Newspapers Quietly Resist Child Sex Panic
I’ve been intrigued by a couple of recent newspaper articles that, in effect, challenge some of the existing dogma about both child pornography and Megan’s Law community notification. Last week, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a piece about the German teen mag, Bravo. Bravo features frank articles about sexuality that include nude (or are they just “naked”?) photographs of teenagers. A person selling one of these popular magazines here in the U.S. might well be subject to prosecution under both state and federal child pornography laws. The article includes quotes from the publishers who make the case that this material is important and useful to teens. The Inquirer’s mere act of running such a piece – an article about something that has been happening for a while, and is therefore hardly “newsworthy” – seems designed to cause some readers to question their underlying assumption that nude photos of kids (even in a sexualized context) is per se immoral. The article tells us that, In one western democracy, at least, such photos can be acceptable and appropriate.
The second article was a piece in yesterday’s Washington Post. This one was a story about a man who plead guilty, 13 years ago, to misdemeanor incest with his sister. He has apparently moved on with his life, and his sister does not see him as a threat. The notification law in Virginia, however, requires that his face now be plastered on the internet as a sex criminal. He sued to avoid that fate. This story is perhaps a bit more newsworthy than the Inky piece, but not that much more so. I suspect that there have been many individuals who have challenged their inclusion in Megan’s Law rolls, probably using the same legal bases. Indeed, as I read the story, I wondered: why did this make the paper? (And indeed we learned, today, that he lost.)
The answer, I think, is that – at last – some responsible citizens are beginning to press the question of how our country deals with child sexuality. A society is certainly entitled to set parameters for who is able to consent to sex or sexual displays. But we have taken such dramatic steps to attack child sexuality that we both over-prosecute relatively harmless conduct (like the photos in Bravo) and over-punish serious, but not necessarily recurring misconduct (“consensual” incest between siblings). Unfortunately, criticizing these sorts of laws is as taboo as the underlying conduct. It is virtually unacceptable for a person to argue that laws in these areas are too strong – or, God forbid, utterly unjustified.
In the academy, Amy Adler is one of the few people who has seriously critiqued child pornography law. (Her article is available in full text for JSTOR subscribers here.) Now, it appears, some of these provisions are being challenged in the popular press. Not on the op-ed page, of course. That would doom editors to deadly attacks from the panic mongers. Rather, the critiques are indirect and quiet, embedded in the editorial decisions of the news section. Whatever the venue, I applaud any effort to make rational policy decisions in this radioactive area of law.