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Moralistic efforts to guard against online predation do more harm than good.
Photo: Todd Kravos
North Carolina’s Supreme Court just upheld a law making it a crime for a former sex offender to use social media that minors also use—that is, any social media.
In New Hampshire a judge rejected the appeal of Owen Labrie’s conviction for using a computer to “lure” a fifteen-year-old girl into sex. If Labrie, the prep school senior whose rape trial made national headlines, had called the girl on the phone instead of making arrangements on Facebook and by text, he would not have been breaking the law. The computer-related conviction will put the nineteen-year-old on the sex offender registry for life; he could also serve years in prison.
And the district attorney in Cañon City, Colorado, is mulling over whom, among a hundred or so high school students caught trading naked pictures of themselves via smartphone, to prosecute on child pornography charges.
Laws such as these, against “electronic solicitation of a minor” and online trading of child pornography, are troublesome for many reasons. For one thing, they are easy to abuse in order to load on penalties when the state is frustrated by an acquittal or lesser conviction than it sought. That is what happened in New Hampshire, where Labrie was acquitted of felony sexual assault but found guilty of misdemeanor statutory rape.
For another, because we all increasingly—and kids almost exclusively—rely on social media to conduct our family, social, business, and, yes, sexual lives, enforcement of these laws would require NSA-like blanket surveillance and would seriously damage freedom of speech. Indeed, challengers to North Carolina’s law argue that it is an unconstitutional curtailment of sex offenders’ First Amendment rights.
And then there are the patent absurdities created by such laws—signs that legislators, in search of novel ways to torture so-called sex offenders, have abandoned consideration of efficacy or justice. In the case of underage sexting, for instance, a person is both offender and victim at the same time.
Predators are not reaching through the screen to drag kids to iniquity. Kids are stepping through themselves.
But here is the deeper problem: the online offender statutes—not to mention press coverage, social analysis, education, parenting advice, and general fretting that goes with them—are built on nothing but fear.
The underlying assumption is that Internet communication is fundamentally different from other means of communication. But not just different, the laws suggest. It is more dangerous. Specifically, it is dangerous to children, and in a particular way: sexually. The stated intent of these laws is to protect children from “Internet predators”—even if those predators are themselves. But as a growing body of research shows, the Internet is not especially sexually dangerous for kids—not more dangerous than anywhere else.
Online sexual solicitation of minors is rare and getting rarer. A comparison of three successive national surveys of kids aged ten to seventeen found that those receiving such come-ons dropped 50 percent from 2000 to 2010, to just 9 percent. At the same time, “the proportion of such crimes committed by offenders who use the Internet to meet victims is quite small in comparison to sex crimes against children overall,” according to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health and Medicine. During the period studied, the mid-aughts, there were 615 arrests for such offenses. Meanwhile, an estimated 14 million young people aged twelve to seventeen were accessing social media sites.
The study is part of ongoing research on online sexual and criminal behavior conducted by the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center, considered a foremost authority on such matters. The researchers there also found that adults who meet minors online for sexual purposes “are not different or more dangerous” than those who seek sex with kids they already know, either online or on terra firma.
Contrary to the image of the grizzly fifty-year-old satyr scattering emoticons across the screen like a middle-schooler, hardly anyone is deceiving anyone about their age or sexual intentions. In fact, the only people routinely lying about their identities are vice cops lurking in chat rooms posing as thirteen- or fourteen-year-olds. In the 2010 study of adult-minor sexual contacts through social media, almost three-quarters of the cases originated with investigators in sting operations, closer examination of which frequently reveals entrapment.
Another finding: the dirty old men are not old, the child victims aren’t children, and the sex is usually not sex. The typical online solicitor is a young man, eighteen to twenty-five years old, chatting up a slightly younger person, fourteen to seventeen. Research published by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children found that only 4 percent of online sex crimes against minors implicated older men. Similarly, models appearing in “child” pornography are mostly adolescents. Sensational coverage notwithstanding, porn videos may be made by the teen models themselves, who are seeking a sense of power and, of course, profit. Pornographic images of very young kids are rare. Not surprisingly, most of the cases of illicit “sex” initiated do not go beyond fingers on a keyboard. In one of those three national telephone surveys—this one encompassing 1,500 ten-to-seventeen-year-olds, conducted in 2005—only four youth had “physical contact [they] would call sexual” during face-to-face meetings with adults they met online.
Online predators are neither prevalent nor uniquely predatory, when they are predatory at all. The risks of the new technologies are not all that new, either. Yet each of these studies describing a less-than-treacherous Internet reiterates the necessity of teaching kids how to be safe online.
• • •
What are we afraid of?
The Internet is simply a novel site for a familiar anxiety, provoked by the social freedom that kids gain when they step over the threshold of home into the bigger world. It is not only the dangers but also the pleasures of that freedom that freak out adults.
In the last century and a half, each expansion of youthful worldliness, via hardship or prosperity—industrialization, the Depression, World War II, the Sexual Revolution—has been followed by campaigns to bar the doors. Each time, adults have been “protecting” children, essentially, from modernity. The real threats can be economic or biological, environmental or ideological. But over and over, inchoate adult anxieties have been embodied in a single massively exaggerated threat: the sex fiend hungry for young flesh.
In late nineteenth-century cities on both sides of the Atlantic, a working girl’s libertinage—dancing, flirting, or casual prostitution—offended Victorian morals, and her exploitation in the factories and streets enraged feminists and social reformers. None of these adults could countenance a young woman’s willingness to take risks for fun or freedom. She must, therefore, have been forced—the word now would be “trafficked.” It was not hard for the public to fall for sensational “exposés” of “white slavers” snatching up virgins and selling their bodies for a few bills.
Not just malefactors, but also media and talk, seemed to augur outsized danger. “The so-called Museums of the city . . . act like magnets to curious children and morbid elders” alike, the New York Society for the Protection of Children warned in 1890. There audiences witnessed lascivious dancing and theatrical scenes of “depravity, stabbing, shooting, and blood-shedding.” In 1914 the Russell Sage Foundation reported of the “streets, roofs, docks, and hallways” of New York’s West Side, where unsupervised “children of both sexes indulge freely in [sexual] conversation which is only carried on secretly by [middle-class] adults.”
The current sex panic, now in its fourth decade, began in the early 1980s, when middle-class white mothers left home for work, and their toddlers left, too, for the wilds of daycare. Again, apparitions of the sex fiend appeared; hundreds of people were falsely accused and convicted of bizarre “Satanic ritual abuse.”
Peruse Google Images for “Internet safety” today, and you will find the monster in his latest, cybernetic, mutation. In one picture, a boy sits at a computer whose screen is the mouth of a huge python. In another, a hand reaches through a screen, proffering candy.
Sex is a powerful outbound vehicle from home to world.
If nineteenth-century moralists hoped to keep children out of harm’s way by keeping them out of the street, today we fear that the street runs straight into the house. Harm squeezes in through the fiber-optic cable, floats down from the cloud. The predator is sleeping under the child’s desk, lurking in the family room. The cover line of a mid-1990s religious magazine heralded the coming invasion: “Cyberporn steals home!”
But armies of white slavers were not selling little girls into prostitution in nineteenth-century London; some young women were turning the occasional trick to supplement their meager wages, as historians including Judith Walkowitz have documented. Today predators are not reaching through the screen and dragging kids to iniquity. Kids are stepping through themselves. And leaving home by little cybersteps is a lot less dangerous than going to work in a textile mill.
Sex is a powerful outbound vehicle from home to world. It carries a young person toward intense feelings and relationships outside the family, flouting its fears and, sometimes, its values. For parents, the prospect evokes feelings from sadness to rage to terror. How much easier it is to imagine the child has been lured than to acknowledge that he or she went voluntarily, answering desire.
The principal of Cañon City High told the press he was most disappointed that no student had stepped forward to tell an adult about the sexting. Never mind the future social life such a rat would be asking for. Doesn’t this principal understand that part of what makes teen sex exciting is that adults don’t know about it?
Adults’ cluelessness would be less consequential if the object of their anxieties were not criminalized and if the criminal penalties for sex offenses were not so harsh. Until legislators get the courage to repeal these laws, the best way to soften the potential harms of consensual teen sexual play is to advise kids not to tell the principal, much less the police.
If adults want to protect young people from violence, either sexual or otherwise, they should keep them out of juvenile detention or prison and off the sex offender registry, where even a misdemeanor offense can land a minor. The brutalities and casualties of the punitive criminal system are deep and long-lived—and far more real than anything a child might encounter in the vapors of cyberspace.
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