The rape convictions last Sunday of two teenagers in Steubenville, Ohio, the firing of CBC guest commentator professor Tom Flanagan for his comments on child pornography and the alleged grope of publisher and former Toronto mayoralty candidate Sarah Thomson’s bottom by Toronto Mayor Rob Ford share one thing. They are topics any sensible commentator must preface with ardent assurances that nothing with the possible exception of matricide could revolt more, and only abhorrence flourishes in the breast of the commentator who now feels compelled to address these matters. You have to say that or your licence as a pundit gets withdrawn amid truly vicious attacks.
In Steubenville, a bunch of high school teenagers got drunk at house parties and one of the girls ended up sans her clothes, of which there were not many to begin with, and no memory of how she got that way. This is a party ending that reminds me of my days living in Whitney Hall residence at the University of Toronto in the early ’60s, kitty-corner to the Zetes fraternity house, which specialized in drunken binges and the noisy smashing of bottles all weekend long. The girls wore more clothes, flip flops had not been popularized and, crucially, no such thing as cellphones and social media existed. But the end result looked much the same from my third-floor window.
The Steubenville boys behaved like many drunken 16-year-old males before them when faced with a 16-year-old female drunk as a skunk herself; in other words, they behaved appallingly. Next day, the girl couldn’t remember a thing except that she didn’t have sex as we once understood it. Teenage boys, often horrid beings, texted boastful messages about how “dead” the girl had been and one sent out cellphone photos of her naked. Three days later, the girl found herself the star of a particularly grubby online gossip session going viral.
In a normal society, the girl’s mother would have locked her up for a week and all boys present would have been suspended from school and their beloved football team. Instead we had a trial and media circus: two boys out of the many were declared juvenile delinquents guilty of rape (by inserting a finger in her vagina) with custodial sentences of a year each, one getting an extra year for distributing her photo. The boys go on a juvenile sex offender list. The girl could do with an alcohol abuse program while Steubenville clearly suffers from a shortage of parents in situ.
Turning to a local farce, I find it hard to envisage Sarah Thomson and Mayor Rob Ford addressing each other sexually. However, Ford allegedly had a lapse of incredibly bad taste and clasped the bottom of Ms. Thomson during a photo lineup at a party.This happened on the eve of International Women’s Day, which Ms. Thomson felt made it all the more degrading for her buttocks. Little matches the absurdity of this incident, but a close second would be the solemnity and chin-wagging of the CBC news panel who prefaced discussion with the usual disclaimer that this sort of behaviour was a “serious problem” and part of the spectrum of “sexual harassment,” a term invented in the 1970s that ought to have been strangled at birth.
Around 2002, publisher Thomson offered, using normal scatology, to “bed” my husband in return for him granting an interview to her newspaper. Though the proposition did not intrigue him, Conrad found it very enterprising and endorsed her for mayor in the last election. The same action that is generally welcome from a person you like is sexual harassment from one you don’t.
Professor Tom Flanagan’s valid observation to a group of students at the University of Lethbridge that criminalization of the private viewing of child pornography on home computers “is a real issue of personal liberty. To what extent [should] we put people in jail for doing something in which they do not harm another person?” was greeted with banshee shrieks. CBC News general manager Jennifer McGuire assured audiences that the CBC supported free speech and fired Flanagan. Alberta’s delicate Premier Alison Redford said the comments “turned my stomach.” I always thought rounding up people for what they privately watch on their computers was a stomach-churning breach of civil liberties far more damaging than the private contemplation of squalid pictures. The justification that without viewers there would be no market for child porn is accurate as far as it goes, which is about one millimetre. The same argument lurks behind the failed U.S. war on drugs and the failure of Prohibition. You cannot end a disease by arresting the infected.
Serious analysis such as professor Amy Adler’s “The Perverse Law of Child Pornography” in the Columbia Law Review suggests the unintended consequence of laws to protect children from sexual exploitation may be, contrarily, to promote their violation by a “dialectic of transgression and taboo.” The endless analysis of child pornography may do more to sexualize children than all the American Apparel ads end to end. Adler writes: “The legal tool . . . designed to liberate children from sexual abuse [constructs] a world in which we are enthralled—anguished, enticed, bombarded—by the spectacle of the sexual child.”
We have created an anything-goes sexual society: premarital relationships, same-sex and transgendered ones, teen contraception, abortions on government health plans without parental consent, a popular culture celebrating sado-masochism in books that have sold more than 60 million copies. No problem for me. But to compensate, we’ve hung our opprobrium on a few minor vices. Hence our grim, prune-faced horror if an adult privately views child pornography or pinches a bottom. This is low Victorianism: quietly murder your unborn child but put dust covers on your computer screen should a child’s photo arouse you. Beats me.
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