and started saying, "There oughta be a law", so laws were written, hastily, because the problem was clearly so URGENT that we couldn't take the time to pore over it and think of the consequences. (Remind anyone of a certain bill currently being debated, by which I mean anything but actually being debate, on Capitol Hill?)

Basically, I think somewhere we lost sight of the fact that the system was designed (rather brilliantly, I would argue) to make sure that the only laws that got through were carefully deliberated over. Oh well.

By the way, I love the phrase "get-off-my-lawnism".

Ben said...

I take it you're invoking the apostle Paul when you mention your least favorite philosopher of all time. If so, you and I need to get together for an hours-long philosophical discussion in a coffee shop. You're misconstruing Paul - and Christianity's (even the actual Puritans') - attitude toward sex. For months I've been writing (on and off) a post on what Christianity actually teaches about our desires, including sex. Hint: It's not that "sex is evil and dirty and should be avoided at all costs." If I ever get Internet back at home (see my Facebook page), I really should sit down and finish that post.

I don't think the tragedies created by these laws are the result of rising conservative religious nuttery (statutory rape laws, as far as I know, have been on the books for far longer than the Religious Right's rise in the early '80s). Nor do I think they result from the very idea that the government should be involved in social problems.

I see these tragedies as a result of unintended consequences and unwillingness to admit mistakes. First, Mike is right about passing laws in a hurry....there's not enough time to consider the consequences and mistakes happen. It's not a terrible idea to warn people that an actual sexual predator is living near them. And I seriously doubt the people that created the sex offender registry laws intended to apply them to teenagers who have sex with each other. But when those laws were passed, the sex offender registry laws crossed paths with outdated statutory rape laws and BINGO, they put the mark of Cain on teenagers who have sex with each other.

The other problem, as I see it, is an unwillingness to admit mistakes combined with the human tendancy to oversimplify. Nobody wants to admit these laws are screwed up. And, because we oversimplify and are willing to listen to politicians who oversimplify, anybody attempting to make logical changes to sex offender registry laws is accused of being "soft on crime" or worse "opposed to protecting our kids from predators."

By the way, pride that results in unwillingness to admit mistakes is also part of what Paul would call "sinful nature." So is the deception, and self-deception, that enables politicians to oversimplify to score cheap political points.

Mike said...

Ben, the problem isn't so much that Christianity teaches "sex is evil and dirty and should be avoided at all costs". I mean, clearly, any religion whose holy book has an entire chapter like "Song of Solomon" is not anti-sex. The trouble is more that even Christianity's positive view of sex (at least per my admittedly extremely limited understanding) is way more idealized than the reality. I think the problem is that the " view sex positively" is embracing a broader (probably much broader) positive outlook than most Puritans (or even most Christians) are willing or able to handle.

But I could be wrong. Either way, I'll look forward to reading your post should it ever occur.

Jeff said...

Ben, you're definitely right that there's an element of pride here. But I think that the fact that they're even being prosecuted at all speaks to a cultural phenomenon.

And I understand that Christianity itself doesn't teach that sex is dirty and evil. But there are a couple of things that we have to understand: 1) Conservative culture has most certainly denied the existence of healthy teenage sexuality, treating any sexual experimentation before marriage as corrupting and wrong; and 2) that's not really the point. Parents can teach their kids what they want, even if I don't agree with it. My point is that conservatives are watching the greater culture reject their view of sexuality and are fighting back against it. I think that the knee-jerk reaction of conservatives to suppress teenage sexuality has gotta be driving some of these prosecutions. Pandering to such knee-jerk reactions has gotta be driving some too.

Sure, the legislators who failed to account for unintended consequences aren't blameless, but you gotta think that without some pressure from conservatives against adolescent sexuality there'd be a whole lot more prosecutorial discretion being practiced.

Mike - yeah, pretty much, especially with regards to young, unmarried people, and especially young women. When a teenage character on the new HBO show Glee proclaimed the somewhat obvious fact that "women want sex just as much as men do," the right went absolutely apeshit...

Oh, and Ben, looking forward to a Paul discussion w/you. I think a lot of my issues with Paul might be more with how he's seemingly elevated to demigod status by a lot of Christians as opposed to being treated as another philosopher a la Augustine, Aquinas, Niebuhr, etc...

Mike said...

Hmm, so "women want sex just as much as men do", huh? I'm afraid I have to offer my own life experience as a rather poignant and tragic counterexample. :-P

Ben said...

I'd be curious to see the conservative response to that Glee quote. I'm unfamiliar with the quote, the reaction or....well, really, the show. I don't get HBO and I don't watch a whole lot of TV these days. Especially now that I've got no working cable.

Don't get me wrong - unsurprisingly, I'm far more conservative than you two regarding morality and sex. Like those conservatives you decry, I do believe sex outside of marriage is wrong, period. And I don't think unmarried teenagers having sex is "healthy." What's lost in the common characterization of cultural conservatives is that such a stand is a far cry from "sex is evil and dirty and should be avoided at all costs." But that's the subject for another post. In fact, it is - in part - the subject of my long-dormant blog post.

The difference between me and the conservatives you decry in your post is that I don't believe my moral values should always to law....precisely because of the unintended consequences. To reach that conclusion, I draw on Christian philosophers like Niebuhr and Aquinas. (Paul didn't have a lot to say about what government policy should be. But in his time, Christians had absolutely zero government power, so it wasn't high on his list of concerns.)

Anyways, I've unintentionally hijacked this discussion to some extent. Back to the original point: Sex Offender Registry Laws + Statutory Rape Laws = Ruined Lives. And we should all agitate for that to be changed.