Most adults would not dream of belittling, humiliating, or bullying (verbally or physically) another adult. But many of the same adults think nothing of treating their adolescent child like a nonperson. - Laurence Steinberg
I’ve written before about the “Cult of the Child”, that strange Victorian belief system which has made a comeback in the past few decades and teaches that children exist in what cultists term “innocence”, a state of divine grace which can only be violated by direct or indirect action of adults. The die-hard child cultist imagines that if children (and their definition of that term extends far beyond that Nature uses) could somehow be kept from “bad influences”, they would be pure, asexual little angels until granted the right to be otherwise by the adults who
own take care of them. Furthermore, child cultists believe that the longer childhood is extended, the better; many parents are now working assiduously to carry it at least into college.
This is insanity; in pre-industrial cultures people assumed adult responsibilities as soon as they could, usually by about 14, and in those cultures there was no such thing as adolescent rebellion. Indeed, the concept of adolescence itself is a relatively modern one, dating to the establishment of compulsory education and child labor laws in the late 19th century. And though I don’t think anyone wants to see 8-year-olds working on assembly lines again, it isn’t necessary to restrict teenagers as we do in order to prevent that. Though these laws are intended to protect teenagers, there is considerable evidence they have the opposite effect; as psychologist Robert Epstein explains,
…infantilization makes many young people angry or depressed…In most nonindustrialized societies, young people are integrated into adult society as soon as they are capable, and there is no sign of teen turmoil…But [in the West] young people can’t own things, can’t sign contracts, and they can’t do anything meaningful without parental permission—permission that can be withdrawn at any time…They are restricted and infantilized to an extraordinary extent…American teens are subjected to more than 10 times as many restrictions as mainstream adults…and even twice as many as incarcerated felons…[there is] also…a correlation between infantilization and psychological dysfunction. The more young people are infantilized, the more psychopathology they show. What’s more, since 1960, restrictions on teens have been accelerating…
I’m not arguing that teens should be given adult responsibilities as soon as they hit puberty; modern culture is too complex for that now. But what I am saying is that Americans as a group suffer from the peculiar delusion that if a little of something is good, a LOT of it is better; if you believe that, how about a nice plate of salt for dinner? Some restrictions on teens are helpful to them, but equating them with toddlers helps no one, neither the teens nor the parents who are held legally liable if they are somehow unable to control young people who may be just as competent, intelligent, resourceful and strong-willed as they are. And nowhere is this more true than in the area of sex; it is the hormones of puberty that drive young people to have sex, not knowledge or culturally-induced “sexualization”, yet Americans are committed to the self-destructive delusion that if we keep teens in ignorance about sex they’ll stay “innocent” and never think of having it themselves (you know, in exactly the same way dogs, cats and other animals remain celibate for life unless humans teach them to have sex).
With rare exception, teen runaways leave home for a reason; they’re not lured away by “bad influences” or abducted by “traffickers”, but rather pushed away by factors such as physical or sexual abuse or parental rejection of their homosexuality or transsexuality. But because our laws define people under 18 as chattel, they can be arrested by cops and forced back into the situation from which they fled, or else sentenced to “child welfare” systems so horrible many of them return to the street as soon as possible. Child labor laws keep them from getting regular work (and such work would expose them to capture by police anyway), which leaves them with roughly three alternatives: theft, begging or prostitution; the latter is nearly always the easiest and most lucrative. The “trafficking” dogma is based in the “innocence” fallacy: the child cultists want to believe teenagers could never think of prostitution on their own, but this is total nonsense; teen runaways don’t need to be forced or indoctrinated into a form of exchange which predates the human species, and in fact (as revealed by a recent DoJ-funded study) 90% of them are not. Yet, nearly all current programs for dealing with teen prostitutes are based on exactly the opposite assumption, and if such a girl denies she has a “pimp” she is assumed to be lying.
Anyone who buys the “trafficking” narrative (or its underlying assumptions) might not understand why I was so critical of disguised prisons like “Freedom Place”, but even those who recognize it for what it is might rightly ask, “What’s the alternative?” Here are a few ideas that have been suggested by sociologists, human rights activists, sex worker rights activists and others who have looked at the issue from a harm reduction perspective rather than from a moralistic or legalistic agenda:
1) There is no material difference between sex for compensation and sex for social reasons except that those who fall into the latter are less likely to use condoms or good judgment. So, the state needs to pick an age of consent and stick to it, thus eliminating criminalization of motives for having sex. This is not to say that the state shouldn’t set some higher age at which a brothel or escort service can legally hire a girl, as long as the state recognizes that doing so means that the only sex work an underage teen can do will be on the street, and that the law isn’t going to stop her if that’s what she intends to do.
2) Stop pretending sex is some horrible, life-destroying thing; treat AoC violation like any other status offense such as underage drinking, and place the consequences equally on the minor and whoever assisted her. Furthermore, strict liability (i.e. penalties are inflicted even if the accused can convince a judge or jury he honestly didn’t know he was breaking a law) is an abomination no matter what the crime.
3) Stop pretending that people under 18 are “innocent children”; if the state intends to criminalize sex below a certain age, it needs to do so and eliminate the legal fiction that teens are literally unable to give consent. When a young adult is held responsible for violating a law (however arbitrary or unjust in her eyes) she can deal with the consequences, but pretending she’s a passive victim denies her agency and subjects her to indefinite confinement and open-ended, dishonest punishment.
4) Recognize that 90% of underage whores sell sex to survive, because laws prohibit their doing any other profitable work and applying to any standard job would expose them to arrest and return to whatever situation they’re running away from. They don’t hook because some “pimp” abducted them from their perfect, loving parents; they hook because they ran away from some awful situation and they’re hungry, cold and dirty. If the state really wants to reduce the number of runaways selling sex, it should establish (or allow charitable organizations to establish) drop-in shelters where runaways can come for food, a shower and a bed without fear of arrest. If you allow such shelters to confine the young people, or let even one cop ever walk through that door or hang around outside to harass them, the project is doomed.
5) If the state wants to reduce the number of runaways in the first place, it’s going to have to make it easier for minors to lodge civil complaints against parents for sex abuse and other serious mistreatment, seeking not criminal penalties but emancipation against parental approval; this should be granted not on factual findings, but on the basis of competency tests.
This isn’t a perfect world, and nobody is suggesting that any of these suggestions will create a Utopia in which no teen ever suffers or is exploited ever again. The philosophy of harm reduction is that rejecting compromise solutions because they “send a bad message” sacrifices real human lives on the altar of an unattainable perfection, and that the greatest good we can hope for is to establish policies which reduce the harm from people’s own (perhaps unwise) actions, and eliminate the harm inflicted by the brutal and mindless enforcement of ill-considered and moralistic laws.