Paramjit Singh was stopped at the Canadian border en route to his wife, Shinderpal, and their two children, who live in Ontario. Singh was arrested when border officials found a nude image of his son on his cell phone. Singh was sent back to California, where he resided, charged with smuggling child pornography. After receiving a call from Canadian Border Services explaining the situation Singh’s wife tried to explain the photos were harmless.
“I took some of those photos myself. It’s just part of our culture and there’s nothing unusual about it.” (Leung)
Shinderpal Singh’s Municipal Politician, Colleen Beaumier, asked the Canadian visa office to review the case.
The Singh family was later informed, via email, that criminal charges were not being pursued. However, the email went on to say that, “the images of the prepubescent infant by definition is child pornography under the Criminal Code”. But they did not believe that the pictures were meant for “sexual gratification”.
Singh was lucky. Throughout the eighties and nineties over zealous photo clerks were turning in parents for taking nude snapshots. Kmart sent police after David Urban for snapping pictures of his wife and 15-month old grandson taking a bath. Cynthia Stewart was arrested for taking a picture of her 8-year old daughter bathing. (A showerhead in the frame of the picture was deemed “over the line” since authorities somehow believed it implied masturbation.) And William Kelly was arrested for snapshots his two daughters (10 and under) took of each other nude. This kind of paranoia and abuse of power is beyond asinine—it’s simply horrendous.
Shortly after news of Singh’s story was published, I found myself having a heated discussion with several schoolmates. The discussion started in a classroom and spilled into the bus ride home.
I was appalled by the actions of law enforcement officers exercising the most literal interpretation of the law without a modicum of common sense. A female classmate was baffled by my position. She couldn’t understand why anyone would want to take a nude picture of their child, let a lone carry it with them, unless it was for sexually perverted reasons.
I began my rant expecting my classmates to be just as outraged as I was. For a moment I was flustered when I saw once friendly faces looking at me skeptically and critically. I collected my thoughts and began with an anecdote. Within my family there is a famous photo, dubbed, “Pee Pee at the Door”. The photo shows me as a child, sitting on a table, naked from the waist down. I remember, as I grew up, my parents, relatives and family-friends would pull out the picture to playfully tease and embarrass me. I never thought there was anything strange or unsettling about the photograph. And none of my relatives or family-friends thought there was anything queer about the existence of this picture. And yet, according to the law, that photograph would constitute child pornography and my father would invariable be considered a pedophile. This realization, and the story of Paramjit Singh troubled me. And this is not simply a matter of culture clash.
There is something profoundly wrong with North American society and our attitude towards kids and sexuality. The whole issue is a complicated mess. Kids emulate adults. Meanwhile adults emulate the behavior of kids—Women wear backpacks and clothing featuring Barbie and other childish cartoon characters. And, behind closed doors, women don Catholic schoolgirl uniforms for sexual roleplaying with their lovers. And there’s that Asian thing—men pine after Asian women hoping the popular belief proves to be true: all Asian women are submissive, obedient and docile.
Meanwhile sex is treated as some dirty thing we wish we didn’t enjoy. And we are so scared of exposing children to sexuality that we take an innocuous and clinical term like “penis” and infantilize it with a word like “pee pee”. Is the word penis so crude and dirty that it is only acceptably profane in adult conversation? It must be. Why else would we sanitize the word even further with “phallus”?
This essay will explore the hypocrisy, ambiguity and downright asinine facets of our attitudes towards youth and sexuality.
The Youngest Little Showgirl
In the mid 1990s, the unexplained death of JonBenét Ramsey dominated news headlines and revealed a hidden facet of North American society—child beauty pageants. Ramsey was famously shown on TV dressed as a cowgirl and Las Vegas showgirl—clad in high heels boots and heavy makeup. She was entered into dozens of beauty contests where she would sensually dance on stage for spectators and judges. She would regard the judges with a come hither look while singing to them sexy songs. She was six years old. (And some pageants feature babies barely able to crawl.) But in no way was she being sexualized! Oh no, this cannot be. What an unfathomable notion: a child preyed upon, not by some monster in a secluded motel room, but rather an audience room filled with spectators watching an event registered as a legitimate business.
Now, ten years later, the once obscene image of JonBenét Ramsey can be seen in preadolescent schoolgirls everywhere. Clothing stores show larger than life posters of little girls wearing clothing that hangs off of their underdeveloped bodies. They wear tank tops, designer shoes and makeup that would be characterized as sexy on a adult, but adorned by a child, we can’t say anything at all. We protest the sexualization of our children, and then throw up our hands in defeat. “I can’t stop them from wearing these clothes”, these parents would say, just as they hand the sales clerk their credit card.
While Singh was waiting to be cleared of child pornography charges, twenty-year old Stephen A. Marshall committed suicide after killing two people he found from a U.S. sex offenders list.
One of the victims was a man named William Elliott. He was listed in the registry for having sex with a 15-year old at the age of 20. The girl was less than a month away from the age of consent—it was surprisingly difficult to find that little but significant detail. Based on superficial observations (and a web search) many of the articles written about these killings didn’t bother to provide any details about the two men who died. Perhaps some journalists felt that by stating the nature of these “sex crimes” it would be seen as a defense for the pedophile.
The incident created a lot of talk on Internet discussion forums. Most of the messages were jubilant and praised the killer as some kind of hero—performing the executions the courts failed to dispense by default. On one discussion board a person wrote about how he didn’t shed any tears for the men killed by Marshall. His only concern was the possibility of mistaken identity—killing the wrong person. Law enforcement officials have echoed these sentiments. LAPD officer, Lloyd Martin, once said that pedophilia is “worse than homicide.”
Worse than homicide?
What about rape? What about the countless boys and girls who are beaten everyday by the people who are supposed to protect them? I can’t count how many times I have seen a child beaten in broad light, out in the open public, while everyone else goes on with their day without a care in the world. Children are beaten for not walking fast enough; talking too much, getting the wrong answer on their homework, and staying out too late. Children are beaten when they aren’t even old enough to do anything more than cry. It is so common for a parent to rattle their infant to death we have given this act a name—“shaken baby syndrome”. And parenting literature makes a point of saying, “don’t do that” as if this shouldn’t be obvious enough without instruction. But we don’t like calling it murder—it’s just some unfortunate incident—more unfortunate for the parent than it is for the damaged child.
Children are beaten because adults enjoy it, because it feels good (because they can). And this is perfectly reasonable in our society. We have some vague personal measuring stick for quantifying how much physical abuse is “too much”, because a little beating goes a long way in child rearing. But a 15-year old girl having sex with a 20-year old boy is a crime equal to murder and far greater than physical abuse.
The Elliot situation reminded me of an experience with an ex-girlfriend. I was sixteen. She told me she was fifteen, but then later revealed that she was fourteen. On our first date we went to see a movie. While making out she subtly suggested that we have sex in the movie theatre by saying “I want you to fuck me in this movie theatre.”
I was flustered. I didn’t know what to do. The proposition seemed insane and yet she was very serious. From her perspective the idea having sex in a movie theatre was no more incredible than kissing. Trying to find a compromise she suggested oral sex, but still I rejected her advances. I was very much attracted to her, but I was not as bold as she was. I was the youngest person she had dated at the time.
She quickly tired of me. She wanted someone more aggressive.
I was sixteen years old. She had just started high school. And based on the fuzzy logic that is the legal system, I was in a position to take advantage of her
There are many problems with statutory rape laws.
Statutory rape laws make broad generalizations about people based on their age. And they vary from country to country and even state-to-state in the U.S. What constitutes a crime in one state is just two kids having a good time in another state. How can something considered to be a clear cut and heinous crime have such convoluted laws within one country alone? And to make matters more complicated, homosexual sex is usually governed by different rules and parameters for consent. (There’s no reason for this other than: we don’t like gay people. So like, umm, you know… whatever.) Yet, in some U.S. states, one can circumvent statutory rape laws by simply getting married. The whole thing is so nonsensical I will need to lay it all out:
- Teenagers are not sexual beings. Even though adolescence is by definition: the beginning of sexual maturity.
- Teenagers dress in outfits typically worn by adults who wish to seem sexually provocative. But when a teenager wears these clothes it is for totally non-sexual reasons. They appreciate the clothing on a purely aesthetic and artistic level.
- Having sex with a person under the “age of consent” is morally reprehensible. (Depending on the “age of consent” in your community.)
- Having sex with a person under the age of consent is sort of okay if you are the same age (or just ever so slightly older) than the person you are having sex with.
- Men are strong. Girls are weak.
- Girls need to be protected from Men until they reach an age where this dynamic is more acceptable.
- Statutory rape laws exist to protect the young because they are easily confused and manipulated by the advances of mature and sophisticated adults.
- You can purchase Neil Strauss’ The Game so that you can learn how to more easily manipulate adult women.
- However, these morally reprehensible advances are nullified when marriage is introduced into the equation. (Depending on the laws of your community.)
- Moral reprehensibility is relative to where you live, your sexual orientation, and marital status. (The age of consent is typically higher for homosexual relations. Because you know, gay sex is like, umm… eww.)
- Teenagers shouldn’t have sex, but they do.
- Teenagers shouldn’t enjoy sex. Sex is bad. Nobody enjoys sex. It is merely a biological reproductive function. The pope says so—so it’s gotta be true. (And ecstasy is only a drug or a state of bliss from a vigorous run in the park.)
- The laws governing sex are very straightforward and reasonable (and they vary depending on what community you live in).
- Every time you masturbate… God kills a kitten.
On the Internet they were known as America’s Favorite Jailbait. In Rolling Stone magazine they were less crudely dubbed, “America’s favorite fantasy”. They are Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen. And the web site olsentwinscountdown.com displayed a running countdown to the Olsen’s twins eighteenth birthday—the day they would become legally consenting adults.
From the now defunct olsentwinscountdown.com website:
“Like many of you, I have watched the Olsen twins grow up before my very eyes. What were once adorable pre-pubescent girls on the hit series Full House are now the forbidden fruits of blossoming teenage sexuality. Countdown the days, with me, before these young women can be legally lusted after.”
But what’s bizarre is not the existence of the site itself, but rather, the implication that men across the country are having fantasies that, if acted out, would constitute statutory rape. This web site appeared to give men permission to masturbate to the image of these girls, and other girls like them. And the fact that such a site could exist without much condemnation would suggest that the idea of older men having sex with under aged girls is a mainstream fantasy. Yet, our simplistic notion of sexual predators, who act out what we fantasize about, is always in terms of them.
The olsentwinscountdown.com site has since spawned similar sites for adolescent stars such as Emma Watson of Harry Potter fame. But what’s even more interesting is the added layer of sexual taboo that is implied with the Rolling Stone magazine’s use of the word “fantasy”—alluding to the popular male fantasy of having a threesome with incestuous twin sisters.
Coors Beer capitalized on this fantasy with their “Here’s to twins” commercials featuring Diane and Elaine Klimaszewski.
There have been many stories dedicated to exploring the relationships between adults and minors. And the way these relationships are portrayed changes with the gender dynamic.
Consider the movie, Tadpole. Fifteen-year old Oscar Grubman is wise beyond his years and uninterested in the immature and unsophisticated women his own age. He falls in love with Eve, his forty-year old stepmother. Meanwhile Eve’s friend, Diane, pursues a sexual fling with Oscar.
Two women are positioned as potential love interests for a 15-year-old boy.
The movie is a comedy.
But this film is not a satire. The characters are not exaggerated. The story is not a morality tale. But reverse the genders and you would have people screaming “bloody murder” and “Please, please think of the children!”
In movies where older men have “special” relationships with teenaged girls, the subject matter is handled with care. The nature of these relationships is often ambiguous or platonic. But these relationships never begin as platonic. Instead, they begin with the suggestion of something sexual only to end with a moral message: Older men can be fatherly mentor figure for young girls. But don’t you dare you fuck them! Consider the promotional tagline for the movie My First Mister: “Mismatched. Misguided. Unmistakably friends.”
It’s as if the filmmakers were trying to avert a public outcry in advance by featuring the words “unmistakably friends”.
In Nick Hornby’s novel, A Long Way Down, our attitudes towards children and sexuality are more subtly shown. One of the story’s protagonists, Martin, is a disgraced television talk show host who went to jail for sleeping with a 15-year old girl. Hornby doesn’t characterize Martin as an unsavory fellow; rather, Martin’s just a guy down on his luck, wallowing in self-pity for the years he spent in prison.
The book is a comedy.
If Martin had been characterized as an actual rapist (because there is a difference) or if he was a murderer, this would not funny. However, the fact that he is a statutory rapist (who committed the crime under clichéd circumstances: not realizing the girl was under 18) makes him and his situation funny. Hornby is simply acknowledging something we already know to be true: when people go to jail for having sex with a 15-year old, it’s a joke.
Baby Girl / Big Daddy
It is interesting that we seem to be concerned about girls being taken advantaged of by men, yet traditional gender roles have men inherently in a position to dominate women. And after a century of feminism, women still endorse these roles. I can’t count how many times I have heard a woman stipulate that her “man” must be significantly taller than her (even if she is tall herself). And it is even more shocking to hear female fantasies involving a leisurely and pampered existence in which their “man” is the sole provider and decision maker. In this traditional arrangement, “the man” is a father figure and a lover. Hence expressions like, “who’s you daddy?”, “come to daddy”, “big daddy” and etc. How is a kept woman (or trophy wife) who receives an allowance well into adulthood any different than a 15-year old girl?
“When you look at mainstream culture, particularly at fashion models, you see the same thing — an interest in very young, beautiful women.” Barry Dank, professor of sociology at California State University.
Dr. Martin Gruendl of the University of Regensburg conducted a study on beauty and found that:
“For female faces, it could be shown that babyface attributes - such as large, round eyes, a large domed forehead and small, short nose and chin lead to a rise in attractiveness values. Only very few (9.5%) of the test subjects found the original adult faces most attractive. Most of the test subjects (90.5%) preferred faces with 10%-50% the proportions of the babyface scheme. This means: Even the most attractive female faces can become more attractive when their proportions are altered towards more babyfaceness.”
In the BBC documentary The Human Face, facial surgeon Stephen R. Marquardt explains that “there’s a certain window during our life for when we’re most attractive—particularly women—and that’s between the ages of 14 and 24. They start menstruating at 14, they’re ready to reproduce and that correlates and coincides with their highest window of attractiveness—physically, particularly facially.”
And then narrator, John Cleese says something very significant without realizing it—“It’s that ‘helpless look’ that makes babies attractive.”
Youthful features advertise sex. And sex advertises products. But we’re more comfortable with the idea of using sex as a means to sell things rather than “sex” advertising sexual availability.
“Please, please think of the children” has become a new genre of entertainment. When I last saw a “special” edition of NBC’s Dateline it was about protecting children from sexual predators on the Internet. The week before, CNN had dedicated some time to the dangers of the online gathering spot, MySpace. It seems like every few days there is someone on TV warning of the dangers of sexual predators and terrorists. This particular Dateline episode was a combination entrapment/sting operation in cooperation with an organization called Perverted Justice.
The organization entraps would-be statutory rapists through the use of their operatives—adult women, who look like teenagers. Now let’s stop and think about this for a moment. The Dateline special featured a 19-year old who said she could pass for a 13-year old. Does this girl have a boyfriend? If so, is this man a pedophile by default? Why not? There are laws banning virtual child porn. Virtual child porn can be a 19-year old girl posing as a 13-year old. Or it could be an artistic rendering. It is argued that while virtual child porn does not directly harm anyone, it could encourage pedophiliac acts out on a real person.
Should a girl, who is 19-years old and looks 13, remain celibate until she looks older? This kind of ambiguity is never acknowledged when talking about morality and immorality. Perhaps we’d be better off if we didn’t bandy about the words “moral” and “evil”.
In Judith Levine’s book, “Harmful to Minors”, she wrote, “In America today, it is nearly impossible to publish a book that says children and teenagers can have sexual pleasure and be safe too.” Levine’s critics invoked the “e” word along with a qualifier for added effect: “very evil”—as opposed to “exceedingly evil”, or “kinda evil” or “standard evil”. Some of those critics publicly stated that they hadn’t even read the book they condemned. “It doesn’t take a great deal to understand the position of the writer,” said Judith Reisman in a New York Times interview.
I should also take this opportunity to point out that the word “pedophile” is often improperly used. For the sake of avoiding confusion, I did not clarify this until now. The term “pedophilia” refers to pre-adolescents—meaning those who have not reached puberty. The term ephebophilia would be more appropriate for describing sexual attraction to teenagers.
Before feminism, and the supposed move towards gender equality, what were women good for? The same thing they are good for today.
How many men enter relationships thinking: “I would like to have an intellectually stimulating relationship with someone I consider to be my equal. We will converse and share ideas about topical matters while drawing from our shared maturity and similar stores of knowledge. And sure, I guess we could do all that sexual ballyhoo, but really, that’s only peripheral to what I find truly attractive, your brain—that soft, sexy, mushy lump of meat inside your cranium. I’m getting turned on just thinking about all of the profound conversations we will get to share.”
A man would have sex with a woman who is functionally retarded so long as she looked pleasing enough. In fact, isn’t that really the ideal woman? A baby like individual who needs and depends on her big daddy to take of her?
I won’t go through the whole spiel about how “once upon a time it was common for 13-year olds to get married.” (Or how in many parts of the world, kids continue to marry at a young age.) The fact that 13-year olds are no longer being married off is a sign of progress. But does this progress mean that all married 13-year olds were victims, and all men were malicious predators? Didn’t some of those marriages form long lasting, loving relationships that have brought us the children of this generation? This is not a palatable notion to consider. These kinds of questions acknowledge complexities that are difficult to sift through and sort out. But just because a question is complicated and difficult, does not mean you can reduce it to something that can be answered in one breath. We’re talking about kids. They are adolescent, but not quite young adults. And in our pursuit of perverted justice, we fail to see the bigger picture.
We cannot look at the world as we want it to be, but rather, as it is. Ideally, children would be able to enjoy childhood as it ought to be enjoyed, without the complications and responsibilities of adulthood. But kids that are in middle school today are of a different variety than the kind I went to school with just some ten years ago. And even during that time, I can remember seeing girls who were beautiful and physically developed. I was attracted to them, but I didn’t really understand what boys were supposed to do with girls. I can remember thinking that kissing was gross; meanwhile girls I dreamed of holding hands with, were getting pregnant and labeled the school slut. Before, the “school slut” was some embarrassing minority (sometimes the sole minority) of the school population. These days, most girls are “the school slut”.
When a 13–year old girl wants sex, has sex, and enjoys it… when a 13-year old girl knows about positions, masturbation and STDs… the concept of “consent” becomes muddled.
There is a fatal assumption that all sex offenders are predators. This assumption was fatal for William Elliot, the man who was murdered; the man who would still be alive if the girl he had sex with was a few weeks older—or lived in another state. Was he a kind man? Was he gentle? Did he love the girl he went to prison for, and ultimately died for? Perhaps the bigger question is: why doesn’t anyone want to know?
We like to think in terms of absolutes, so accordingly, the law works that way too. But the law does not work. We see this demonstrated everyday in ways that extend far beyond the subject matter of this essay. Laws are not infallible truths or universal standards for what is right and wrong. Laws are constantly changing. Laws adapt. And ideally, laws accommodate circumstances, on a situation-by-situation basis. But not when it comes to the children—those sweet, innocent children who would be off baking pies and selling cookies for the church fundraiser if those seedy adults would just leave them alone!
Standards can be a necessary evil—a logistical convenience. We don’t let people vote until they are 18-years old, even though some 17 year-olds are more aware of political issues than 27 year olds. But of course, by the time they reach 27 they would realize that democracy is a sham anyway. (But that’s another article entirely.)
This is not an essay where the conclusions have been reached in advance. I am not advocating one extreme or another. I do not endorse the status quo, nor do I propose a sexual free-for-all. Instead, I would suggest something more radical. Ask questions. Do not blindly react without thinking. Do not yell at your televisions sets and praise the deaths of people you understand on only the most superficial level.
If you are a parent, talk to your kids. From the moment a child is born we bombard them with nonsense. We talk gibberish and we make nonsensical sounds. We talk about Santa Claus and pee pees only then to appear baffled that these same kids (some decade and a half later) seem ill equipped to deal with the real world. Most parents aren’t very good at their job. Although I am not a parent, I can boldly propose that being a parent does have to be so hard. It would seem, that the source of most conflicts, misunderstandings (and lack of understanding) results from the inability to tell the truth. Kids do not tell the truth because they learn this skill from their parents. Parents would condemn “sex” and then proceed to quietly sneak about their home trying to have sex with their partner (or perhaps a secret lover); or they may sulk about the house, angry and depressed because they are not having enough sex. When a kid hears “sex is bad” they hear “bullshit, bullshit, bullshit”; because the words “do not have sex” and “sex is bad” are hypocritical. Obviously sex is fun or else we wouldn’t spend so much time having it; or trying to have it; or thinking about it. This kind of frank dialogue would be far more effective than bullshiting a child to death.
“Yeah, sex is fun, but guess what? You’re an accident. We love ya to death—ha, ha, ha, just some abortion humor for ya—but it would have been nice if we could have saved some more money and gotten our careers in order. It would have been nice if we were more equipped for your arrival.”
They would continue to explain that sex is fun. And they would not blush, mumble or contemplate using the word “pee pee”. They would explain that there are lots of things that boys and girls can do to make each other feel good, but none of those things need to result in making a baby. They would explain birth control. They would explain the very real danger of STDs. They would explain that losing your virginity with the person you marry is a sure fire way to get your first divorce; although that doesn’t mean sex is something you have to give away like candy. They would vacate the house every now and then and make it available for those intimate encounters better located inside a home rather than a motel or a subway station or a movie theatre—or worse. These fantastical, hippie parents would give these kids the tools and truths they need to make better decisions. This kind of dialogue would allow parents and children to make better choices. But this is purely a fantasy.
We like bullshit. We like black and white. We like having predators and victims. We like being protectors. We like being hypocrites. We like being blissfully blind and unaware. We like yelling at our TVs and labeling all men, women and children with the stroke of a broad brush. We like invoking apt words like, “perverted justice”, without seeing the painfully obvious irony of it all.
4 Sept 2003 “America’s Favorite Fantasy.” Rolling Stone.
“Every time you masturbate… God kills a kitten.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 13 Jun 2006, 13:52 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 16 Jun 2006 http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Every_time_you_masturbate%E2%80%A6_God_kills_a_kitten&oldid=58390471
Bell, Tom.” In Canada, killings remain a mystery.” The Portland Press. 20 April 2006. http://pressherald.mainetoday.com/news/state/060420canada.shtml/
Gruendl, Martin. “Babyfaceness.” Beauty Check. http://www.uni-regensburg.de/Fakultaeten/phil_Fak_II/Psychologie/Psy_II/beautycheck/english/kindchenschema/kindchenschema.htm/
Keung, Nicholas. “Nude photo labelled porn.” The Toronto Star. 14 April 2006. http://www.thestar.com/NASApp/cs/ ContentServer?pagename=thestar/Layout/Article_Type1&c=Article&cid=1144965014257/
Kincaid, James R. “Is This Child Pornography?” Salon.com 31 Jan 2001. http://archive.salon.com/mwt/feature/2000/01/31/kincaid/
Lemons, Stephen. “Thank heaven for little girls.” Salon.com 4 Dec 1999. http://archive.salon.com/health/sex/urge/1999/12/04/underage/
Waxman, Shari. “The Twins Thing” Salon.com 30 May 2003. http://archive.salon.com/sex/feature/2003/05/30/coors/
© 2006 Haasim Mahanim, "The Canadian Geek" - Reprinted with permission.