Friday, April 03, 2009

The legal assault on teens today.

One of the consequences of infantilizing teenagers is the current craziness of police arresting them as “sex offenders” because they are sexually active, in spite of moralistic legislation to the contrary. I’m not talking about rapists or teens attacking small children; I’m talking about teens doing what teens have done for generations.

Early in the last century an idea was popularized: teens were classified as “adolescents,” not as adults, as had previously been the case. As Dr. Robert Epstein has shown, in his convincing book, The Case Against Adolescence, the result of this infantilization has been almost wholly negative. We segmented teens away from adults, meaning their socialization into the adult world is delayed by years. This age compartmentalization continues until they graduate college, or graduate school. Often this results in physically mature adults acting emotionally like children much of the time. Since their socialization was continually in the hands of their peers they didn’t experience anything else.

In the past, many teens entered the workforce and quickly interacted with adults of all ages and ranks. Instead of being surrounded by their peers they were surrounded by experienced adults who were capable, through instruction and example, to show them how responsible, mature adults behave. It doesn’t take much reading of history to discover that teens of previous centuries, who accomplished great things, never realized they were supposed to act just like “big children.”

Consider the case of the great Revolutionary War hero and classical liberal, the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette, at 14, was engaged to his future wife, then 12. Two years later they married. As a wedding gift the 16-year-old was made a captain, and given command of a company in the Nailles Dragoons when he turned eighteen, a command he accepted. At about this time Lafayette also became a father. Instilled with a belief in radical liberalism, Lafayette recruited some friends and the band headed to the American colonies to help end the rule of the British monarchy. At 19 he was made a Major General by the American forces. Under today’s laws General Lafayette would have been arrested after his engagement as a sex offender, given the age of his wife.

For the record, Lafayette’s wife, Adrienne, was also a liberal and once wrote that she considered the term “fanatic for liberty” to be a compliment. When, some years later, her husband was captured in battle by the Austrians she travelled to Austria so she could be imprisoned with him, that lasted two years until his release. She remained with her husband until her death in 1807. Apparently she never realized she was a “victim” and her husband a “perpetrator.”

Certainly it was widely expected for millenniums, that teens would act like adults, not like children and most certainly, not like some half-adult, half-child. And, for the most part, they did. But American culture began changing that, and from America the new theory spread. Two forces, I believe, were responsible for the shift. First, trade unions were seeking excuses to limit the supply of workers to artificially drive up wages. Teens, who often worked for lower wages because they were initially less productive, were a prime target for exclusion.

Secondly, the government education system continued to expand. The increase in the number of teachers created a special interest group that had strong incentives to expand schooling as much as possible. Mandatory attendance laws were passed and applied to older and older children as time went by. Each expansion of the state education system only increased the lobby that was financially rewarded for expanding the system even further.

A third force also existed, but was mainly psychological. As the birth rate declined the numbers of children per family also declined. Parents became more reluctant to “let go” of the older child, especially if he/she were the only child. Previously, with large families, when the older child left to find his fortune, or to start his own family, his parents still had children at home to care for. The emotional stress of his departure was made easier because of this. But as the numbers of children declined the parental level of emotional investment in each remaining child escalated, making parents more and more reluctant to admit their children into adulthood. Today, with birth rates quite low, by historical levels, we now witness children continuing to remain with their parents, thus never quite achieving full adulthood themselves, into their twenties and thirties.

To complicate matters even further the physical age of sexual maturation has been declining. Puberty today, arrives earlier. As humans have become wealthier and healthier the body has responded by entering puberty earlier. What is physically normal for a 14-year-old today might well be normal for a 16-year-old a century or two ago.

Today, we have millions of sexually mature teens that are told that they must continue to behave as if they are prepubescent. In addition, our culture now delays their marriages as long as possible ,while our education system indoctrinates them with the idea that they must be sexually abstinent until they marry. Precisely at the time where their hormonal urges are highest, our culture is telling them to delay sexual activity for another decade or more! It is no surprise that a high percentage of teens simply aren’t going along with that idea.

At least in previous centuries sexually active teens could confine their activities to marriage, but that option is increasingly being denied them. Age of consent for marriage has escalated in the States, as the age of sexual maturity has declined. Socially sanctioned “sexual outlets” were increasingly closed to teens. At the same time adults “liberated” themselves from many of the sexual rules of the past. Few people today would condemn single adults for being sexually active. The teen of a century ago entered puberty later and married earlier. The period to which he was assigned to chastity was relatively short. Today the years of sexual frustration are maximized.

Even worse is what we did to teens in the legislative realm. A teen of a century ago would not be arrested as a sex offender for having consenting relations. While one was expected to be sexually chaste those who were not, while frowned upon, or perhaps even ostracized, were not incarcerated and punished for the rest of their natural life by a web of “sex offender” laws. The young couple caught in throes of passion might be pressured into marriage but not sent to prison. Even the shame of “pregnancy” brought on a period of exile after which the girl would return sans child, usually due to adoption.

Consider the reasons that teens have sex, something that most policy makers avoid doing. Most teens have sex for precisely the same reasons that all legal adults have sex. First, teens are sexually mature and get horny—just like adults. Adults, however, want to cling to the image of their “innocent baby” and often block out the realities that come with sexual maturity.

Studies of teens show that the reasons they give for being sexual are: sexual pleasure, intimacy, and social status. The social status issue caught my attention because of something Dr. Epstein said in his book.

Epstein noted that as our culture started treating teens like large children that teenage “angst” suddenly became a problem. It was pretty much unknown in previous generations. He argues that frustration over being treated like children is behind much of the “acting out” that we see. Teens want to be respected as their own persons, with their own minds, and their own ability to make decisions about their lives. Adults want them to act like adults but simultaneously want to treat them like children.

This reminds me of an incident that happened with a friend who was an unofficial Big Brother to a young teen. One Sunday they had lunch and went to film. They didn’t notice the time. That afternoon the teen wanted to leave a bit early to meet up with his father, who he rarely saw. To do that he had to catch a specific bus. But as they were heading for the bus stop the boy (around 14 at the time) realized he was an hour late and would now miss seeing his father. He was disappointed and angry about it and yelled at my friend: “You forgot to get me to the bus so I could see my father.”

My friend replied: “Yes, that is true. I did forgot. But so did you.”

The boy yelled, “Yea, but you’re the adult, not me.”

My friend said: “Have I ever treated you like a child?”

The boy thought about it for a second and sheepishly said, “No.”

“Do you want me to start?” asked my friend.

The boy’s response was instantly, “No” and his anger disappeared and he took responsibility for missing the bus himself. That was his first and only temper tantrum expressed toward my friend.

Consider the teen, with most the mental faculties of an adult (see Epstein’s research on the matter), who has the desires of an adult, but who is told that he/she is a child. Epstein says that there are two ways that “adolescents” in modern America can get treated like adults. One is to commit a crime; the other is to become sexually active.

Teens who want to be treated like adults are now “sheltered” from the job market, at least any full time job, by laws that create employment apartheid based on age. They can’t satisfy their yearning to adulthood through employment since our politicians closed that option to them. They have other ways of “being adults” and a lot of “social pressure” is actually pressure on the teens to act in ways that adults act. But the most responsible means of acting like an adult are closed to them. What they have left are crime, sex, smoking, drugs, and drinking.

If the “social status” that these teens are seeking, when they become sexually active, is being perceived as more adult-like by their peers, then we have an interesting conundrum for the moralists who have passed these laws. With teens unable to express their maturity in significant legal ways they seek less-than-legal means to do so. They are already sexually mature and have all the same sexual desires of an adult—scary as that may be to their parents. And they deeply desire to be seen as adults by their peers, even if they can’t get such recognition at home. One amazingly easy way to achieve that status with their peers is to become sexual active (this is more a male trait than a female one) and then brag about it. Other methods to show their maturity, such as finding a good job, are simply denied them.

With the hormones, the desires for sex, the desires for romantic intimacy, and the desire to be seen as adult, all in place at the same time, the impulse to become sexually active is enhanced. The very restrictions we put on teens, in order to force them to remain legal children, may play a significant factor in causing them to act like adults when it comes to their sex lives. Perhaps the best means of preventing teens from becoming sexually active too early is to treat them less like children and more like adults.

However, whether that is the case or not, one thing does remain clear. Whatever problems teens have because of being sexually active, criminalizing teen sexuality does not help. Turning teens in “sex offenders” for making out, having sex, photographing themselves, “sexting” and so forth, does not prevent teens from becoming sexually active. Nor does it make the lives of those who did become sexual, any easier. These laws only compound the problems that might be associated with teen sexuality. Turning these young adults into life-long criminals, with the albatross of “sex offender” around their neck, will not help anyone.

Such laws cannot be inspired by any concern or care for teens. These laws do not add one measure of protection to teens from unwanted sexual interactions. What these laws do is turn the backseat fumblings of teens on a date into a felony with a punishment that is cruel, unjust and unrelenting, punishment which will follow them until the day they die. In the name of morality and “protecting the children” we are cruelly and viciously destroying the lives of teenagers who acted no different than we did at their age, and no different than generations before us. Teenage sex may well be unwise but does it deserve the full wrath of the law?

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