Adulthood is the ever-shrinking period between childhood and old age. It is the apparent aim of modern industrial societies to reduce this period to a minimum. - Thomas Szasz
A few months ago, when Amsterdam raised the legal age for prostitution from 18 to 21, one sex worker commented that this was a good idea because a woman of 18 is “still a child”. Now, I’m not going to rehash the obvious arguments which made the rounds when the prohibitionist fad of raising the legal drinking age to 21 seized America like some kind of suicidal mania; nor will I point out that any sane and reasonable person must recognize that selecting leaders, driving a car, getting married and joining the military all have more serious effects on both the individual and society as a whole than the specific reasons one might choose to have sex; nor explain that narrowing a legal bottleneck invariably results in more people doing whatever-it-is illegally (except insofar as I just mentioned them). Instead, I’d like to briefly consider this bizarre legal fiction that a person capable of reproduction can nonetheless be a “child” in any meaningful way, and to wonder how far this trend can go before it collapses into complete absurdity.
The delusion that some adults are actually children is a fairly recent one, dating back only to late 19th century. In “The Shape of the Spoon” I quoted psychologist Robert Epstein on why it’s so spectacularly stupid and destructive:
…the whole culture collaborates in artificially extending childhood, primarily through the school system and restrictions on labor…This infantilization makes many young people angry or depressed…we have completely isolated young people from adults and created a peer culture. We stick them in school and keep them from working in any meaningful way, and if they do something wrong we put them in a pen with other “children.” 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. Many cultures do not even have a term for adolescence…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things, can’t sign contracts, and they can’t do anything meaningful without parental permission—permission that can be withdrawn at any time…American teens are subjected to more than 10 times as many restrictions as mainstream adults, twice as many restrictions as active-duty U.S. Marines, and even twice as many as incarcerated felons…What’s more, since 1960, restrictions on teens have been accelerating…
I’m not saying that young people should be given adult responsibilities at about 13 as they once were, and I certainly don’t think Epstein is either; what I am saying is that referring to teenagers as “children” and pretending that label represents anything other than a legal fiction is not only counterproductive and generative of psychopathology, but also inevitably gives rise to the evil absurdities I regularly mock by comparing them to young Billy Batson turning instantly into a super-powered adult with the magic word “Shazam!” The idea that equal-to-four-year-olds suddenly become equal-to-forty-year-olds at a mystic ritual moment is idiotic in every respect, but nowhere is it more ridiculous 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…” That quote is from “Too Young To Know”, wherein I address the issue of prostitution by legal minors:
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…
But obviously the rulers of Amsterdam are far wiser than some sex-addled harlot, and obviously have some foolproof magical means of absolutely preventing women below 21 from working, just as they effectively stop every single “illegal” whore from doing so now.
Anyhow, is there actually any factual basis to the notion that some biological adults are somehow childlike in any way that could be reasonably declared a valid cause for restricting their rights to some degree? Well, kind of, but not in any sense where the numbers 18 or 21 would be significant. A lot of brain research suggests the frontal lobes aren’t fully mature until about 25, so maybe we should prohibit university-age people from voting, drinking, marrying or doing meaningful work (most especially enlisting in the military). But still other research suggests the brain isn’t fully mature until the 30s or even 40s, so perhaps we had better declare anyone below 40 “still a child”. Or maybe that should only apply to men; a recent highly-publicized “study” by television network Nickelodeon (which I’m sure was conducted with unimpeachably-rigorous scientific methodology) trumpeted that while women mature at 32, men don’t do so until 43. Obviously, we need to declare people younger than those ages “juveniles”, restrict their sexual and labor choices and try them in special juvenile courts.
The fact of the matter is, the brain keeps changing throughout life; while it’s getting more powerful in some respects it’s weakening in others, and any increase in maturity after 30 is offset by a loss of adaptability and plasticity. It is the height of fatuity to declare that the rights of some biological adults should be restricted due to incomplete brain development, because some fail to attain by 50 the cognitive abilities others have at 15. The only fair measure of adult competence is experience, and the only way to gain that experience is by doing; that cannot be accomplished in a playpen. Perhaps we need to return to the medieval practice of dividing growth into thirds: people are given some limited responsibilities at 7, assume self-governance at 14 and take on full citizenship at 21. But however we divide it, one thing is clear: only an imbecile equates a person of 16 with one of 12 or 6, and no law grounded in such imbecility is worthy of obedience or even serious consideration.