Raised, and brought low, on the registry

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Sod me! Two six-year-old boys in the US have been charged with sodomy!

And first degree sodomy at that, which applies under Kentucky law when a victim is under 12 years old. In a case from that state, the two first graders “were found in the bathroom performing sexual acts” together, according to a report highlighted last month on Sexnet. As the pair were each other’s “victims”, they had both allegedly committed a Class A felony against a person under 12, for which the available penalty would ordinarily be 50 years in prison.

Even worse, the only media report of the prosecution focuses not on the craziness of bringing the case but on parental shock and horror that kids would do such a thing.

Not that we are entirely sure what “the thing” was. Sodomy is defined in Kentucky law as “deviate sexual intercourse”, which means “any act of sexual gratification involving the sex organs of one person and the mouth or anus of another. It also means penetration of the anus of one person by a foreign object manipulated by another person.” Doctors have long known it’s not uncommon for little kids to try sticking things in each other’s bums, but I’m guessing the boys in this case were caught doing something more obviously sexual. After all, who is going to make a big fuss when an “innocent” explanation is available? It is not clear whether all the acts in question were seen directly but one or both of the boys may have “confessed” anyway.

In most jurisdictions, though, even a clear admission could not have resulted in criminal charges against children so young. A few countries, including India, have a minimum age of criminal responsibility as low as 7. In England, also on the low side in the international table, it is 10. In Canada and the Netherlands it is 12, in Germany and Spain 14, and in all five Scandinavian countries it is as high as 15.

But the US, as so often, is exceptional. Along with a handful of countries including such enlightened outposts as Somalia and Sudan, there are no fewer than 37 US states that specify no minimum age of criminal responsibility at all. Kentucky is one of them.

As for continental Europe, the cultural contrast goes beyond criminal responsibility. Some heretics will remember a couple of blogs here last year, one of them about a four-year-old boy in America dubbed a sex “predator”, the other about the more positive view of child sexuality taken in Scandinavian kindergartens: Being a predator is child’s play; and Mickey and Maria make out in kindergarten.

On another forum, Sexnet, an elderly professor said he was puzzled over the fuss about the American pre-school “predator”. Writing about his childhood in Germany, he said:

I had my first orgasm at 8 when humping a willing naked girl of 6. In the next 3 years, I, some male friends and some girls in the neighborhood (all of the same age) played all kinds of sex games. When, at age 11, we were finally discovered and scolded by our parents, we felt no guilt at all and thought the adults were crazy.

So they were chastised, but that was as far as any punishment went. This was not seen as a police matter and certainly not an occasion for criminal charges.

The four-year-old American “predator” got lucky. There was a police investigation and the kindergarten was closed down (natch!) but he never faced charges. Increasingly, others are less fortunate. In both the US and the UK more and more kids find themselves acquiring a record as a sex offender very early in life. And once that record is there, it stays: the dreaded sex offender registry schemes give a dog a bad name for ever, with devastating effects – as detailed in last years’ Human Rights Watch report, Raised on the Registry.

The 111-page report begins with an account of what happened to one victim of the registry:

Jacob C. was 11 years old and living in Michigan when he was tried in juvenile court for touching, without penetrating, his sister’s genitals. Found guilty of one count of criminal sexual conduct, Jacob was placed on Michigan’s sex offender registry and prevented by residency restriction laws from living near other children.

This posed a problem for his family – Jacob’s parents were separated, his father lived in Florida, and Jacob could not live in the same house as his little sister. As a result, he was placed in a juvenile home. When Jacob was 14 – and still unable to return home – he became the foster child of a pastor and his wife. According to Jacob, the couple helped him to “deal with the trauma” of growing up on the registry.

Since his offense fell under juvenile court jurisdiction, Jacob was placed on a non-public registry. But that changed when he turned 18 during his senior year in high school, and his status as a sex offender became public. Parents of his schoolmates tried to get him expelled and he had to “fight to walk across the stage” at graduation. Jacob attended a local university in Big Rapids, Michigan, but ended up dropping out. “[I was] harassed for being on the registry,” he said. “The campus police followed me everywhere.”

There’s more, much more. Aged 26 when the report came out, Jacob, finds his life is still being massively screwed up by the registry. Thanks to a violation of some impossibly stringent sex offender rules, including reporting daily to the police, he has lost visitation rights to a daughter he now has.

Yet available research, the report points out, indicates that youth sex offenders are among the least likely to reoffend. As a press release for the report said:

Numerous studies estimate the recidivism rate among children who commit sexual offenses to be between 4 and 10 percent, compared with a 13 percent rate for adult sex offenders and a national rate of 45 percent for all crimes.

Also, while some of the offences are serious, you can get on the register for consensual sex with another kid, and for harmless behaviour such as public nudity.

The report concludes with some shocking quotes from those who were raised on the registry:

Once while attempting to register my address, a police officer refused to give me the paperwork and instead stated, “We’re just taking your kind out back and shooting them.”
– Maya R., placed on the registry for an offense committed at age 10. Howell, Michigan.

One time a man from one of those cars yelled “child molester” at me. A week later several bullets were fired from a car driving by. The bullets went through the living room window as my family and me watched T.V.
– Camilo F., registrant since age 14. Gainesville, Florida.

Neighbors harassed our family. We later found out that one of the neighbors shot our family dog.
– Jasmine A., mother of Zachary S., who has been on the registry since age 11. Dallas, Texas.

For sex offenders, our mistake is forever available to the world to see. There is no redemption, no forgiveness. You are never done serving your time. There is never a chance for a fresh start. You are finished. I wish I was executed, because my life is basically over.
– Austin S., who started registering at age 14. Denham Springs, Louisiana.

A big irony in all this is that the kids in question are almost invariably described in legal, medical and political discourse as violent, yet the life- and soul-destroying hostility they face is far more violent than anything most of them have ever done.

Another excellent source on this is defence lawyer Andrew Heller. In a chapter of Tom Hubbard’s recent book Censoring Sex Research, he notes that the US Department of Justice describes sexual “aggression” as starting with three-year-olds, with the most common age of onset as 6 to 9 – which sounds suspiciously like an official state condemnation of all child sexuality.

Heller also reveals that violence of a far more insidious kind than drive-by shootings is endemic within the “treatment” regimes meted out to these kids. Some of it just plain abusive, such as teenagers being made daily to recite creeds such as “I am a paedophile and I am not fit to live in human society…I can never be trusted… Everything I say is a lie…”

Then there is stuff which is not just abusive but sexually abusive. He tells of boys as young as 10 forced to undergo sexual arousal testing in which response to “deviant” stimuli is measured by an erection detector placed around the penis. Programs include the use of aversion therapy in which kids (including girls) are made to inhale vile-smelling ammonia while listening to pornographic taped descriptions of adult-child sex, as an aversion therapy to stop “inappropriate” arousal.

These are the sort of methods that were used on gay men fifty years ago and then abandoned as unethical and dangerous. Yet, according to Heller, “no professional organisation has made any statements rejecting the use of arousal conditioning methods on juveniles and they continue to be used”.

Back to Kentucky. As the case of the six-year-old sodomites was presented on Sexnet only last month, I assumed it was a new case, yet to come to trial. The news report linked above is undated, so I was none the wiser from that. With a bit more digging, though, I found that this was actually a case from February 2005. When I discovered this, I thought about dropping the story from this blog: after all, the report Raised on the Registry is much more recent and it too exposes the awful fact that large numbers of preteens, as well as teens, are being prosecuted as sex offenders these days.

However, apart from the continuing intrinsic interest of such exceptionally young kids facing a sodomy charge in the Kentucky case, there was another reason to retain it as my initial focus: my research turned up a couple of later media reports from May 2005, three months after the charges were laid: Investigation Into Elementary School Sex; and Arrests of boys spark debate.

By this time the case had gone to court and been resolved. The judge had dismissed the charges with the condition that the boys were to undergo treatment.

Not “arousal conditioning”, one hopes. And not registration either, as the earliest for this in the US is the grand old age of 9, according to Raised on the Registry.

We don’t know about the kind of treatment, but one of the reports did give us some insight into why police and prosecutors had felt the need to take such extreme action. They claimed their intention had not been to punish; rather, they needed to charge the boys to determine whether adults had abused one or both of them, triggering their behaviour at school.

Police Chief J. Craig Patterson is quoted as saying, “They are both victims of someone. I want to know: ‘Where did these children learn this?’ ”

You know what? It’s entirely possible this cop actually believed what he was saying. The idea of spontaneous childhood sexuality has been written out of our cultural script so thoroughly that for many people it can no longer be imagined. It has become literally unthinkable.

We know that kids need good sex education; not as much, though, as many ignorant adults in positions of power.

The high price of respectability in Brazil

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As slums go, the Santa Marta favela in Rio de Janeiro is remarkably pretty, even glamorous.  The stinking open sewers, garbage-strewn alleys and tumbledown shacks are doubtless much like those in many hundreds of such favelas, home to almost a quarter of the city’s population of over six million.

But Santa Marta is special. One thing that makes it so, in the mantra of the real estate dealers, is “location, location, location”. Unlike the  vast, sprawling, nondescript favelas of industrial north Rio, Santa Marta lies in the favoured south, only a couple of Metro stations away from well-heeled Copacabana, with its famous beach.  Actually, Santa Marta doesn’t really “lie” anywhere. Instead, it clings precariously to a steep and, as it were, “holy” hillside, directly beneath Rio’s truly most iconic feature – tourists make thousands of “icons” of it every day – the huge and imposing mountain-top statue of Christ the Redeemer, whose open arms embrace the city.

Perhaps this special location lay behind the decision to use Santa Marta for filming the video of Michael Jackson’s song “They don’t really care about us” in 1995. As many here will be aware, the shoot featured local kids (surprise, surprise!) singing and dancing along with Jackson.  He was accused at the time of exploiting their poverty, which may be true.  But it is also true that the massive worldwide publicity generated by the event meant that suddenly, the image-conscious Brazilian authorities – then bidding for the World Cup and Olympics that are finally now coming their way ­– started caring about Santa Marta. Artists were commissioned to beautify the place with murals; the more prominent houses were painted in bright, cheerful colours.  More practically, a cable car was built, so that favela dwellers would no longer have to sweat their way to the top; concrete steps replaced slippery mud banks; railings were installed so that kids would no longer tumble and hurt themselves.

Jon, my guide when I visited the favela a few days ago, testified personally to the importance of this last improvement. A Santa Marta resident all his life, when he was little he fell off an unguarded sheer drop, badly injuring his back.

“I still have the scars to prove it,” he told me, in good English learned not in school but from the internet and talking with tourists.

As the author of a book on Michael Jackson (and his boys), I was particularly keen to explore the superstar’s connection with the favela. Not that Jon would have let it pass unnoticed: a visit to what has become a Jackson “shrine” is a highlight of his tour. The Jackson area includes a balcony with a statue of the late great in an open-armed gesture, appearing to – ahem – embrace the city below, rather like Jesus.  Accused in his lifetime of presenting himself as a messiah (not the only allegation he faced, of course) at least he cannot be blamed for this little excess.

Little, indeed, is the operative word here. The statue is tiny, less than life-size. By contrast, Jackson promoted his History album with a 60-foot statue of himself, floated upright on a barge down the River Thames, in London. Now that was a statue fit for a god!

Why all this is expected to be of interest to readers of Heretic TOC is a bit obscure, I confess. My interest in Jackson is primarily rooted in his boy-love rather than his over-the-top self-presentation or the way his fans idolised him. Unsurprisingly, there was not a trace of evidence in Santa Marta that I could find in my brief visit to suggest any BL connection, other than the faint echoes discernible from the video itself – which was played to me in the inevitable souvenir shop and which I felt obliged to buy. Oh, yes, there is another thing I nearly forgot to mention: Michael had a couple of young boys in his entourage, so he wasn’t exactly short of company!

What I’m trying to do, I suppose, in a roundabout way, is to let y’all know that Heretic TOC is on vacation in Brazil right now, escaping the horrible wet, windy, grey English winter for a few weeks. After a very agreeable week spent in Rio seeing all the usual tourist sights, I will soon be off hiking deep in the interior. I expect this will be all about mountains, rivers, waterfalls and valleys rather than a “heretic” thing, so it is entirely possible my next blog won’t even mention Brazil, although it will probably be written in this country.

I should not leave the favela theme, though, without some acknowledgement of a much bigger issue than Michael Jackson’s fleeting presence long ago. Apart from poverty, which is still the defining feature of favela life for many, although it could be worse – satellite TV dishes festoon the rooftops – violence has also been endemic in these communities, as those familiar with the film City of God will be aware.

That has changed for the better quite a bit in recent years, thanks to police “pacification” programmes: one by one, dozens of favelas, starting with Santa Marta itself in 2008, have been subjected to intensive policing, resulting in the expulsion of the criminal gangs that used to rule the roost, dominating entire communities not just the drug  scene. Without such pacification I could not have entered Santa Marta without severe risk of being intimidated and robbed.

The price of such victories has been high, though. The police in Brazil are often accused of brutality, the latest allegations arising from their handling in recent days of demonstrations against the World Cup ­– a popular protest  despite the country’s fabled love of football, because people would prefer to see the money go on decent public services, especially in education and health provision.

But I digress. The allegations have often all too clearly been true, although a culture of impunity means police officers are very seldom held to account for actions that include outright torture and murder of suspects, with even mass killings not unknown. Not so long ago, Human Rights Watch reported over 3,000 deaths annually from police violence in Brazil. In one appalling incident, the Candelária church massacre of 1993, eight minors were killed by the police, including two boys aged 14, one 13 and one 11.

Basically these kids, and others like them in many cities, have been treated like vermin who need to be exterminated in order to “cleanse” the streets, making them safe for the prosperous classes who don’t like their pockets picked by Dickensian gangs of urchins, or having their stores robbed – and who, in their respectability, don’t much care for kids to be hanging around plying a trade as prostitutes either.

Pacification, then, has its agreeable side, as I discovered: it is good to stroll about in a relaxed, crime-free environment. But the flip side has been ugly and vicious in the extreme. And the favelas have arguably been not just pacified but stultified. When the law rides into town a lot of the colour and the fun rides out!

P.S. Director Spike Lee also shot part of his Jackson video in the city of Salvador, where I am staying right now. This location was in the historic district of Pelourinho, originally a slave market. Naturally, I plan to pay a visit!

N.B. For one week, starting on Monday 10 February, I expect to be hiking in remote places away from any internet connections. Accordingly, I will be unable to approve and posts your comments in this period. So, if you have anything to say about this or other H-TOC blogs, get in quickly!

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