What’s healthy about the selfie

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Back in August, in Cameron’s crusade and the ‘sexting’ generation, Heretic TOC noted the British prime minister’s triple-pronged attack on internet pornography, inevitably underpinned by the supposed need to protect “innocent” children from exposure to it, as though they had no independent interest of their own – a point deeply undermined, it may be recalled, by an NSPCC report showing that sexting now plays a big part in children’s lives.

Sexting, indeed, is clearly exciting a lot of grown-ups, too, or rather inciting them to a discursive frenzy, not all of it expressing the dominant moral panic narrative. One fascinating departure from the mainstream appeared in the September issue of the sociological journal Sexualities, by Brian Simpson, a specialist in children and the law who has a particular interest in the regulation of cyberspace and social media. In his article, “Challenging childhood, challenging children: Children’s rights and sexting” Simpson does something deeply unfashionable: he doesn’t merely mention children’s rights in the title, he actually takes the concept seriously.

His 10,000-word piece examines all the usual rhetoric, whether centred on the need to protect children from cyberbullying, concerns over sexuality being essentially private, and anxiety that the young are getting out of control – with its unspoken fear that self-interested patriarchal control over female bodies (girls’ virginity and reproduction) is under threat. He also considers the part that legal interventions against sexting have played, citing American cases in which youngsters have been taken to court, under laws supposedly passed to prevent harm coming to them. The effect, ironically, has been to see them punished by being condemned as pornographers and placed on a sex offender register, giving them a criminal record likely to blight their lives for decades. In order to “save” them, the courts thus harm them, deeply and lastingly.

What the mainstream discourse constantly fails to do, says Simpson, even in formal studies, whether quantitative (how much sexting is going on) or qualitative (what sexting actually entails), is to examine values. It is just assumed that sexting is bad, and focuses the debate on how to suppress it – an aim which generally extends to all other manifestations of youthful sexuality too. Where he takes the debate forward is not only through invoking children’s rights, a concept which peaked in public debate as long ago as the late 1970s, but also in identifying the new technology of the internet age, especially the camera phone, as transformative. Young people as media makers inhabit a techno-culture, “a world where camera phones are well embedded within everyday life and are used to constitute identity”, says Simpson, citing with his own emphasis words from another recent study (Chalfen 2013). So as part of this scene the selfie, it seems, including the sexy selfie, has a role in generating self itself.

Bollocks? Maybe. Or tits. But at the very least there is food for thought here.

Simpson, as a legal expert, understands the importance of children’s rights – although their development and enforcement have been painfully slow – but also sees children, especially teenagers, creating interesting new realities through their sexting conduct. While it is commonplace now, he says, to state that the internet has blurred the public–private divide, “one could say that sexting is making us have a discussion about the boundaries of what is public and what is private. In other words the act of sexting has a social benefit in that it pushes our boundaries.”

Social benefit? Wow! That looks radical. I think he could be right when we consider how the concept of personal privacy in recent years has been used in order to push naked bodies out of public space, with the effect of making mere nudity seem toxically dangerous and obscene. It can hardly have escaped the attention of most heretics here, certainly not the male ones in Britain, that in the interests of privacy more and more gents’ public toilets are fitted these days with dividers that prevent any view of the “member” at the next urinal. Not that I am interested in the musclemen’s mighty monsters in the changing rooms and “conveniences” at my gym club, although convivial joshing with complete strangers in the pub loos (“Hello, mate, they tell me this is where all the big nobs hang out!”) used to be one of the pleasanter minor civilities of life here. Now the blokes tend to be nervous about being thought gay, or looked at by someone who might be: adults now often choose to pee in the WC rather than at a urinal, as well as boys who surely do so following “safety” instruction.  Likewise the formerly communal showers in sports clubs now tend to have individual cubicles, and schools do likewise. The message for kids, of course, is that they must not show their bodies to others or be seen by anyone else, whether staff members or classmates: what is ostensibly done to protect their privacy serves mainly to intensify sexual taboos. Perhaps the present teenage sexting generation will come to see all this covering and hiding as a neurotic absurdity.

I have no idea whether Simpson has such issues in mind, but in relation to the defiantly let-it-all-hang-out growth of teen sexting in the teeth of adults’ cover-up culture, he continues:

Children have developed within this exhibitionistic culture…Albury and Crawford found some young people who actually described their sexting in…positive terms as part of their intimate relationships. In this sense sexting is a truly subversive activity that not only recasts sexual citizenship and identity but also reinforces new paradigms of transparency and openness.

Many young people report sexting as part of flirting, seeking affirmation, testing their attractiveness and so on, which is all about establishing their identity. While this does not mean such use of technology is [not] fraught with risks and sits within a context of gender expectations in society, there is also the importance of the child’s right to have an identity, express her or himself and to play.  Such rights are all contained within, for example, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Of course, as with sexting generally, the right to play is often romanticised and articulated in terms of the innocence of the child in the playground. But this right also connects with risk taking, the pushing of boundaries and identity formation. The Charter for Children’s Play, for example, provides in its introduction that: “Play allows children to experience and encounter boundaries, learning to assess and manage risk in their lives; both physical and social”.

Now this really is radical, hinting as it does that real children, i.e. those who have yet to reach their teens, children who play, should be allowed to manage at least a limited amount of risk in their lives instead of being swaddled in a stifling cocoon of eternal infancy.

Law reform to decriminalise consensual sexting between children has been discussed, Simpson says. But reform going any further, if it were to challenge the view that sexting is inherently inappropriate, would undermine adult authority more generally over children, across the range of health and welfare issues that affect them. Actually, he says such law reform will undermine adult authority, not would, as though this is more than just a pipe dream. His present post is with the University of New England, Australia, where he is an associate professor. Perhaps the Australian scene gives him expectations for imminent change that I do not detect in Britain or elsewhere. If so, let’s hope he is right.

In the meantime, I will close by drawing heretics’ attention to what has actually happened to children’s rights in Britain in the decades since the burgeoning of the modern concept around forty years ago. To be brief: not much. There is a wonderful timeline on the development of young people’s rights in the UK on Wikipedia. It is an impressively enormous compilation, starting in the Middle Ages, with more and more entries for each century, the short 21st century already getting almost as many entries as the entire 20th, as though things are getting better and better at an accelerating rate. If only! It is a woefully misleading impression, made worse because the plethora of entries disguises the fact that many of them are not about children’s rights at all: mostly they comprise a riotous mishmash of child welfare and protection issues, rather than rights that can be exercised by children themselves. The latter are the only true rights: rights enforceable by children in ways that are capable, when necessary, of overriding adult authority, even that of parents.

Looking through this long list across the entries for the last forty years, I see one truly great leap forward, in 1985, and two considerably more limited triumphs. The great leap was the establishment of Gillick competence, which I had occasion to mention last month in The heinous crime of truth-telling. The timeline entry puts it thus: the Gillick ruling “lays down that the authority of parents to make decisions for their minor children is not absolute, but diminishes with the child’s evolving maturity; except in situations that are regulated otherwise by statute, the right to make a decision on any particular matter concerning the child shifts from the parent to the child when the child reaches sufficient maturity to be capable of making up his or her own mind on the matter requiring decision.”

As for the two lesser gains, these were the Summerhill judgement (2000), and a ruling on biometric information (2012). I’ll leave you to look them up on the timeline, where you can also browse at your leisure and ponder the vast children’s rights work that remains to be done.

 

Albury,  K.  &  Crawford,  K.,  Sexting,  consent  and  young  people’s  ethics:  Beyond Megan’s Story. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 26(3): 463–473 (2012)

Chalfen R., ‘It’s only a picture’: Sexting, ‘smutty’ snapshots and felony charges. Visual Studies 24(3): 258–268 (2013)

Simpson, B., Challenging childhood, challenging children: Children’s rights and sexting, Sexualities 16(5/6) 690–709 (2013)

To thine own self be true

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A guest blog, today, comes from Dave Riegel, who also contributed The missing mechanism of harm back in February. His theme this time, as will be seen, is very much related to recent debates here at Heretic TOC. Dave has had a number of articles published in peer-reviewed journals, including the prestigious Archives of Sexual Behavior. He has also pioneered the use of internet surveys to reach minor-attracted persons, especially BLs.

Self Respect

 “This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” (Shakespeare: Hamlet, Act 1, scene 3, 78–82)

BoyChat is one of several fora primarily concerned with the legitimate discussion of boylove and related issues, and is perhaps the oldest and best known. Are you a boylover as defined in the BoyChat FAQs i.e., a person who has “…a particular affinity for pubescent and/or prepubescent boys… [which in] most cases… encompasses a clearly sexual attraction, plus an ability to relate to boys in an almost magical way?”

At another website there is a somewhat more detailed description: “…boylove is a relationship between a boy who has a desire for a close and intimate friendship with an older male, and an older boy or man whose love for that boy encompasses enjoyment of the boy’s companionship and a desire to provide a mentoring and nurturing environment… [which] also includes a definite pedosexual attraction on the part of the older, and [which] may include a desire for sexual experimentation, exploration, play, and gratification on the part of the younger.” Do you also subscribe to this definition?

People are complex and multifaceted beings, and boylove is only one aspect of that complexity; in addition to being a boylover, you may be a husband, father, neighbor, employee/er, coach, etc., etc. Do you internally accept the boylove aspect of who and what you are as good? If you do, should you not refuse to be intimidated by the current societal negativism concerning your orientation? Should you not rather have a positive view of yourself, and seek to have the most affirmative and productive life possible? That is to say, should you not be true to your own self? And although it admittedly would be foolish to express it publicly or to engage in illegal acts, should you not have inner self-respect, or even “boylove pride?”

The life of a boylover in today’s social climate can be difficult and frustrating, but in a survey of 517 self-identified “Boy-Attracted Pedosexual Males (BPM, i.e., “boylovers”) only 3.3% described their mental health as “poor,” and 1.4 % said they coped with their problems “poorly.” This fairly large sample was solicited through BoyLinks, and would seem to be representative of the worldwide boylover community.

There are a few regulars on BoyChat, and on other similar blogs and fora, who give the impression of being well adjusted to their boylover orientation. But there also are many who question the validity of their attraction and/or their ability to cope with their situation; these latter individuals may, in extreme cases, have some need of so-called “mental health services.” But it would seem that the vast majority, considering the percentages cited above, would better serve their own needs, and the image of the boylove community, by resisting and dealing with their problems by seeking out and communing with other like-minded persons electronically and/or in real life, rather than succumbing to the anti-boylove hysteria and then precipitately resorting to questionable mental health services. This, along with searching out and studying boylove-positive non-fiction literature, are some ways of building a peaceful and fulfilling life without endangering security and freedom by exposure to “mental health professionals” who may or may not be trustworthy.

None of the above should be considered disparaging of those who have clinically identifiable needs for psychological counseling, nor of those who attempt to provide help in the mental health arena. The point is that boylovers should not be misled by the psychology industry, or perhaps by well-meaning supposedly boylove-associated groups, into thinking that many – or even more than a few – boylovers are psychologically compromised and in need of mental health services. They should instead concentrate on the inherent goodness and beneficence of their orientation, make every effort to solve on their own any problems they might have, and thus be true to themselves and to boylove.

A less impaired vision of sexuality

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If Heretic TOC were to put it about that the American Psychological Association supports an age of consent of eight, you might think I was having a laugh. You would be right, too, except that when the opinions of over 300 doctoral members of that august and conservative organisation were surveyed on what assessment criteria they thought would show capacity to consent, they came up with very basic factors, such as knowledge of the consequences of sexual behaviour, that an earlier study by one of the same researchers had shown could be met by those with a mental age of eight.

The reason it was possible to come to such a conclusion without igniting an even more explosive controversy than the Rind et al. Affair, is that the sexual rights of mentally impaired adults were at issue, rather than those of children. The issue of mental impairment arose here, it will be recalled, in the context of a reader’s suggestion – soon hotly contested – that anti-androgen treatment might sometimes be in the best interests of a mentally impaired young man. Rather than going straight back to that emotionally charged issue, it might help to check out some underlying principles and research relating to the mentally impaired.

About ten years ago, and still in my files, is an analysis carried out by an Ipce member (so blame him if it is wrong!) on a paper in the Journal of Forensic Neuropsychiatry, titled “Assessing competency to consent to sexual activity in the cognitively impaired population”, by a certain Carrie Hill Kennedy. A “Sexual Consent and Education Assessment” instrument was used, with two dimensions, “sexual knowledge” and “safety practices”, indicating the ability to make safe decisions. Those judged competent had, on average, an IQ of 65 and an adaptive behaviour age of 9.4 years. Those judged incompetent had average IQ 46 and adaptive behaviour age 6.7 years. This would suggest, at an intermediate position, that competence is achieved at around 8.2 years, and IQ 55.

Research of this sort would once have been unthinkable. A century ago it was regarded as imperative that mentally impaired people should be prevented at all costs from having an active sex life. In the wake of Darwin’s theory of evolution and its emphasis on “the survival of the fittest”, the eugenics movement of the late 19th century proposed selective breeding of humans to reduce intellectual disabilities. That meant making sure the genetic quality of “the stock” was not reduced by letting “idiots” (IQ 0-25), “imbeciles” (IQ 26-50) or “morons” (IQ 51-70) make babies. In those days, even before the early 20th century invention of IQ tests, people judged mentally defective were likely to find themselves warehoused in asylums where the sexes were strictly segregated – including even couples who had married before being institutionalised. In a number of countries, including the United States, Canada, Sweden and Germany, sterilisation was practised.

Eugenics has since become unfashionable but there are still very real concerns over mentally impaired people having children they are incapable of looking after, or imposing themselves on a sexual partner because they do not know any better, or themselves being vulnerable to exploitation. Against this, though, in recent decades the development of human rights thinking has meant that more liberal possibilities are being investigated and embraced, at least within the realms of empirical research (as we have just seen) and legal theory. The latter has gained a foothold in the UK via the European Convention on Human Rights, especially Article 8, “Right to respect for private and family life”, which in many respects (including, for instance, gay rights), has been interpreted in a remarkably radical and pioneering way by the courts.

The Mental Capacity Act 2005 in England and Wales reflects this positive spirit in its title (“Capacity” not “Incapacity”) and in five principles set out in the Act, starting with the assumption that a person must be assumed to have capacity unless it is shown to be absent. Another, rather startling, principle is that “A person is not to be treated as unable to make a decision merely because he/she makes an unwise decision.” We all make unwise decisions sometimes and the Act – wisely, Heretic TOC would say – recognised that the freedom to do so is important, at least within limits that have regard to the “best interests” of a person who lacks capacity.

But therein lies a problem, even though acting in someone’s “best interests” sounds so reasonable and the phrase is so familiar and well established in law: the courts are often charged, for instance, with making decisions on behalf of children which are “in the best interests of the child”. The difficulty, as a judge said in the High Court of Australia, is that “in the absence of legal rules or a hierarchy of values, the best interests approach depends upon the value system of the decision-maker.” In other words, no matter how permissive the statute law is, restrictive values will prevail if the statute is at odds with a wider climate of opinion, especially among the mental health authorities and the judges.

In present day Britain and other developed countries, this climate of opinion is steeped not in eugenics but in victim feminism: vulnerability to exploitation through imbalances of power are emphasised – very clearly so, for instance, in the Home Office consultation paper Setting the Boundaries: Reforming the law of sex offences, which set the tone for the 2003 Sexual Offences Act. This Act comprehensively reformed the law in this area, including provisions in respect of those with “a mental disorder impeding choice”. The feminists had a problem though: they could not fashion a law which “protected” the mentally impaired to the extent of completely denying them a sex life, because this clashed with the ECHR’s Article 8, newly built into UK law via the Human Rights Act 1998, which came into effect in 2000.

In practice, however, the “best interests” doctrine has provided a significant loophole. One way or another, what seems to be emerging from case law since the Mental Capacity Act is a series of judgments that emphasise incapacity rather than capacity. In a case reported in August for instance, just two months ago, a mentally impaired woman was prevented from living with her husband when he finished serving a prison sentence – a decision criticised by the Official Solicitor to the Senior Courts.

Unwanted pregnancies, and giving birth to children the parents are incapable of looking after are real issues. These were hardly problematic, though, in the 2011 case of a gay man with an IQ of 48, said to have “a vigorous sex drive”. It was not disputed that he was happily in a relationship with his male partner but a court decided he lacked capacity to consent – although his IQ is a fraction higher than the average of those judged competent in Kennedy’s research, noted above. An online commentator remarked: “If neither he nor his sexual partner is being abused then I don’t see the problem. In fact, if he has a ‘vigorous sex drive’ it’s probably better for everyone he have an appropriate outlet for it instead of frustrating it until he finds an inappropriate one.”

A mildly encouraging feature of the case is that the judge offered some hope, based on the fact that the test of capacity does not set the bar high. It just requires an understanding and awareness of the “mechanics of the act”, “that there are health risks involved” and that sex between a man and a woman may lead to pregnancy. He ruled that the council should provide him with sex education in the hope that he would then be able to pass the test.

The significance of this and similar judgments, I suggest, lies in the fact that in one area of law, dealing with mental capacity, it is being established that sexual consent requires neither a sophisticated level of informed consent, nor a mental age anything like as high as the age of consent in Britain (16) or many American states (18), nor a proven level of emotional maturity, nor the ability to make wise decisions. If an adult with a mental age of eight has the capacity to consent to sex, it is not obvious why an average child of eight would be lacking in that capacity, especially if provided with the requisite information through sex education.

That is Heretic TOC’s primary thought for today but a further provocation arises from another very recent judgment, again made in the UK in August this year. In the first time a UK court has made such a decision, a High Court judge agreed to the sterilisation of a man because it is “in his best interests”.

And you know what? I think the judge was right. It was a pro-sexual decision. It allowed the man’s sex life to continue.

Referred to as “DE”, the 37-year-old was said to have an IQ of 40. He was deemed capable of consenting to sexual relationships but could not properly make decisions about contraception. The judge said a vasectomy could take place after hearing that DE did not want to become a father again, and another child could cause him “psychological harm”. He already has a young son, born in 2010, with his girlfriend. A routine had been in place to stop the man meeting his girlfriend without supervision, to “keep them safe”. Now, thanks to the wise decision of the court, it has become possible to remove this intrusive and frustrating intrusion into the man’s private life without any fear of disastrous consequences.

 

REFERENCES:

Carrie Hill Kennedy: Assessing competency to consent to sexual activity in the cognitively impaired population. Journal of Forensic Neuropsychiatry, 1(3) 1999: 17-33

Carrie Hill Kennedy & John Niederbuhl (2001): Establishing Criteria for Sexual Consent Capacity. American Journal on Mental Retardation: November 2001, Vol. 106, No. 6, pp. 503-510.

Alain Giami: Sterilisation and sexuality in the mentally handicapped. European Journal of Psychiatry: 1998: 13 (Suppl. 3), 113-119.

 

 

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