Friday, March 28, 2008

What are we protecting them from?

We often hear that censorship is necessary to “protect the children”. There is a now a new law in Indiana which requires any bookstore, with any sort of material that the Puritans find sexual, to register with the state and pay a registration fee of $250. The idea of the registry is that the police can use the list to regularly monitor the stores.

This bipartisan legislation was justified as a means of regulating porn shops that have popped “up in rural areas along interstates”. The problem with that is that all existing porn shops are exempt from the legislation. Worse yet the legislation is so badly drafted that any book on sex qualifies a bookstore as an “adult” shop. Even sex education books or novels qualify.

Prof. Henry Karlson of Indiana University Law School says that the law defines something as sexually explicit if it is “harmful” to minors or “appeals to the prurient interest in sex of minors.” He notes: “The problem is, minors have an interest in sex, prurient or otherwise and how do you distinguish what is normal and what is prurient?”

A typical bookstore is going to have material that has sexual content. If a minor finds it sexually enticing then the store has to register. But if they register they get lumped in with all the porn shops. If they don’t register they can fined for violating the law. Booksellers are now deciding on whether to take the law to court. Of course, another strategy would be for all bookstores to register as a precaution. If every bookstore were on the list it would make the list basically worthless.

As silly as this law is it raises a question that I will ask, and no doubt be condemned for asking. Why do minors need protection from sexual material?

Studies of individuals who were real sex offenders showed that they were exposed to less erotica than most people and saw it for the first time later in life. People who were NOT sexual predators tended to see such material earlier in life and saw it more often.

Freud came up with a psychosexual development theory that said that there were five stages of sexual development. And during the latency period, about ages 3 to 12, sexual feelings are repressed and sublimated. That idea was pretty much blown out of the water. From very early in childhood humans have a sexually curious nature and they express that curiosity frequently in sex play. The idea of latency inspired a lot of the logic behind “protect the children” theories. It was said that exposing children to sexual material would suddenly awaken them to their innate sexuality and the latency would end prematurely.

Of course, if there is no latency period, if Freud were wrong, then the matter has to be reappraised.

The big fallacy in this censorship campaign is that you don’t need sexual material to stimulate sexual feelings in human beings. The censors have it completely backwards. Erotic material is produced because people are sexually interested. People are not sexual because of erotica.

The source of sexual interest, prurient or natural, comes from within. Shocking as it might be, humans are hardwired for sex. They are given bodies that respond to sexual stimulation and touch. They are given minds and desires that cause them to seek it out. This interest does not begin at puberty. The deluge of hormones intensifies sexual interests that were always present. Long before puberty humans engage in sexual play with themselves and with others -- mostly their own age. The ability to experience orgasm exists long before puberty starts -- probably from birth.

In most of human history the young were regularly exposed to sexually explicit conduct. We evolved as an agricultural species with barnyards. At one time the Puritans referred to human sexual activity as “barnyard practices.” The reason for that is obvious. Animals copulate and do it right in front of God and the world. When our species was agricultural all children saw sexual conduct among animals on a regular basis.

But they were also exposed to human sexual activity. Separate bedrooms are a modern luxury. It was not present for most people throughout most of our species’ evolution. It was typical for children and parents to share one room which served as kitchen, living room and bedroom. In addition it was not uncommon for children to share the same bed as their parents. They were exposed to nudity on a regular basis and when their parents had intercourse it was usually done a few feet from the children. Kids didn’t accidentally walk in on their parents having sex. They were always there.

Until the mid to late 1800s it was not uncommon for youngsters to marry and have children of their own. Such marriages could take place before they entered their teens. But certainly marriage at 13 or 14 was not uncommon. What this means is that during most of human history the “kids” we are protecting from sexual material were allowed to be sexually active. and were. Only in our more recent history did this change. We are the exception.

In medieval England the age of consent for girls was 12. And in the United States, prior to the Progressive Era, many states had no legislation on the matter and the common law age of consent prevailed. That was 10. California had an age of consent of 10 until 1889 when it was increased to 14. In 1897 they raised it again, to 16 and then in 1913 they raised it again to 18.

The reality is that our sex laws have never been in tune with actual human sexual practices. We have laws which classify as “sexual offenders” teens caught having sex with other teens. Potentially a third to half of all teenagers in America are sex offenders. If the police ever prosecuted all the teens, who are legally defined as sex offenders, those laws would be repealed overnight.

By the time American young people reach 19 years of age about 70% of them have had sexual intercourse. One in seven have done so by age 15.

With the internet any teen who wants to view sexually explicit material can do so within seconds at little or no cost. Polls of young people show that large numbers admit to having watched porn on-line. These surveys were done with parental consent so the young people knew their parents were aware they were taking the poll. I wonder what would have happened to responses if the kids polled knew they parents wouldn’t know about the survey. I suspect the numbers admitting to viewing porn would have been substantially higher. Young people who want to view sexual material can easily do so.

What poses a puzzle for the erotiphobic crowd is that while young people today are more exposed to pornography than ever, they are actually acting more responsibly than previous generations. Sex researcher David Finkelhor says: “There have been drops in crime, drops in teen pregnancy, increases in the number of kids who say they’re virgins, declines in various kinds of victimization and less running away.”

So while availability of erotica has increased young people have become more sexually responsible in recent years.

What exactly is supposed to happen to young people, who view erotica, that requires all this protection? They don’t need porn to become sexually aroused. It doesn’t compel them to go out raping one another. The reality is that most sexual material is used to help reduce sexual feelings that already exist, not to create feelings where they do not exist. If anything, porn discourages sexual activity for young people because it is a low cost substitute for intercourse.

A teenage male who is feeling sexually needy could go out seeking a live partner to help satisfy those urges. Or, he can view some pornography and satisfy himself. The first activity is more labor intensive and costly in all ways. The second is relatively easy. Perhaps one reason for the decline in teenage sexual activity in recent years is the wider access to porn among teens. That access means the low cost substitute is more readily available discouraging them from going on the prowl.

It is claimed that erotica “objectifies” women. Apparently males can’t be sex objects in this thinking. But this theory is really an idea from the feminist movement and they tend to ignore males in their theories, except to describe them negatively. The fact is that men and women are “sex objects” to one another because that is how we are built. We are visual creatures. Evolution has instilled certain triggers to sexual desire which are largely visual in nature. Both men and women can become sexually stimulated by how another person looks and this true regardless of the prevalence of pornography. That men are more visually stimulated than women is true which is why men are the main consumers of pornography.

Human sexuality, out of necessity, existed before the human brain developed. If our ancestors didn’t see one another as sex objects we wouldn’t exist today. It is unlikely that “consciousness raising” is ever going to extinguish that trait. Yet humans did evolve into a higher species with a wider range of emotions and with values. That someone becomes aroused sexually by the body or looks of another person does not make them incapable of romantic love or all the other values that civilized people tend to support. Many successful relationships started out purely because one of the partners was sexually attracted to the other. That they saw the other as a “sex object” is what brought them close enough in order to develop these “higher” emotions which can only develop through intimacy (and I use intimacy in a non sexual way here). Sexual desire brought about the intimacy which helped create the romantic inclinations and the cherishing of one another.

Does porn treat the participants, both men and women, as sex objects? Yes. It does so because men and women are sex objects to other men and women.

Banish all porn and men will still look at women as sex objects. Men don’t look at women as sex objects because they have seen porn -- this trait is true even among men who rarely, or never, have viewed porn. It’s natural. And most of us, under the right circumstances, enjoy being seen as a sex object. We want others to desire us. We may not want it on a 24-hour-per-day basis but we do want it and when we receive it we feel good about it. That it is sometimes unwelcome doesn’t mean that sexual objectification isn’t natural, normal and beneficial.

The justifications for protecting the young from erotica are often vague and imprecise. I have only discussed a couple of them. What is often missing from the debate is the real reason that many want to “protect” young people. It is the idea that sexuality is sinful, dirty, disgusting, evil, or immoral. I suspect this is the motivation behind many a crusade to “protect” people from sex. Our Christian heritage has left the Western world with a schizophrenic view of sexuality. It can be encapsulated this way: many people view sex as sinful and disgusting and therefor it should be reserved for marriage.

You can see it in the campaigns to force pregnant girls to carry the fetus to term or in campaigns to deny teens the use of contraceptives. The idea is that sexuality must be risky and that individuals who have sex deserve to be punished by the act itself. This phobia is present in the idea that the only justification for sexual expression is reproduction. That is the Vatican’s view in a nutshell: there is no justification in the sheer pleasure of the sexual act. Even conservative Protestants have unwittingly bought into that doctrine with their antigay marriage campaigns. They deny the validity of gay marriage because it is not reproductive -- that is a basic acceptance of the Catholic view that all sex must have the potential of creating life or it is sinful.

I am not convinced that “protecting” young people from sexuality material is a good thing. That is, I’m not sure it actually protects them. The harm of such exposure seems extremely limited. That young people today have unprecedented access to pron, without it apparently creating a social crisis, seems to indicates that censorship campaigns, no matter how well intentioned, don’t actually produce any good. And when you think about the stupid Indiana law you realize how out of touch the politicians are. I suggest that few young people in Indiana who view porn are heading down to the bookstores to do it. They can find it much more easily at home or from their friends.

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