Reining in (too far) the sexual revolution
By Ellen Goodman
MAKING TEENAGE FONDLING A CRIME NOW A COURT CASE
Some years ago, Rolling Stone magazine published a survey on the attitudes of baby-boomer parents. The gist of it was that the people who had gone through the sexual revolution did everything, regretted nothing, and wanted their children to do none of it.
This didn't surprise me. Nothing changes your perspective as much as becoming a parent, and the first order of child-raising is protection. I remember Hillary Clinton's wry sexual advice back when she was first lady and the mother of a teenager: "My theory is don't do it before you're 21, and then don't tell me about it."
Today parents of teens, boomers and Gen-Xers alike are often whiplashed by the culture. With one eye, they watch the media sexualizing younger and younger children. With the other, they read the blinking warning signals of danger, from pregnancy to disease to AIDS.
In the midst of this, the loudest promises of protection have come from those pushing an abstinence-only education for schoolchildren that, in effect, is fear-of-sex education. And now we have another product from the protection racketeers: the notion that any and all sexual activity by teenagers should be treated as sexual abuse.
Welcome, Auntie Em, to Kansas.
As I write this, the citizens of the prototypically red state are awaiting a judge's verdict on one of the more bizarre cases to make its R-rated way into the public eye.
Kansas is one of 12 states in which underage sex — under 16 in this case — is a crime even when it involves teenage peers. In 2003, state Attorney General Phill Kline, a grandstanding pro-lifer, interpreted that law to require doctors, educators, counselors and healthcare workers to report virtually all sexual activity by those under 16 to the state.
The Kline Theory goes something like this: If sexual activity between teens is illegal, there's no such thing as consensual sex, and thus every act is harmful. These acts, by the way, include "any lewd fondling or touching of the person ... with the intent to arouse or satisfy the sexual desires." In short, healthcare workers have to rat on 15-year-old sexual criminals who are lustily and mutually "abusing" each other in the back seat of a Toyota.
The healthcare workers sued, and the recent trial produced some pretty odd exchanges. When lawyer Bonnie Scott Jones of the Center for Reproductive Rights put Kline on the stand, she asked if anything beyond kissing was acceptable. Is oral sex performed by a boy a reportable crime? Yes, said Kline. Oral sex performed by a girl? "I'm not certain," he said.
There was also the testimony of Dr. Elizabeth Shadigian, best known as a stalwart of the abortion-gives-you-breast-cancer misinformation campaign. She said that teenage girls are always the victims of sexual activity because "there's always a power differential between a boy and a girl." When girls have sex, they aren't doing, she said, "they have been done to."
Frankly, I hadn't heard this argument since the late Andrea Dworkin maintained that all intercourse was rape. Radical feminism meets the radical right in the Puritan revival.
I assume that Kline's real purpose in mandating reports is to scare teens away from birth control and abortion clinics. If Kansas actually believed that all under-16 sex was harmful, why would it allow 13-year-olds to marry? But the most sensible remark came from the exasperated judge, J. Thomas Marten, who insistently asked the state: "Where is the clear credible evidence that underage sex is always injurious?"
This is what passes for a radical question these days. In defense against a culture that is sexually provocative, the dominant messages are sexually overprotective: They run the gamut from "just say no" to "just say not now." The focus today is on unhealthy sexual activity. It's become virtually taboo to even ask: What is healthy sexual activity for a teenager?
In Kansas, instead of homing in on real sexual abuse of children, they are redefining all underage sex as abuse. As for the notion that girls are invariably victims of sex, unable to consent to "lewd fondling": Do we want to return to those wonderful yesteryears when women were supposed to be sexually inert until their wedding night when they magically became eager sexual partners?
Phill Kline has produced the "Reefer Madness" of teenage sexuality. I can only hope that the judge overturns the idea that health workers and educators have to report petting as if it were pedophilia.
In the meantime, worried parents need to explore what we wish as well as what we fear for our children. We need guides as we navigate the tricky shoals of adolescent sexuality between panic and protection. Let's begin with the simple edict: We're not in Kansas anymore.