I’ve just returned from Phoenix, where I gave a 10-hour seminar to therapists on supporting healthy childhood and adolescent sexuality.
Arizona has the fourth-highest teen pregnancy rate in the US. Nevertheless, school districts are NOT required to provide sex education. If a school does include a sex education curriculum, a parent has to give affirmative consent for their kid to go to class. Parents don’t opt their kids OUT of sex ed class; they have to opt their kids IN, or they can’t go.
And while the Arizona legislature leaves it to individual school districts to decide whether to offer sex ed class, it does dictate what those classes must emphasize: abstinence from sex. And heterosexuality: they are not allowed to mention homosexuality as a “viable lifestyle option.”
If that’s what sex ed is in Arizona, your kid might be better off if you DIDN’T send him/her to class. At least they wouldn’t be told by teachers and curricula that non-marital sex leads to physical and mental problems, and that male lust must be controlled by females, who are supposedly unburdened by erotic feelings.
Arizona was recently in the news for something even worse than that. The legislature passed a law criminalizing ANY intentional adult touching of the genitalia, anus, or female breast of anyone 15 and younger. That’s right—changing a baby’s diaper; examining your kid’s rash or sports injury; helping your daughter fit a bra or bathing suit—all were criminalized in Arizona.
The purported goal: protecting children, of course. From molestation or abuse.
And yet the legislature didn’t specify that these behaviors were illegal only when done with sexual intent. And so people were arrested and prosecuted.
A swim coach was arrested. A grandfather was arrested. When these cases went to jury, the defendants wanted the State to prove that their offense had had sexual intent, but the State pointed to the statute, which specifically left that out.
After conviction, one of these cases went to the Arizona Supreme Court. It could have fixed the law by requiring the State to prove sexual intent. But in a bitterly split decision, it upheld the conviction. The Court said the defendant had to prove his behavior had no sexual intent, which of course is impossible. And, one, would think, an unconstitutional (not to mention unreasonable and bizarre) burden on anyone who is supposed to be innocent until proven guilty.
Ten years in prison. Supervised probation and registered sex offender after that.
Finally, this month federal judge Neil Wake ruled the law an unconstitutional violation of our 14th Amendment due process rights, as well as an unacceptable intrusion on parents’ rights to care for their children. It’s one of the grandest principles of American law: if you’re accused of a crime, the government has to prove you guilty, rather than you having to prove your innocence. The Arizona law had turned that sacred principle upside down.
Why would a legislature, a prosecutor, and even a state supreme court throw away this astonishing protection, which most people in the history of the world have not had?
To protect the children, of course.
Is there no limit to American society’s obsession with adult-child sexual exploitation? How many innocent people is this country willing to harass, jail, and ruin in the quest to prove our disgust, to express our fear, to demand our revenge—and to talk endlessly about the subject?
Science has proven that extreme measures like these do NOT increase protection for children. Chatroom stings; Megan’s law; forcing sex offenders to live under freeway overpasses—these simply don’t protect anyone except those whose jobs depend on the continuing flood of federal money.
American society is committed to remaining ignorant about what really protects kids from sexual exploitation. And so is the field of psychotherapy and marriage counseling.
In our training programs, what do we learn about healthy childhood sexuality? Virtually nothing (give major credit to the Arizona Association of Marriage & Family Therapists, who brought me in to talk about this). Professional articles about it? Rare. Use of major fact-based resources like SIECUS, the Guttmacher Institute, or Planned Parenthood? Rare. No, clinical discussions of childhood sexuality are almost exclusively about damage, coercion, and their consequences.
Programs for parents on healthy childhood sexuality? Rare
And where are the voices of minor-attracted adults who never touch a child? Who are they, and what techniques do they use to stay “sober?” Why is the recidivism rate for sex offenders lower than for most other felonies? We could learn a lot from a better understanding of this.
And where is the professional dialog about the ethics of “treating” sex offenders with coercive (often religious) programs that, Catch-22 style, insist that inmates who maintain their innocence are showing they are failing at rehabilitation?
Criminalizing diaper-changing and swim lessons (e.g., Stephen May’s conviction and his 75-year prison sentence was just overturned) don’t protect children in Arizona or anywhere else. But they make good sound bites during elections, they make legislators feel effective, and they reassure parents that they’re doing SOMETHING. Whether the something that’s being done is good for kids or bad for everyone, almost no one seems to be care.