Over the weekend, I participated in KinkForAll Washington DC, which was small but amazing. Without a doubt, this was the most controversial KinkForAll unconference we’ve held, because the original venue was going to be the Bethesda Chevy-Chase High School. The idea that we’d have an educational sexuality event at a high school instantly put many people on guard.
Quite a number of people who signed up to participate on the wiki page removed their names. Some also unsubscribed from the KinkForAll mailing list. A few even went so far as to accuse me, personally, of carelessly risking getting everyone involved registered as sex offenders. The amount of backlash coming from the alternative sexuality communities—groups of people who are supposedly sexually progressive—to the idea of being available to minors totally blew me away.
I was so surprised, saddened, and disappointed by the vehemence of the opposition from otherwise freedom-loving people that I resolved to use my presentation slot at KFADC to share my thoughts about youth sexuality. I video recorded the presentation I gave, which I titled, “Sexual Adultism: The tragedy of youth sexual oppression.” A full transcript as well as a downloadable copy of the presentation is below. Please help me spread awareness of this important issue by redistributing this presentation or sharing a link back to this page.
Download the presentation files here:
- Sexual Adultism keynote presentation as a ZIP archive
- Sexual Adultism presentation as a PDF document
- Sexual Adultism transcript in plain text
Anyway, for an event that was bad-mouthed, and suffered from incredible amounts of FUD, not to mention legal and political struggles, the unconference was surprisingly well-attended and extraordinarily vibrant. I counted just over 30 people by lunch time, and more showed up after the lunch break. I think I can safely say that about 50 people participated over the course of the day.
Even more heartwarming than the attendance numbers, numerous teenagers and some minors were present. The president of a local high school Gay Straight Alliance not only showed up, but also lead a discussion! One of the points she made was how vital the support of school administration is in running an effective GSA. She told story after story of unhelpful and helpful school Principles, teachers, and other adults. The overtones of adultism in the frustrating stories were unmistakeable.
My favorite part about KFADC was after the event itself, when a group of about 15 of us went for dinner at a nearby noodle restaurant. One man came up to me privately and said, “I just wanted to let you know that you changed my mind about the youth issue.”
“Really?” I asked, smiling.
“Yeah,” he explained. “I joined the KinkForAll mailing list and saw the arguments about minors and was just instantly put off. I started think that maybe this was a bad idea. But then, after listening to your presentation, I realized how stupid the fighting was.”
The ensuing conversation was the highlight of my day. Even if I only opened one person’s eyes about how damaging sexual adultism really is, then I think all of my efforts over the past few months was well worth it, because we have to start somewhere. Why not here?
Thank you all for coming to KinkForAll Washington DC. As some of you may already be aware, the original venue of this event were classrooms at the Bethesda Chevy-Chase High School. We’ve changed venues, however, due to pressure from the Montgomery County School Board, who cited fears that this event would attract sex offenders to the school grounds and thus put schoolchildren at risk. So, without some small effort, we moved.
If the fears of the school board were an isolated case, I probably wouldn’t be giving this talk. But the school board’s reactions to bar this unconference from happening in high school classrooms exemplify a nation-wide pandemic of a disease so insidious and so virulent that the numbers of people who are harmed or even killed by it is literally uncountable. The root of this disease is called adultism.
For those who are unaware of this phenomenon, indulge me in a brief digression to define the concept. Adam Fletcher, founder of The Freechild Project, defines adultism thusly:
Adultism is discrimination against young people. It happens anytime children or youth are ignored, silenced, neglected or punished because they are not adults. [...] adultism is part of the structure of society and its institutions, including families, schools, churches and the government. [...] adultism is expressed by treating the young person as weak, helpless and less intelligent than adults.
adultism refers to behaviors and attitudes based on the assumption that adults are better than young people, and entitled to act upon young people without their agreement. [...] As children, most young people are told what to eat, what to wear, when to go to bed, when they can talk, that they will go to school, which friends are okay, and when they are to be in the house.
If this were a description of the way a group of adults was treated, we would all agree that their oppression was almost total. However, for the most part, the adult world considers this treatment of young people as acceptable because we were treated in much the same way, and internalized the idea that ‘that’s the way you treat kids.’
Bell’s explanation continues,
The essence of adultism is disrespect of the young. Consider how the following comments are essentially disrespectful. What are the assumptions behind each of them? Do you remember having heard any of these as a younger person?
- “You’re so smart for fifteen!”
- “You are too old for that!” or “You’re not old enough!”
- “What do you know? You haven’t experienced anything!”
- “It’s just a stage. You’ll outgrow it.”
I can think of no function of society unhindered by adultism. In wishing to restrict high schoolers and other young people from participating in this event, where sexuality is discussed publicly and peer-to-peer education about sexuality is a driving goal, one is falling prey to adultism. This wish also highlights a secondary deeply-ingrained problem: sexual paranoia. No where are the symptoms of sexual paranoia more prevalent than when they intersect with the young.
The symptoms of sexual paranoia are unambiguous and unmistakable. They include spreading sexual misinformation, internalizing shame about sexuality, feeling afraid of sex and sexual expression, and ultimately desiring to promote censorship of all things sexuality-related as a form of so-called “protection.” Further, in the worst cases, it leads to agoraphobia and deaths, often by suicide.
Now, it’s important to mention that the people perpetuating the climate of fear around sexuality and youth truly believe they are protecting society in general and young people in specific. It’s admirable to want to protect our kids from pedophiles, our daughters from over pushy gray-raping boyfriends, and even ourselves from being registered as sex offenders for no good reason. Even if their actions are not rational, their fears are not imagined. But until we educate our children, our policy makers, and ourselves, we will all be forever doomed to live in fear–of the dirty old man down the street, of over-eager prosecutors and politicians, or even of our own bodies.
If you truly want to protect our children from sexual abuse, then education is far and away the best protection you can give them. And yet, sadly, even in otherwise unbiased communities, many people are extremely uncomfortable with the idea that young people might want to participate, almost always citing fears that access to sexuality information could be traumatic. Tragically, projecting such sexual paranoia onto young people is actually killing many of them.
Adultist sex-negativity is, of course, the intersection of two realms of fear-mongering: the sex is going to turn us all into sinners one, and the everything in the world is going to kill our children one. The effects of this pandemic fearfulness are devastating in the mainstream population but it’s even more devastating in minority and alternative sexuality communities. As Ramon Johnson points out in his article on LGBT suicide:
[LGBTQ] youth are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers, according to the Massachusetts 2006 Youth Risk Survey. A 2007 San Francisco State University Chavez Center Institute study shows that LGBT and questioning youth who come from a rejecting family are up to nine times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. And for every completed suicide by a young person, it is estimated that 100 to 200 attempts are made (2003 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey).
In society’s rush to protect our children from harmful sexuality, children’s own defense mechanisms have been damaged. As Erin Runnion, founder of The Joyful Child foundation, which aims to protect children against sexual molestation, says,Kids need their freedom. At some point they’re going to have to take care of themselves, so it’s better to start empowering them and giving them the confidence that they can handle that, and that they can handle their world, than to make them so afraid that it’s just an evil place.(Quote is at 19:57 in Episode 8, Season 6 of “Penn & Teller’s: Bullsh*t!”)
This misguided approach to protecting children from the dangers of the world simultaneously piles unreasonable expectations on parents, teachers, policy-makers, and law enforcement. In 2003, the Dallas Observer reported on the case of Jacqueline Mercado and her boyfriend, who were arrested and indicted for “sexual performance of a child” when they developed a photograph of their 1-year-old son breastfeeding from Jacqueline’s breast at a local drugstore. Child Protective Services took away their two children and ordered all kinds of onerous counseling and tests. To any reasonable person not infected by sexual paranoia, seeing a mother breastfeeding her child would not incite the kind of fear that it clearly did in the case of the this photo developer.
Stories like Jacqueline’s are not uncommon. A similar story appeared just a few months ago when a Wal-Mart employee in Arizona reported Mr. and Mrs. Demaree to the cops as sex offenders and child pornographers for attempting to develop photographs of their three daughters, each younger than 5, taking a bath. As a result, the three little girls were taken away from their parents for more than a month.
The drugstore and Wal-Mart employees in these cases, and the Montgomery County School Board in the case of ousting this event from school grounds, were probably all imagining the dirty old man down the street. But such unsavory characters are more often the stuff of nightmares than reality. In fact, according to the US Department of Justice’s statistical report entitled, Sexual Assault of Young Children as Reported to Law Enforcement, 14 year old teenagers are apparently the most sexually dangerous group in America. (Reference: Figure 6, pg 8 of US Department of Justice statistical report, “Sexual Assault of Young Children as Reported to Law Enforcement: Victim, Incident, and Offender Characteristics”.)
How can 14 year olds be the most likely group of American citizens to be child molesters and sex offenders? Well, according to a 2008 news article in the Seattle P-I, more than 3,500 teenagers and adolescents in the State of Washington averaging 14 years old have been charged and convicted as felony sex offenders since 1997.
In December of 2006, the Denver Post reported on a Utah court case in which two 13 year old heterosexual adolescents were convicted of sexually molesting each other. They, too, are now both registered sex offenders. This story showcases a horrible double-standard of youth sexuality: at 13, you’re too young to be capable of consenting to sex, but apparently you’re old enough to consciously decide to sexually molest someone else.
In Georgia, then-17 year old Wendy Whitaker became a registered sex offender for having consensual oral sex with a fellow high school classmate 3 weeks before his 16th birthday. Now a housewife, she filed a lawsuit against the state of Georgia that says, “The gravity of Whitaker’s offense ‘bears no reasonable relationship’ to the harshness of her penalty.”
There’s little about paranoia that can be reasonable. Whitaker’s case is interesting because had she committed her “crime” just three weeks later, her legal standing today would be dramatically different. It raises the question: is age a reasonable measure for determining the criminality of sexual activity? If so, at what age should sexual curiosity become criminal? At what age should it stop?
Unfortunately, today’s laws codify a supreme oversimplification of the issues at hand. Age itself is merely a number, and setting any age as the primary or sole determining factor of criminality reduces consent to a boolean value: either you can or you can’t. But we all know that the issue is much more complicated than that. While it’s appropriate for individuals and society to protect children, the societal fear of youth sexuality so tragically overshadows rational thinking in so many cases that the result isn’t protection, but censorship and a sexuality information deficit that causes terrible emotional damage to the very youth they claim to be protecting.
The more afraid we are, the more arbitrary rules–like age-based oversimplifications–we try to impose on each other. That’s not a solution–that’s unacceptable. Many people fail to understand this, possibly because of the prevalence of sexual paranoia.
Young or old, no one is safe from it. And in the last decade, the instances of the kinds of cases I mentioned earlier has not slowed. Even more frightening, the irrational age line is changing as panic over youth sexuality increases.
Also in December of 2006, a four year old boy in Waco, Texas was punished with an in-school suspension for hugging a teacher’s aide while boarding the school bus because the aide complained that he had brushed his face against her breast. Whether or not this toddler experienced sexual feelings is not the point; the point is that his expression of it is probably not malicious, and it was CERTAINLY not actually threatening to the teacher’s aide. And if you think this only happens in the Bible Belt, you’re sadly mistaken. In fact, during the school year of 2005-2006 right here in the State of Maryland, 28 kindergartners were suspended for sex offenses, including 15 for sexual harassment.
One writer who blogs at Classically Liberal crystalized what sexual paranoia is doing to our children today:
Once you reach a certain age, having sex with people your own age is normally not considered a crime. The explosion of “youthful sex offenders” is not the result of our kids becoming perverts. It is the result of the law criminalizing what is a normal part of growing up.”
Sexual paranoia incites people to act in paternalistic and contradictory ways. These young people are not the face of society’s worst criminals. Only a decade or so ago, doing what any one of these youth I just described did could very well have been YOU. In fact, if I had not been such an isolated child, it would have been me.
When I was an adolescent, it would have changed my life for the better to be able to be in a public, safe place where people discussed sexuality freely–a place like this event. But I never got that opportunity because places like this didn’t exist. Instead, to get information about sex, bisexuality, and everything else that sexuality was related to in my life–which, as a boy going through puberty, was a lot!–I hid behind the glow of my computer screen in a dark room.
In other words, I was a closeted teenager. I began masturbating at 9 years old, but I was in the closet about that until I turned 15, when I finally talked to a girl who would become my first girlfriend about it. By the way, she was 17, and we gave each other head lots of times. Should she, like Wendy Whitaker, be branded a criminal? In either case, I don’t think so.
Put simply, the closet is not a safe place to be. Whenever you’re afraid to reveal something about yourself, someone else can harm you by revealing that truth. Most teens and younger people, regardless of their sexual orientation, are closeted. They, like I before them, are afraid of discussing their sexuality openly and matter-of-factly. Youth keep any and all sexual activity or sexual curiosity hidden for fear of being punished for it.
In his 1999 talk, Censorship and the Fear of Sexuality, Dr. Marty Klein says:
Children know they’re sexual, so most conclude that they are bad. Unconsciously, kids fear being abandoned or destroyed because of their sexuality. This is not a metaphorical fear–for young children, 100% dependent on the caretaking and good will of their parents, it is a literal fear. In terror, kids learn to hide, deny, repress, and distort their sexuality.
When I was 10, my family got an America Online account. That’s when I discovered the Internet and, of course, pornographic websites. I was afraid to hit the “I am over 18 years of age” button when I wasn’t and yet I did so anyway. I wanted to learn about sexuality from people who were willing to talk about it with me, not engage in it with me.
The uncensored Internet was one of the tools that helped me come out of the closet, that helped me develop a healthy and respectful sexual understanding of myself and of others. It wasn’t the perfect tool, and so today I’m working on making it better, but I fully believe that I would have been a statistic in Ramon Johnson’s suicide article had it not been for the miniscule amount of information about sexuality that I found online.
Sadly, because of the social constructions of power with which sex and age are so inextricably intertwined, the people in power–the adults–often choose censorship to restrict the availability of sexuality information to young people instead of education, all under the guise of protection. But censorship and oppressive information restrictions are not protection, only education is. In the same 1999 talk, Dr. Klein said:
Talk of censorship typically leads to thoughts of “pornography.” But that’s only one aspect of sexual censorship. Other targets include sex education, contraceptive advertising, fiction, sex surveys, the Internet, and public nudity. The Color Purple, Our Bodies Ourselves, and Ms. Magazine, for example, have all been banned from various high school libraries in supposedly liberal California.
The fear of one’s own sexuality with which frightened parents routinely indoctrinate their children in a vicious cycle of adultism and sexual oppression, is far, far more damaging to most children than sex education, contraceptive advertising, or fiction could ever be. And yet it is those avenues of information, even when they’re not sexualized, that are often attacked by sexually paranoid parents and educators on a startlingly routine basis.
Earlier this month, Cory Doctorow’s first young adult novel, Little Brother, received criticism. Was it a badly written book? No. In an article on Locus Online, Cory Doctorow explains:
I didn’t expect[...]that I would receive a torrent of correspondence and entreaties from teachers, students, parents, and librarians who were angry, worried, or upset that Marcus [the main character] loses his virginity about two-thirds of the way through the book. [...T]he sex-scene in the book is anything but explicit. [...] There is no anatomy, no grunts or squeals, no smells or tastes. This isn’t there to titillate. It’s there because it makes plot-sense and story-sense and character-sense for these two characters to do this deed at this time.
I remain baffled by adults who object to the sex in this book. Not because it’s prudish to object, but because the off-camera sex occurs in the middle of a story that features rioting, graphic torture, and detailed instructions for successful truancy.
When I needed sexuality information as an adolescent my schools, my teachers, my parents, and even my trusted adult friends would not talk to me about it. I suspect they must have been afraid of the very things I sense some people who wish to restrict the access of minors to educational events like these KinkForAll unconferences are afraid of. Finding information about sexuality in public libraries and on the Internet very literally saved my young, questioning, and very isolated life. I don’t want any other young person to go through the isolation and uncertainty I felt about my own sexuality at that age. Do you?
It’s kind of amazing to me that so many people wish they had better information and guidance when they were young, but then they fail to provide it for the next generation. Information about sex and relationships is critical for young people if they are going to grow into sexually healthy and happy adults. Some people can find it on their own, but many people suffer from misinformation and misunderstandings that could have been helped by simply getting accurate information earlier on.
Young people today are in the closet because they are not treated equally, because too many adults think the phrase “freedom” and especially “sexual freedom” only apply when someone turns 16, or 18, or whatever the ages of consent or majority, which both vary wildly across regions of the world, happens to kick in.
In fact, developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik says that the younger children are, the more morally they tend to behave. (Skip to 57 seconds into the video.) Take, for example, the case of 10 year old Arkansas resident Will Phillips, who made national headlines a few weeks ago when he refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in school (you know, the one that endswith liberty and justice for all) until gay and lesbian people have equal rights to marry whomever they love, just as heterosexual people do.
Will recently appeared on CNN for an interview alongside his father, Jay Phillips. When asked if his son was prepared for the media attention, Mr. Phillips said his son saw it as an opportunity to raise awareness:He felt that just because he’s ten years old doesn’t mean he doesn’t have opinions, doesn’t mean he doesn’t have rights, and doesn’t mean he can’t make a difference.
So it seems to me that young people are often painfully aware of fundamental human rights and have an intellectual and moral capacity as keenly developed as any of the healthiest adults. I submit to you today that freedom is not something that we can put to a vote, nor is it something that someone should be made to wait 18 years for, because they should have it from the moment they enter into this world. And this is not a new idea.
The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights says (paraphrased):
Every man, woman, and child on Earth is born free and equal in dignity and rights. [...] Everyone is entitled to the rights set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights regardless of age[...]. You have the right to live in freedom and safety. Nobody has the right to treat you as their slave. The law is the same for everyone. You have the right to think what you want and say what you like, to organize peacefully, [and] to take part in your country’s political affairs. The society in which you live should help you to develop. Education should strive to promote peace and understanding among all people.
Here’s some food for thought: there’s a word for minors who are legally able to make their own choices. That word is ‘emancipated.’ In other words, most minors are not emancipated. This word might sound familiar, since it’s in the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed African-American slaves from the legal control of their owners across the United States. On that note, imagine what kind of priority adults might make education and childcare if school children could vote.
You might be thinking to yourself, ‘This is too much, too radical, too dangerous, too risky.’ Yes, it is a lot, it is radical, it is dangerous, and it is risky. But it is not merely possible, it is necessary. We will not have a world free of sexism, classism, racism, or religious persecution if we do not also empower our children to actually live a life of equal dignity and rights from the moment they join us here.
In order for our children and ourselves to live free of fear, we must eradicate this pandemic of sexual paranoia and its symptoms of sexual adultism. And we can, because there are enough people around who want to make the world a better place. You can be the cure this world needs.
On a blog post that I wrote while trying to come up with this presentation, one commenter said this:
Whenever I think about sex education and young people, I’m left with my persistent conviction that lack of real education about sex and relationships nearly got me raped at fourteen. This…leaves me rather emotional about the subject.
I’m typing this with my three month old daughter asleep in my lap.
This also leaves me rather emotional about the subject.
I need to know how to do for her better than was done for me.
With that in mind, I challenge you–each and every one of you listening to me speak, whether you’re hearing me in person today or you’re watching this presentation from a recording a month from now, a year from now, or a decade from now–I challenge you to take it upon yourself to be an educational hero and make accurate, rational, nonjudgmental sex education a real priority. You can do it by pressuring your school districts, politicians, and teachers to promote body-positive materials in classrooms. You can do it by sharing a link to a sex-positive article or posting a tweet about this talk. Help one person–just one person–to make something better for themselves than was done for you.
Thank you very much.