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

I started to fantasize about my Grade 2 female classmates in a variety of scenarios, usually starting with our getting kidnapped en masse and having all our clothing burned. (I had a dear favourite, but I also loved most of the rest.) It was probably the only way I could think of to get to the desired outcome that was even remotely conceivable. I also loved girl-in-peril stuff, or mutual peril, where I would get us out of the problem somehow. At any rate, trying to change the world certainly didn’t occur to me.

Everything was sort of fine for a while although I felt that what I was thinking was wrong so I made a vow to myself to never think about naked girls again and I might have even lasted a night or two.

And nobody could know, of course. There was once a trailer for a Nature of Things episode about people who claimed to be able to read minds and I freaked out and didn’t want to go to school in case somebody there could read my mind and see my classmates naked in it.

Why should I have had to live in this fear? Why are we doing this? What good is our information-hiding, covering-up, and mandatory segregation doing? If we’re going to go to war against our natures, we certainly must feel like there’s a good reason, so I won’t say that today’s Puritan / neo-Victorian crusaders aren’t rational actors. I just think that we should now step out and openly question their harm-and-abuse axioms.

At the moment it’s the power and much of the function of our government to maintain this regime at any price. Well, hey, if you and your social group wanna still be Puritans, go for it. But, like other religious beliefs, it should be a choice. It shouldn’t be encoded in law.


Beware of perverts lurking in the woods attempting to lure children into music. (Steve Hoefer, Flickr)

“Sexualization” isn’t something you do to youth unless you’re making them practice pole dancing instead of taking piano lessons. (“In homes across North America, a new threat emerges – the musicalization of youth.”5) But Puritanization sure as heck is something we do to youth, and we force fundamentalism on each other. You’re not merely a bad but an intolerable parent if you don’t make the Sisyphean efforts that your peers do. And let’s not even talk about what you’re not allowed to say in schools.

If a parent doesn’t participate in the treatment of sex as toxic6, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the child is going to keep on showing everybody his penis at school, at least not while supervised. You may need to import “time and place”7 a few times. I even hear that some kids aren’t illuded with Santa Claus yet apparently have otherwise normal social lives.8

Our obsession with the freedom of the adult has made being a kid, comparatively speaking, to be living under the jackboot of a totalitarian regime. Any freedom hinging upon “adult” is a tyranny to the non-adult. Fortunately, a few freedoms are fundamental (at least in popular conception if not also by law) and escape this. Nobody says, “What two consenting adults discuss in the privacy of their own bedroom is none of the government’s business.”

If sexuality were a fundamental freedom, I think we would have had piddly institutional adjustments like gay marriage eons ago. As for how we came to that specific change, I’m almost tempted to side with conservatives and their concerns about “activist judges”. We don’t want our rulings to be based on some kind of Saturnine jurisprudence beamed down from Cassini. Still, at least to me, it seems pretty straightforward that restricting marriage to opposite-sex partners is a form of discrimination based on sex, specifically prohibited in Section 15 of the Charter.

“Everyone has the right to equality before the law and to equal protection of the law without discrimination because of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age or sex.”9

I wonder, given ‘sex’ was used to make the case for same-sex marriage, if ‘age’ could be used to end official punitive age discrimination. But if you’re dreaming of mounting a Charter challenge, your road will be much tougher thanks to the CPC federal government in September 2006 having cut all funding to the Court Challenges Program, in the name of “trimming the fat and refocusing spending on the priorities of Canadians.”10

If we’re ever going to open the constitution again, some kind of explicit defence of sexuality should go in it.11 No forcing yourself on people, no equivalent of “fire!” in a crowded theatre, yes, yes. Not with no limits at all, and yet something to hold somewhat sacred.

And of course you can take things too many years towards zero. You don’t want to enshrine a toddler’s right to freedom of association. (“BUT I DOWANNA GO! TH’ CHARTUR SAYS I CAN STAY!”) And while mobility is a right, and sexuality at least ought to be, driving a motor vehicle is merely a single means of mobility, one that also has the potential to create much carnage, and so it is not so much of a dehumanizing injustice that thirteen-year-olds can’t obtain the permit required to drive motor vehicles on public roads.12

baby driving car

Baby, you can drive my car. (quadrapop, Flickr)

It would be nice if the things that don’t already require permits (vehicles, weapons, etc..) could be not so much legislated but left to common sense. And nice if we actually recognized, as Trudeau the Elder put it, “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” Unfortunately for expediency, fairness, and harmony, sense on particular matters isn’t necessarily common across any given polity13. But the blanket rules used to stand in place of localized deliberation also create unfairness.

When people complain about school dress codes “sexualizing” kids – yes, even when it is some of the kids themselves complaining14 – I want to bang my head against the wall. The dress code is a reaction to the sexual energy that is already there. It is not for nothing. Yes, your typical off-the-shelf-male teacher is going to, um, ‘notice’ a well-endowed female student. Even if she’s 12. The vast majority will hide their attraction and tell no one about it. Getting an erection and hiding it is nature and civilization respectively. There’s nothing weird or shameful going on.

In a sane world, that’s where we’d leave it.

Let’s not obfuscate why this is being imposed. Some people can’t bear that these female students are dressing with fewer square inches of coverage in sexual places. It is not for nothing. The students are expressing their sexuality as much as their fashion sense, though most students probably don’t seek the teacher’s attention specifically or at least not consciously. (And as with the teachers, the sensible student hides their attraction and tells no one about it.) And so, people react against this expression by imposing stupid dress codes.15

Oh, but some people can’t bear that there was a sexuality there to hide! They’re “sexualizing” the children by imposing such restrictions. Children were sexual blank slates before these restrictions came in, you know. Never would have even thought about sex or even nudity. Nope.

Give me a break. This makes as much sense as saying the Taliban sexualized women by making chadri mandatory. Buzzwords are pretty flexible, though. I’m sure someone will try.

afghan women

Sexualized Afghan women. (Nitin Madhav, Wikipedia)

A friend of mine pointed out that the dress code counts as sexualization since it is centered on sex even if it is bent on suppressing its expression. But while certain dress codes are centered on sex, in being suppressive they also pretty clearly mean the opposite of the straightforward “make more sexual” part of “sexualize”. It’s like how both Jim Crow laws and the NAACP are centered on race, yet they are very different kinds of things, and putting them both under, say, a “racialization” umbrella is probably going to be at least a little confusing to people.

I suppose there’s also the angle that one should be allowed to show their beautiful flesh but if you think of it sexually you are a Pervert™ and have committed a thought crime. I do unapologetically conflate being without clothes with sexuality. It might be a strictly visual component of sexuality. It does not imply agreement to engaging in sexuality’s tactile components. It’s still sexuality.

Of course, no matter how you dress, you must be able to go to school and not be harassed nor spoken of as a slut, although that term should itself be destigmatized. By all means, fight the dress code. But maybe you shouldn’t use a word that makes it seem like the dress code is what’s pushing you into sexuality. Fight it for your sexual freedom (or even that of others if you don’t want to engage yours), and fight for your freedom from harassment whether there’s a dress code or not.

Beneath all the nonsense from the battle between the old Puritans and the new ones is a fundamental conceit that our bodies should be on the timeline of the law or of social norms, and even would be were it not for Bad Influence™.

It’s to the point where, if someone notices very young children engaging in certain exploratory behaviours among each other, they may speculate that the ‘instigating’ child has been a party to illegal sexual engagement (where coercion-or-not is to them irrelevant), absent any evidence whatsoever. For people who think this way, there’s just no other explanation for that ‘horrible’, ‘inappropriate’ thing. They can’t conceive that it might be something innate. And probably harmless.

Our exceptionalism for kids sort of reflects well on us. Even if many of the results are appalling, it’s coming from a goodish place – our kids are really important to us, and they should be unless we want to become nihilists. Inasmuch as anything that isn’t nihilism can be rational16, the crusaders for Puritanism are rational actors. If you put down your prison-industrial complex, maybe we can even talk about this.

It’s also so often the case that we understand more than kids do on a certain thing that we’re tempted to generalize that they’re all dumb. It’s a good thing that stultifying generalizations have never been used to hurt anybody, so it’s completely safe to do this. But it’s missing that even though certain advanced forms of facts and wisdom are less likely to be found in the mind of a kid, kids are amazing spongy information-synthesising machines and I wonder if they can be more aware of, for example, inconsistencies than adults can.

If you want to talk about the harm sex does to young people, or, failing that, make it all about predation, or “sex-trafficking” you’ll win office and get bucketloads of money. If you suggest that it’s not innately harmful – perhaps you have some positive things to say about masturbation, for example – you’ll get run out of town on a rail.

Joycelyn Elders

Joycelyn Elders, 15th Surgeon General of the United States. Dared to question sacred cows. (Wikipedia)

Although! I am writing this post. And other people write, too. So there’s that. I have just enough hope that just enough people in this country that value freedom of political expression that I’m willing to chance the rail, which in this country I have some faith will remain strictly metaphorical.

Anyway, if you want to talk about harms, let’s be sure to include the harms of your policies.

What about the harms of mandated body shame?17 Of demonizing sexuality?18 Of mandatory victimhood? Of criminalizing consensual acts (of all kinds)? Of pathologizing pleasure? Of balkanizing love?19

Our laws and norms are stultifying enough for younger children, but by the time we’re dealing with physiologically advanced youth, the forced Puritanization is akin to state-mandated torture, with a side of arbitrary detainment:

“Countless studies confirm that testosterone and associated male sex hormones are at high tide from puberty to a man’s mid-twenties. Here we have another massive conflict between what society dictates and what biology demands. With every voice in a young man’s body screaming for SEX NOW, many societies insist he ignore these incessant urgings and channel that energy into other pursuits, ranging from sports to homework to military adventure.

“As with other attempts to block the unignorable temptations of biology, this one has been a centuries-long disaster. Testosterone levels correlate to the likelihood of a young man (or woman) getting into trouble. In the United States, adolescent males are five times more likely to kill themselves than females are. A government study found that homosexual youth are two to three times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers.20 Among Americans between fifteen and twenty-five, suicide is the third leading cause of death, and teenage boys kill themselves at a rate double that of any other demographic group.

“Well-intentioned websites and presentations rarely, if ever, mention gut-wrenching, identity-clouding sexual frustration as a possible cause of some of this destructive adolescent behaviour. Despite the omnipresence of billboards and bus stops featuring semi-naked barely pubescent fashion models, significant parts of American society remain adamantly opposed to any suggestion that sexual activity may commence before the law allows.

“In 2003, seventeen-year old honour student and homecoming king Genarlow Wilson was caught having consensual oral sex with his girlfriend, who had not yet turned sixteen. He was convicted of aggravated child molestation, sentenced to a minimum of ten years in a Georgia prison, and forced to register as a sex offender for life. If Wilson and his girlfriend had just enjoyed good old-fashioned intercourse, as opposed to oral sex, their ‘crime’ would have been a misdemeanour, punishable by a maximum of a year in prison and no sex-offender status.

“The previous year, Todd Senters videotaped consensual sex with his girlfriend, who was over the age of consent. No problem, right? Wrong. According to Nebraska state law, although the sex itself was perfectly legal, taping it constituted ‘manufacturing child pornography.’ The seventeen-year-old was legally permitted to have sex, but images of her doing so are illegal. Go figure.

“Adolescents all over the country are getting into serious trouble for sexting one another: snapping a risqué photo of themselves with their phone and sending it to a friend. Turns out, in many states, these kids can be sent to prison (where sexual abuse is rampant) for photographing their own bodies (manufacturing child pornography) and sharing their photos (distributing child pornography). They’re being forced to register as sex offenders despite the fact that they themselves are the ‘victims’ of their own ‘crimes.’”

– Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, Sex at Dawn p. 282-3 (Chapter 21, “The Pervert’s Lament”)

And woe to those whose relationship straddles the line of age segregation:

bonnie and clyde


He’s eighteen and she’s thirteen. They’re both literally teenagers, but because they’re on opposite sides of the binary divide you see indignation like this.

Not to worry, Ms. McHugh. Your wish is government’s command: Here come the ‘rape’ charges!

When we’re talking about something as fundamental as sexuality, this sort of thing should at least be more of degree rather than an absolute binary. And we used to have a group of people called “teenagers” but for political convenience we’re saying “child” up to whatever age suits our purposes. That’s got to stop, or at the very least you ought not to be able to call a teenager a child for the purpose of justifying a teenager’s legal restrictions based on their non-adulthood. It’s just linguistic prescriptivism, and it’s intellectually dishonest.

It’s not only people who have criminalized sexualities or are in situations that happen to be criminal that have a horse in this race. The ethos affects everyone in it, and it’s an ethos that seems to either drive or at least reflect violence. Writes Carl Sagan:

“Mammals characteristically nuzzle, fondle, hug, caress, pet, groom and love their young, behavior essentially unknown among the reptiles. If it is really true that the R-complex and limbic systems live in an uneasy truce within our skulls and still partake of their ancient predilections, we might expect affectionate parental indulgence to encourage our mammalian natures, and the absence of physical affection to prod reptilian behavior. There is some evidence that this is the case. In laboratory experiments, Harry and Margaret Harlow found that monkeys raised in cages and physically isolated – even though they could see, hear and smell their simian fellows – developed a range of morose, withdrawn, self-destructive and otherwise abnormal characteristics. In humans the same is observed for children raised without physical affection – usually in institutions – where they are clearly in great pain.

“The neuropsychologist James W. Prescott has performed a startling cross-cultural statistical analysis of 400 preindustrial societies and found that cultures that lavish physical affection on infants tend to be disinclined to violence. Even societies without notable fondling of infants develop nonviolent adults, provided sexual activity in adolescents is not repressed. Prescott believes that cultures with a predisposition for violence are composed of individuals who have been deprived – during at least one of two critical stages in life, infancy and adolescence – of the pleasures of the body. Where physical affection is encouraged, theft, organized religion and invidious displays of wealth are inconspicuous; where infants are physically punished, there tends to be slavery, frequent killing, torturing and mutilation of enemies, a devotion to the inferiority of women, and a belief in one or more supernatural beings who intervene in daily life.

“We do not understand human behavior well enough to be sure of the mechanisms underlying these relationships, although we can conjecture. But the correlations are significant. Prescott writes: ‘The percent likelihood of a society becoming physically violent if it is physically affectionate toward its infants and tolerant of premarital sexual behavior is 2 percent. The probability of this relationship occurring by chance is 125,000 to one. I am not aware of any other developmental variable that has such a high degree of predictive validity.’ Infants hunger for physical affection; adolescents are strongly driven to sexual activity. If youngsters had their way, societies might develop in which adults have little tolerance for aggression, territoriality, ritual and social hierarchy (although in the course of growing up the children might well experience these reptilian behaviors). If Prescott is right, in an age of nuclear weapons and effective contraceptives, child abuse [the old meaning: e.g., beating – WM] and severe sexual repression are crimes against humanity. More work on this provocative thesis is clearly needed. Meanwhile, we can each make a personal and noncontroversial contribution to the future of the world by hugging our infants tenderly.”

– Carl Sagan, Cosmos (Chapter XIII, “Who Speaks for Earth”)

But not too tenderly. A government social worker might get suspicious. Things have gotten worse since Sagan wrote that in 1980. But if we stand up and speak out, we might be able to get put away the panic before it kills us. Maybe it will even burn itself out? Writes retired sex worker Maggie McNeill in her post “The New Victorianism”:

“No social trend lasts forever; the new Victorianism is as doomed as the old one was, and the young women who will help to bury it are joining Slutwalks, buying porn for themselves and shaking their heads at the prudery of their elders just as the young women of the Roaring Twenties did. Within a decade, the new Victorianism will start to die off along with the Baby Boomers who embraced it, and in the freedom of a new Jazz Age perhaps all of the laws which seek to restrict the sexual behaviors of consenting adults21 will be tossed out as the quaint, incomprehensible and useless relics of a bygone age.”

I dearly hope she’s right.

Further reading:
Kat George, Bustle“6 Totally Normal Things Young Girls Do When They’re Discovering Their Sexuality That No One Ever Talks About”

Melbourne writer Ray Harris has a series of posts on the childhood culture war. He dares to tell of his growing up in the 60s and 70s.

NAMBLA has a section called “The Criminalization of Youth”. Here is an example story from a parent. I kind of hope that parent gets their white whale.

  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. 

  5. If you’re thirty and they’re fourteen, you could go to jail for musical abuse, even if it’s not a bagpipe-triangle duet. 

  6. Alice Dreger, Pacific Standard“What If We Admitted to Children That Sex Is Primarily About Pleasure?” 

  7. “be far, far away from grownups and snitches” 

  8. You might even consider not illuding your own with Santa Claus

  9. There is fine print: “[This] does not preclude any law, program or activity that has as its object the amelioration of conditions of disadvantaged individuals or groups including those that are disadvantaged because of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.” 

  10. Wikipedia“Section Fifteen of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms: Enforcement” 

  11. I mean, if David Suzuki’s going to try to get us to put the right to a healthy environment in it… 

  12. When it comes to making their slightly younger compatriots wear demeaning “Unaccompanied Minor” lanyards and being escorted by flight attendants when they fly without their parents, I’m a lot more sympathetic. I hated such things and I never proactively disclosed my age – one time I almost got away with it but the flight attendant found out midflight and scolded me. I mean, what if I got lost in the ginormous Charlottetown Airport

  13. But maybe the polity is too broad, or at least too broad to be able to be at peace with a single moral code.

    Scott Alexander, Slate Star Codex“Archipelago and Atomic Communitarianism” 

  14. Remember me and Dr. Laura? 

  15. Although, as ‘stupid’ as I say these codes are, I have some sympathy for the male teachers who don’t want to deal with the cognitive dissonance of desiring what they’re told they’re subhuman for desiring. A dress code is a sort of ‘solution’, although it doesn’t resolve the underlying conflict. 

  16. Nihilism might be the most rational! 

  17. I’m thinking more of the absolute cover-yourself kind, but relative shame is a problem too. I’ll bet the former feeds the latter. 

  18. The writer seems to assume there won’t ever be a world where penis pictures aren’t a form of flirtation. I think social groups may well develop where it is acceptable. It’s pretty obviously not mainstream acceptable now. And no, I haven’t spoken out about how wrong Steubenville is, nor about Bill Cosby. It’s hard to do either without supporting the prison-industrial complex. Go back to the 60s and ask a gay rights activist if he’d take a loud stance against a serial gay rapist, which would be punished by the same anti-sodomy laws that punish his consensual activity, and we’ll talk. 

  19. A little bit of a wedge is perhaps unavoidable. Don’t have babies with your mother. 

  20. Homosexual activity is also more likely to be prosecuted – it’s bad for females and even worse for males:

    Odell Huff, Center for Sexual Justice“Gay Male Youth Sexual Conduct Policed and Punished More than Other Youths”
    (Footnote mine.)  

  21. There’s that catechism again. 

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