What has happened? Some people believe that children are much more victimized today than ever before. That belief may be just an artifact of media and technology.
Unfortunately, physical and sexual abuse of children has always occurred in large societies and probably always will. In modern times (i.e., since the beginning of the industrial revolution in the 19th Century at least, if not longer) society has responded as necessary with strong laws against such abuse. The difference well may be that before the last quarter of the 20th Century, abuse of this nature occurred "under the radar" of the society at large, and when it did happen, it was dealt with locally, without the need to inform -- and alarm -- those outside the family or neighborhood that was affected. Instantaneous, worldwide media and communication brings sensational stories "above the radar", and those who have "smelled the coffee" grab such stories, the more sensational the better, and milk them for all they're worth. Quite literally -- for all they're worth. There is no altruism here, at least at the top of the pyramid (radio shock jocks, noisy politicians, 24/7 cable channels that have to fill their programming day to keep their sponsors happy). Meanwhile, social scientists looking for a rational truth that may or may not be underneath the wreckage are being systematically suppressed (Hunt, 1999). The open "code" and, often, the kiss of death for research that extreme moralists don't like is to label it "junk science".
Moralists and opportunists today, often for their own political or financial benefit, have hyped the myth that society never cared about these issues until now, that the problem needs to be ended now (an impossible goal, even if execution of perpetrators were the punishment), and that the only way to address the problem is to pass more laws, tougher laws, and even more, and even tougher, and so on. (When people with the power of media or the no-cost internet taste fame and/or fortune in promoting their cause, truth and balance go out the window, and there is never an end in sight.) These moralists often use the rhetoric of returning Britain (or America, or wherever) to the values of an earlier time -- without evidence that this earlier, better time ever existed. They shape their emotional arguments in such a way that those who control society's behavior -- judges, lawmakers, governors, presidents -- dare not question their demands, at risk of being labelled "soft on <insert the cause-of-the-day here>". The tricky thing is that the basic behavior of child abuse is reprehensible, and should be (and is) controlled, while the all-too-possible loss of basic civil rights that goes along with extremist agendas must be resisted, or the loss of rights will be extended to other disliked groups until it may be too late. Extreme moralists have learned this lesson well. A wise society stops them when they try to go beyond what is necessary for the healthy functioning of that society.
What other similar things have happened? Children have become the focus, even the obsession, of many people's lives in a way not seen in most of human history to the detriment, many feel, of children. As far back as 1928, psychologist John B. Watson warned of this developing trend, which he called "over-coddling" (Watson, 1928). He said, among other things, that "There are serious rocks ahead for the over-kissed child." Note that was over 80 years ago! More recently, journalist Martha Weinman Lear (1963) warned that "modern" parents were "making the child a new status symbol, and parenthood a competitive sport." That was nearly 50 years ago.
Another dangerous trend, probably due to heavy marketing more than anything else, is over-sanitizing (literally) the environment in which children are raised. Rather than go into detail on this one, let me suggest a simple Web search using the term "over-sanitizing", which will bring up scores of articles about how children who are raised in low-germ-count homes probably are not developing the robust immune systems that they would otherwise have. Believe it -- or not -- at your peril, or, more to the point, at your children's peril.
Over-sanitizing is a form of over-protection, and there are (too) many forms of that in society today. In most cases, over-protection means under-preparation for life. Again, because of vastly increased media coverage and, yes, marketing, parents are convinced that the "outside world" simply is too dangerous for their children to be left alone, and direct supervision -- at least by cell-phone if not in person -- is in their child's best interests. This is the classic "mother's apron strings" on steroids. When do kids have a chance to try their wings, if they are never let out of the nest? In the words of L.E. Clapp, Warden of Idaho's State Penitentiary in the 1950s, and later Idaho's Secretary of State, "You can't treat the kids like babies until they are eighteen, and expect them to be men and women overnight" (Gerassi, 1966, p.63).
Why are changes needed? This is quite simple.
What needs to NOT happen? No change should be made that in any way weakens the ability of the society to provide a safe environment for children. No system will ever be perfect; said differently, it is unfortunately impossible, especially in a society that has become as large as ours, to reach a point where every child is completely safe. What we need to do is scale back in areas where we've gone too far. Special interests will suffer, individuals and bureaucracies that have depended on the huge anti-child-abuse machine will lose their support. If done for the overall benefit of society, and without compromising any child's safety, it will be change that is well worth the effort.
What needs to change? Before noting my specific suggestions, let me say that the only thing that really must happen is a full and frank discussion of both sides, with full agreement that current policies and procedures are not the best we can come up with. I offer suggestions that may or may not solve any problems. Continuing as we are, with no real discussion at all, however, is a problem in itself.
Investigations and prosecutions need to be less public. Those who victimize children can still be punished, and should be, without the huge public outcry, assumption of trauma, and likely lifelong "memories" -- of events both real and imagined -- that now accompany virtually all such prosecutions.
Adults involved in crimes against children need to be regarded more as criminals (in the traditional sense) and less like unholy monsters. These crimes are horrible and vile to the public, but emotion must not give society the ability to deny civil rights and basic dignity just to attempt to appease its need for revenge. Most importantly, there must be a place and time where even these criminals can be said to have "paid their debt to society". Morrison's (2007) lengthy legal analysis of sex offender registry laws supports his conclusion that such laws do not effectively protect children. Under current laws requiring lifetime registration with full-disclosure posting on the internet, communities and retributive individuals are free to continue punishing people convicted of these crimes literally until they are dead. This, quite simply, is not acceptable in a truly civilized society. Any social/legal response that effectively removes any possibility of rehabilitation is counter-productive.
Who else believes this kind of change is necessary? First, let me point out that the people who believe the changes I'm proposing here are not appropriate are numerous, quite vocal, and easily found on the internet and elsewhere. They are generally emotional more than rational, often ultra-conservative, and usually not open to reasoned discussion of their "my way or the highway" positions. This fact alone should raise red flags among thinking people. Individuals unable to support their own positions in an open, fair debate may well be clinging to ideas that need close scrutiny and re-evaluation.
There are also people and organizations which advocate much more radical and liberal positions than the moderate and, I believe, necessary change that I'm proposing here. Even when I disagree, I respect the views of any organization or person at either extreme when those views are presented in a rational manner, based on scholarship where possible, and when the individuals who hold those views are open to honest and civil discussion of their positions.
Among those who, in my opinion, are advocating a reasoned, restrained and still child-safe position on these issues are Goodyear-Smith (1993), Levine (2002), Clancy (2009), and Skenazy (2009), (It is remarkable and significant that all these authors are women as are many, if not most, of the voices heard regularly on the Child Abuse Industry side. I believe it would be near-impossible for a man to write credibly and have his views accepted about these positions, but that is an issue for another time, another blog.) Note that by listing these people here, I am not saying they specifically agree with my positions and specific suggestions, only that they have expressed similar concerns about the likelihood that society has gone too far in its obsession about protecting children.
I wrote about the need for a balanced approach 20 years ago (Jones, 1991) in an article that was both criticized and praised by scholars and other commentators. That was too early. The formation of the Child Abuse Industry and society's reactionary rage still had a ways to go. The time for readjustment of these attitudes has come, or will come soon We must be willing to back away from unrealistic and unreasonable extremes and to reject the emotional arguments of those who fear they might lose their easy fame and illusory power.
[NOTE: ISBN is the International Standard Book Number; LOC is the (United States) Library of Congress catalog number.]
© Gerald Jones, Ph.D. [firstname.lastname@example.org]