Teenagers are back in the headlines in America. Over the past couple of weeks we've witnessed three more suburban/rural school shootings, one of which was perpetrated by a student
. The biggest news, however, has been the ever-ballooning Mark Foley scandal.
As you'd expect, there has been no shortage of outrage amongst the moralists on both sides of the aisle. The Family Research Council issued the following statement
, the first half of which has predictably been echoed by Democrats
If our children aren't safe in the halls of Congress, where are they safe?
Both political parties need to be more serious about protecting children from sexual predators. We need public policy in our country that protects marriage, respects parental authority and aggressively polices boundaries around our children.
Strange, I don't see any FRC press on the safety of kids who are getting shot at school. With all this attention on Foley, he must have done some pretty heinous stuff. Well, let's see. It is now alleged that Foley had sex with a 21-year-old former page, which is of course not even close to illegal (I somehow doubt we'd have to look far to learn that some 50-something Congressmen have had sex with women half their age). But there is that tepid - I mean positively lurid - IM conversation with the former page.
To review: the FRC is arguing that to ensure that no Congressperson ever again engages in a mildly raunchy IM conversation with a kid who wasn't really into it but for some reason decided to play along, we'd better be sure to...bolster parental authority while...aggressively policing boundaries around our children? Wait a second: all this for some bad cybersex? What's going on here?
As I said, kids have been in the news a lot lately. But they're not all portrayed as passive victims of some ravenous predator. The New York Times reports that evangelical leaders "fear the loss of their teenagers." This ain't exactly news, but someone at the Times thought we should all be aware that Christian teenagers and their pastors
say they cannot compete against a pervasive culture of cynicism about religion, and the casual 'hooking up' approach to sex so pervasive on MTV, on Web sites for teenagers and in hip-hop, rap and rock music...They said they often felt alone in their struggles to live by their 'Biblical values' by avoiding casual sex, risqué music and videos, Internet pornography, alcohol and drugs.
At one meeting, youth ministry leader Ron Luce
led the crowd in an exercise in which they wrote on scraps of paper all the negative cultural influences, brand names, products and television shows that they planned to excise from their lives. Again they streamed down the aisles, this time to throw away the "cultural garbage."
Trash cans filled with folded pieces of paper on which the teenagers had scribbled things like Ryan Seacrest, Louis Vuitton, "Gilmore Girls," "Days of Our Lives," Iron Maiden, Harry Potter, "need for a boyfriend" and "my perfect teeth obsession." One had written in tiny letters: "fornication."
Some teenagers threw away cigarette lighters, brand-name sweatshirts, Mardi Gras beads and CDs, one titled "I'm a Hustla."
In short, pastors are finding that while their crusades against secular material culture may work on the pre-pubescents, they're having a lot more trouble keeping teenagers connected to the teachings of the church. The Internet and MTV, fashion and "fornication" all tempt teenagers to abandon their flock for the reckless, individualistic hedonism encouraged by secular culture. But as anyone who's been reading the news for the past few decades knows, moral panic is nothing new. And it's not just the churchgoing kids who are said to be at risk of spinning out of control - and out of the social fabric (although with this Foley scandal swinging into high gear, it's no wonder that today's youth aren't engaged in civic life. Or would we expect the opposite?).
Since the emergence of the teenager as linked to consumer culture in 1950s middle-class America, adolescence "has been both celebrated - as a time of innocence and idealism, a time when all life's choices can still be made - and condemned - as a time of anarchy and hysteria, irresponsibility and selfishness" (I don't have the full citation here but can attribute the quote to Simon Frith).
Adult anxieties surrounding teen independence speak to the relative freedom that young people have come to enjoy as consumers within market capitalism. KidsÂ ability to spend time and money in places of their choosing has contributed to a breakdown in the hegemony of adult-supervised space. Today, notes Amy Best in her study Prom Night, "schools have to compete against other leisure spaces (McDonald's, movies, shopping malls, video arcades, and dance clubs) organized within commodity culture" (134). Distanced from the gaze and control of adults, teens in market spaces are encouraged to act as subjects of their own desires in pursuit of personal gratification. In this context, the FRC's comments start to make a little more sense. Protecting children often has nothing to do with ensuring that kids are "safe" (which is itself a loaded term) and everything to do with bolstering adults' ability to regulate youth spaces and behaviors.
What better time to see Kirby Dick's This Film Is Not Yet Rated, a stunningly smart look at the Motion Picture Association of America's intensely secretive ratings board, instituted during the 1960s to protect the industry from political pressure in an era when creative content was becoming increasingly risqué. Of course, the censorsh-- er, ratings board -- operates under the guise of a benevolent guardian of the nation's youth whose primary task is to "advance cautionary warnings to parents so that parents c[an] make the decision about the moviegoing of their young children."
Dick interviews directors who describe their amazement at learning that initial cuts of their films were flagged with NC-17 ratings not for brutally graphic scenes in which women or queers are the object of extreme violence, but instead for scenes in which these same people are the subjects of sexual desire. Mary Harron, the brilliant director of American Psycho, asserts that the MPAA seems to believe that these sorts of depictions have the potential to pose a significant threat to our nation's social bonds. Indeed, it seems that for an organization like the MPAA, which is charged with "protecting" children and helping parents keep the social fabric strong, there is nothing scarier than portrayals of women experiencing sexual pleasure. Well, that and queer sex.
I'll come back to this later, but first let's pay a visit to The New York Times' David Brooks, who bolsters the FRC and MPAA with some much-needed support. Yes, it seems that Brooks, too, is outraged. You see, enlightened man that he is, Brooks attended the Vagina Monologues a few years back, only to find the audience roaring - roaring! - in approval of a story about a female secretary who has an affair with a thirteen-year-old girl. (I don't know if there's anything funnier than the mere idea of Brooks attending the Vagina Monologues, but it might be the thought of him seething and muttering under his breath, "Who's in charge here?!" as he is swallowed by a sea of women hooting and hollering at the onstage antics.)
How is it, Brooks wonders, that Foley is universally reviled (rightly, of course) for his explicit IMs with a page while women in the VM audience were cheering a far more abhorrent act of depravity (not only did the couple in the story have sex, but the older woman taught her charge "some new techniques" for masturbation)? Borrowing from k, I'd like to note that the characterization of "sexual predators" casts a woefully wide net, including everyone from those who sexually abuse children to those who engage in sex acts with willing participants who in some cases are not even below the law's arbitrary "age of consent" (in D.C., we're talking about "a person who has not yet attained the age of 16 years").
Brooks derides the code of "cosmopolitan culture" that says:
Behavior is not wrong if it feels good and doesn't hurt anybody else. Sex is not wrong so long as it is done by mutual consent.
By the rules of expressive individualism, Ensler's characters did nothing wrong. They performed an act that was mutually pleasurable and fulfilling.
Just so we're all on the same page here: It's the 21st century, it's the New York Times, it's... time to get upset about something that
a) "is done with mutual consent"
b) "feels good"
c) "was mutually pleasurable and fulfilling"
d) "doesn't hurt anybody else"
Are you with me and Brooksie (sorry, channeling Maureen Dowd)? Let's see how he wriggles his way out of complete I-know-what's-best-for-you-and-it's-not-feeling-good authoritarianism and brings us back to good ol' enlightened liberalism. Let it be said that I know and respect a lot of liberals who argue that we should think twice about our own pleasure when it may be connected to the suffering of others. But what's wrong with feeling good if it's at the expense of nobody else, Dave? Why are you aghast that the young girl in Ensler's story was taught to pleasure herself?
[W]hen an adult seduces a child, it tears the social fabric that joins all adults and all children. When a congressman flirts with a page, it tears the social trust that undergirds the entire page program. When an adult seduces a teenager, it ruptures the teenagers' bond with his family, and harms the bonds joining all families.
This older code emphasizes not so much individual exploration as social ecology. It's based on the idea that people are primarily shaped by the moral order around them, which is engraved upon their minds via a million events and habits. Individuals are not defined by their lifestyle preferences but by their social functions as parents, job-holders and citizens, and the way they contribute to the shared moral order.
In this view, the social fabric is a precious thing, always in danger. And what Foley, and the character in the Ensler play, did was wrong, consent or no consent, because of the effects on the wider ecology.
We're not just talking about sex here. We're talking about "a million events and habits" that "contribute to the shared moral order." The pursuit and practice of any individual pleasure that undermines any one of these million habits or roles is like taking a straight razor to our social fabric. In Brooks' world, it is incumbent upon us all to deny ourselves any pleasure that might disrupt the current social order (remind me again when we all signed up for that in the first place?). Remember, your life should never be about what you want - it's about who you are. You're a parent, an employee, a goddamn American! Whatever you're about to do for yourself, don't do it. Think of the children! Sit down. Get married. Fly and enjoy America's great destination spots.
Now I wonder why the women in the VM audience weren't as keen as Brooksie boy to judge the women in the story by their "social roles"? The "older code" has served women well for centuries, right? Well, why don't you ask the women who grew up under the boot of the patriarchal code that: requires them to think of a man's pleasure first and always; teaches that their bodies are shameful; values docility and servility; requires mothers to represent and uphold the values of society and the nation; asks that they continually sacrifice their own desires so that the next generation can be clothed by the very same social fabric which they are duty-bound to uphold. The list doesn't end there, but for brevity's sake let's let that suffice for now.
Now why would an audience full of women celebrate the sexual liberation of a teenage girl within the context of a consensual, mutually pleasurable and fulfilling lesbian relationship? Brooks is right - as are the FRC, the MPAA, and a whole host of others - when he worries that pleasure, consensual or not, has the potential to irreparably damage the current constitution of our society. I'm guessing that at least some of the women in that audience don't share these folks' devotion to the social bonds that hold our moral order together. Thank you, David Brooks, for reminding us that those who carry on about "protecting our children" from sex, popular culture, and themselves are usually more interested in preserving their place in the social order than freedom for all.