The Puritanization of Youth

You’ve probably seen toxoplasmic headlines about the “sexualization” of youth. But what this really reflects, I hope to convince you, is a panic regarding society’s inability to maintain a perfect Puritanization.1 Every time I see people complain about “sexualization”, I want to scream, and I’ve been wanting to speak about this since I was a kid myself.2


Unsafe at any speed. (

A formative experience of my childhood – when I was seven, I think – was seeing a poster of bikini-clad women on motorcycles. It was behind a door in the bedroom of the son of a professional acquaintance of our family.3

This was a dangerous and irresponsible image – they should have been wearing proper equipment if they were going to be riding. If they were to get into an accident, there wouldn’t be much left of them.

At around the same time, I also saw prints of a few Paul Peel paintings. They made me feel like I could be beautiful and they made me want to be naked and free with other kids. At some point I learned about “nudist camps” and so I started taking my clothes off when I was by myself. I also saw something in a grocery store tabloid about a woman being allergic to clothes and I obsessed about the story and actually kind of envied her.


“After the Bath” (Paul Peel, via I am a Child: Children in Art History)

Taken together, it was like I had lived all my life in the desert and had never known water and here was an oasis and boy does that water taste good, but I also don’t know the terms ‘oasis’, ‘water’, or even ‘wet’. I suppose this knowledge was dangerous in a peculiar way – I had access to drinking water, at least in my imagination, but I couldn’t talk about it with anyone, and I dreaded being caught.4

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  1. “Victorianization” may be more accurate, but nobody will know what the hell I mean and they’ll think of Dickens instead of Kellogg. Apologies to actual Puritans.

    On how our current panic reflects the Victorian panic:
    Maggie McNeill, The Honest Courtesan“Everything Old is New Again” 

  2. Excepting a flirtation with Dr. Laura-style social conservatism in my adolescent years, where in the very presence of my body screaming “SEX NOW” I dutifully went to war against myself (and others) just like many other people exposed to a no-sex-outside-marriage Christianity. 

  3. No, not a dentist. 

  4. To someone thinking, “Look, you just said it yourself, you’re living proof of the harm exposure to exposed skin causes children!” I would say, “Well, it’s kind of like the harm of getting caught with alcohol during Prohibition. Your claim of the harm of the thing would have little or nothing to do with the innate nature of the thing.” Too many things are like that these days. 

Beyond Innocence and Blame

I want to talk about innocence and blame. I think both are fundamentally flawed and our belief in them compounds rather than lessens our miseries, especially in how they leave us susceptible to the politics of alienation and retribution, resulting in terrible justice policies, among other things.

People routinely say “everything happens for a reason,”1 seemingly asserting that there’s something special about this arrangement of things.2 That’s as it may be. Here I take the standpoint that “everything happens for a cause”. Hop on board the things-have-causes axiomatic train and let’s explore some of the implications for how we think about innocence and exoneration, blame and retribution.

This song played on the radio all the time when I was in Grade 9 and I thought of the girl I loved3 at the time and how after something happened to her we could lay on a grassy field and hold hands. It even got to the point where I wished something would happen to her, so this could happen. Though I’d probably be no more likely to show my feelings then than normally, so if my wish had come true because I made it, it would have been both wretched and futile.

For a while after this, being the concrete sort of thinker I was4, I wanted to think of innocence as something real. Maybe it was something I still had, but that I’d lose later.5

What is innocence? A state where you should not be blamed for something. Okay, but why not?

You couldn’t have understood.

Couldn’t have? That’s quite an assertion. How do you know that? I’ll agree that it’s more likely that a kid doesn’t understand x, but you have to test it. Saying that the kid can’t understand x is demeaning. (Okay, it’s probably not demeaning to babies to say they can’t understand nuclear physics, but you can still ‘test’ this: knowing that you haven’t seen them reading or mathing much yet, you can be nigh-absolutely confident that they can’t, or at least that all the babies you’ve ever met can’t.) Anyway, here’s the story of a Korean fellow who was solving differential equations at age seven.

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  1. Everything?! 

  2. Yes, the exact past that we had is the only way to this exact present. But what’s special about this present, aside from its being the one drawn from the Universe Machine? 

  3. At a distance, unfortunately. I was afraid of being outed as liking girls and I went out of my way to avoid her. 

  4. Or cement-head, if you’re less charitable. 

  5. If you mean that kind of “innocence”, much later. 

Why Privacy

Snow Shovel

You can get quite hot doing this. There’s a very easy way to cool off. (Flickr)

I told a friend that I was working on an essay, and she made a guess about what the title was. I told her the real title and she replied, “Cuz everyone don’t wanna see a bare ass Will Matheson frolicking in the snow?”

Hard to argue with that.

I have another friend, who lives in rural Nova Scotia, who speaks to the elder incumbents frequently:

“If I have learned anything out here, it’s that older people in the country really hate if someone is being a dick to other people for no reason. ‘Why can’t people all just mind their own business? It’s like a disease that is spreading or something,’ says the good neighbour.”

Privacy is, at least in part, a protection from individual-society disagreement. This is why we have naturist habitats in secluded locations. This is why parties with alcohol in Iran happen on the downlow. This is why networks of drug production and distribution are kept secret. Yes, this is also why, say, botnet-running blackmailers stay in the shadows, too, but I think it’s important that we reflect on what, if anything, makes our purges special, aside from the fact that they’re ours.

For the many things that aren’t networks of baby theft, cooking, and meat distribution, we should consider privacy as a crude, temporary measure, but not necessarily a thing to attack. It is a queue into which we can place things to be reconciled with public life later. Ideally, it protects what is conscionable among a minority from the absolutist tyranny of the majority.1

Babies, Stove

Babies, Stove – These things should never never ever ever go together oh gawd I’m gonna get struck by lightning just for uploading this. (Wikipedia, Wikipedia)

The more society would drive a practice, benign or not-so-benign, underground, the more exacerbated the harmful effects become – provided, that is, there even are any. For example, young people might have a greater innate risk of alcohol poisoning, but their holding parties in secret must increase this risk. For one thing, few adults will subject themselves to the legal and social risks of monitoring such parties. For another, calling for an ambulance means everything is busted.2

And yet millions of teenagers go on drinking, with few or no lasting effects to speak of. You there – yes, you – did you drink when you were a teenager? For the love of crumbcake, tell the world! I didn’t drink when I was a teenager, but I didn’t hesitate to shame people who did. I regret the second thing. My objections were ungroundedly moral – it’s wrong because the Judeo-Christian-Dr. Laura morality corpus says it’s wrong, it’s wrong because alcohol is dangerous. I no longer care about the first, and in this essay I’m going to undermine the second as a reason to prohibit it, even though, really, alcohol is still dangerous.

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  1. Or, more likely, the tyranny of a para-religious minority that few have the gumption to openly question. But we also enable them by forcing fundamentalism on each other

  2. Robby Soave writes about this at as it applies to US colleges. The legal drinking age in the United States is an absurd 21. 

On (Dis)Engagement, Part 2: Free speech and using it

On (Dis)Engagement: Let’s not act like we all need to think alike on everything (and ideas on how to proceed when we do) :: A two-part essay :: 1 2

So now, how can we engage about volatile topics? I think it’s vital that we engage when we can, as opposed to living in fear, destroying each other, and burning or exiling heretics.1 From that principle, I will essay.

If we believe that it’s unethical to coerce people’s consciences into pointing any which way we demand, I think we must try harder to distinguish between “I don’t like them doing that” and “They shouldn’t be allowed to do that.” I have no issues with homosexuality, and sometimes I even have “those” fantasies. But even if I did have issues with homosexuality, does it follow that I have to work to prohibit it? Is it any of my fucking business? Seriously, who died and made me king? On matters where we are not in each other’s faces, where cooperation is not needed (we probably have to have nigh-universal rules for driving and for what a legally-protected relationship is, to name two examples), why should other people just up and conform to what I want? This kind of narcissism mixed with political (or social) authority is a match made in hell.

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  1. Refraining from doing so had to be argued for in the past and the arguments are worth revisiting: see this part of the TED talk “The Long Reach of Reason” by Steven Pinker and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. Watch the full talk if you have time. 

On (Dis)Engagement, Part 1: Trudeau’s pro-choice edict

On (Dis)Engagement: Let’s not act like we all need to think alike on everything (and ideas on how to proceed when we do) :: A two-part essay :: 1 2

“The fundamental political idea of modern times is the presumed moral superiority of centralized control.” – Paul Lutus

This two-parter isn’t actually about abortion, but rather about living in the same country while remaining on speaking terms with one other. The recent revival1 of abortion in our political discourse (pardon my charitable language) makes abortion a timely table-setter for the rest of this essay.

Justin Trudeau

Justin Trudeau in 2009 (Wikipedia)

This past Wednesday, after his party’s weekly caucus meeting, federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau said “I have made it clear that future candidates need to be completely understanding that they will be expected to vote pro-choice on any bills.”

I’m pro-choice™ myself, or at least I think I am. But does Trudeau’s definition mean “pro-choice, no matter what?” What if “voting pro-choice” means voting to explicitly permit no-questions-asked abortions at or after, say, 25 weeks, the 50% survival threshold for premature births? Is it so regressive to question the ethics of aborting a fetus that has a strong chance of being viable without further support of the mother? It’s possible to support easy and early abortions but to also have a nuanced position on late-term abortions. You might question the political wisdom of bringing it up, as women aren’t exactly lining up to get late-term abortions (only 2-3% are done after 16 weeks), so this would generate a lot of heat for seemingly no good political or practical reason.2

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  1. CTV News: “Topless protesters disrupt anti-abortion rally on Parliament Hill” 

  2. Morally, “one is too many” may be an averable reason. But the evils of the asymptotic effort required to stamp out every last transgression might outweigh the evils of the actual transgressions.