Friday, March 1, 2019

Disabililty Day of Mourning 2019 and the Presumption of Caregiver Benevolence

  
Every March 1st, the disability community mourns those of us disabled people whose lives have been lost too soon, particularly those who are the victims of caregiver and familial violence due to prejudice and hatred directed towards us as a result of intolerance for our disabilities. Disabled lives are ended prematurely all too often for a variety of tragic reasons. Sometimes the issue may be the physical health problems that we live with which in some cases have the potential to cut our lives short. Sometimes the issue is a lack of funding and resources devoted to our care and welfare, which can have particularly deadly consequences for us. As was the case with the recently departed disability rights activist Carrie Ann Lucas, sometimes insurance companies and/or governmental austerity policies are at least in part to blame. Sometimes the issue is one of medical malpractice, medical neglect, medical paternalism, or even the medically sanctioned killing of disabled people, all ways in which the medical industrial complex all too frequently systematically disvalues the lives of disabled individuals with devastating consequences. However, one of the most salient causes of the death of disabled people, both disabled adults and disabled youth, that is discussed widely within the disability community but almost entirely ignored outside of the community, is the epidemic of caregiver and familial violence that disabled people face and all too often lose their lives as a result of.

   In our society, we like to think of caregivers, especially parents, as always loving, benevolent, and well meaning. We want to believe that even when they may not always do the right thing, they fundamentally want what is best for those in their care. And of course this is often the case. No one denies that many parents and caregivers for disabled and non-disabled people alike love those they care for a great deal and sacrifice a lot to try to do what is right for them. However, what we don't talk about is the reality that there are those who don't have the right attitude towards those in their care and yet wield authority over them all the same. The automatic presumption of caregiver benevolence is dangerous and deadly, particularly as its invisible and uncontested influence makes its presence felt in law, policy, and common social practices.

   According to the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), in the past five years six hundred and fifty disabled people have been murdered by their parents. According to ASAN's website, "We see the same pattern repeating over and over again. A parent kills their disabled child. The media portrays these murders as justifiable and inevitable due to the 'burden' of having a disabled person in the family. If the parent stands trial, they are given sympathy and comparatively lighter sentences, if they are sentenced at all. The victims are disregarded, blamed for their own murder at the hands of the person they should have been able to trust the most, and ultimately forgotten. And then the cycle repeats."

   Two major societal assumptions are at work in terms of how the media and the culture at large reacts to these events. Ableism is a major part of the equation. So is the presumption of parental and caregiver benevolence that ultimately harms disabled people of all ages as well as youth with and without disabilities. Disability and youth liberation and oppression are intimately intertwined with one another. The Disability Day of Mourning is a day that youth and disability rights advocates should take time to reflect deeply on these connections, mourn for the victims of violence justified in the name of ableism and paternalism, and recommit ourselves to working for a more just world for both disabled people of all ages and for youth with and without disabilities. This is what understanding intersectionality is truly all about. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Book Review: Judith Levine's Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex

  In the course of doing research for my own book project on youth rights issues, I have been reading voraciously about a wide variety of youth related topics. As I read these books, I am trying to review as many of them as possible here on The Youth Rights Blog so that readers of the blog can get a sense of the literature that is out there on these topics, what various works have to offer, and where they fall short. Today's review regards independent journalist, scholar, and activist Judith Levine's 2002 book Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex. While some of the material in the book is now dated and is therefore clearly a product of its time (particularly the material which refers to then widespread and current youth attitudes regarding issues of gender and sexual orientation as well as some likely no longer accurate statistics on various topics), much of the material within the book is as relevant as ever. You could write an entire book about any given domain of youth oppression - the juvenile justice system, youth oppression within the medical industrial complex, problems with the PreK-12 education system, youth oppression and abuse within the family, the moral bankruptcy of the notion of parental rights, etc. - and this is essentially what Levine does in Harmful to Minors, zeroing in on the myriad ways in which youth sexuality is repressed, policed, controlled, pathologized, shamed, stigmatized, and restricted and the myriad harms that this causes to youth and often to adults as well. Levine is a good writer and Harmful to Minors is a powerful book.

   On the whole, Harmful to Minors is an excellent work of youth liberation theory that succeeds in portraying and theorizing in a right thinking way about the wickedness and devastation wrought by decades of moral panics surrounding sexual issues pertaining to young people coupled with wide ranging rollbacks of youth freedom in matters sexual and non-sexual alike that have resulted from these seemingly never ending moral panics. Few people are able to grasp the central tenet of youth liberation theory - that child abuse and child protectionism are in actuality two sides of the same coin. Even fewer individuals are able to communicate this truism clearly to others while talking about such highly charged topics as age of consent laws, moral panics concerning pedophilia, and HIV/AIDS. Levine, however, is able to do both of these things and does them very well in this book.

   All of that being said, I do have a few minor criticisms of this work. I think that it is important that Levine's focus on youth sexual rights be situated in a somewhat wider youth liberationist context than she gives them in most of the book. Towards the end of the book, Levine does tie her focus on youth sexual rights in with the larger issue of youth as autonomous citizens and community members, but I think that it would have been better if that perspective had been more obviously present from the beginning of the work and had more clearly informed it throughout. Youth sexual rights are important in part because they are inextricably bound up with a larger web of issues involving youth rights to bodily autonomy and personal self determination. I think that Levine recognizes that, but she could have made this point much clearer and she could have done so much earlier on in the work, thus deflecting the criticism that her interest in promoting youth sexual autonomy is somehow prurient.

   Finally, I felt that Levine's chapter on abortion rights was altogether too blase about the ethical and personal dilemmas raised by the issue of abortion for individuals of any age. And while Levine seemed to take the view that any adolescent who found herself pregnant would be all to eager to have an abortion and that this would be the right decision for most youth in that situation, she ignored the choice that many youth make to parent and did not speak at all to the rights and interests of young parents stigmatized by our society's negative discourses surrounding teenage pregnancy and parenting. I think that this was a major missed opportunity and a mistake. Reproductive justice and liberty, including for young folks, is not about enforcing a one size fits all agenda or glossing over the real and challenging issues raised for an individual of any age who thinks about electively terminating a viable pregnancy.

   Having voiced my criticisms of Harmful to Minors, I want to end this review by saying unequivocally that it is an excellent work of youth liberationist theory and that everyone interested in youth liberation issues needs to read it. A great deal of what Levine has to say will no doubt inform my own work on youth rights issues in reference to sexuality going forward.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

A Conference Presentation and a Distillation of Why I Am an Unapologetic Radical Youth Liberationist

Jackson Howard Wagner, me, and Alexander R. Cohen. Great friends and comrades.
   Back in November, I had the privilege of attending the wonderful Applied Philosophy Workshop at Bowling Green State University. On Saturday, November 3, 2018, I gave a presentation at this conference entitled "In Defense of Liberated Young People: A Critique of the Protectionist Developmentalist Position." The talk went really well and I could tell that folks were nodding along and understanding the message that I was trying to convey. The information that I presented was mostly taken from the Master's thesis that I wrote on this very topic (and which I am proud to say was given the honor of "passing with distinction" from my graduate committee) as a graduate student at San Francisco State University. My wonderful youth liberationist friends and comrades Alexander Cohen and Jackson Howard Wagner were there and they really helped to make this conference presentation a truly wonderful experience.

   After my presentation, a graduate student at Bowling Green State University was tasked with delivering a response to the material. At first, I thought he was raising some good points that I wanted to respond to, but he closed his remarks in a dismissive and flippant way by saying "What if teenagers are running off to the mall in their bikinis to get tattoos on their faces?" I had five minutes to respond and this is basically what I said after setting a timer on my iPhone.

   "The presenter that we just heard from raised some good points and I want to thank him for his response. However, he said one thing in particular that I wanted to respond to. He talked about teenagers in bikinis going to the mall to get tattoos on their faces. Well, I know a lot of young people and I don't know any that are clamoring to go to the mall in bikinis to get facial tattoos, although I suppose that that would be their right if that is something that they wanted to do. But here is what I do know about. I know about youth that are abused within their homes physically, emotionally, and/or sexually by their families and are returned to those very families when they attempt to run away. I know about youth who have been sent by their parents to gulag schools for behavior modification that traumatized them for life. I know about youth who are not allowed to express their gender or sexuality within their family and as a result they are oppressed and abandoned with no options. I know about youth subjected to medical procedures against their wills who have been traumatized for life by that. I know about youth who are bullied or mistreated in schools and do not have the option to choose other educational institutions. I know about youth who are in schools that are just not a good fit for them and where they are just not thriving as they should be and they do not have the option to make a change. I know about youth subjected by family members to behavior modification programs which traumatized and pathologized them. I know about youth who were denied freedom of conscience in reference to religion and spirituality, which is such a sacrosanct value in our society. I know about youth indoctrinated into racism, sexism, heterosexism, and cissexism by their families. I know about families that want to break up loving relationships involving youth because of the partners' ages, race, or sex. So, I do not know about teenagers in bikinis at the mall getting facial tattoos but that is what I do know about."

   After that statement, everyone clapped and I sat down, knowing that I had given the right response to my interlocutor's words. We cannot allow youth rights issues to be trivialized. They are too important not to do so.
Me and my wonderful host, Kathryn Gonda, at the Bowling Green State University Philosophy Conference.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Denying Youth The Right To Public Space: A Growing Problem in American Society

   Recently a story has been making the rounds in the news media regarding an eight-year-old young woman whose mother had the police called on her and then had a Department of Children and Family Services investigation launched in reference to her, all at the behest of what sounds like a quite frankly imbalanced neighbor because the young person was walking her dog by herself on the streets of her suburban neighborhood. The mother ultimately had to hire an attorney to clear her name and the matter was put to rest in less than two weeks, but she was understandably outraged, disturbed, and somewhat traumatized by the incident. She explained to reporters that she rarely allowed her children to be unsupervised and that she felt "mom shamed" by this entire bizarre incident.

   First of all, one's heart does certainly go out to this mother who was doing nothing wrong and had to deal with an avalanche of legal harassment concerning her family. I find myself wishing that the person responsible for this family's nightmare was being publicly shamed in the same fashion as those individuals recently rightly publicly derided in the public sphere for calling the police on African-Americans simply going about their business while black. All of that being said, I find it somewhat problematic that the main focus of the media in reporting this story has been on the mother and not on the even greater problem which is ultimately linked to this mother's plight - the fact that increasingly in American society, young people are discouraged from occupying public space.

   The rationales given for attempting to keep youth from occupying public space tend to vary based upon the age of the youth and the nature of the space that an ageist is trying to deny a young person access to. For fairly young youth (such as Dorothy Widen, the eight-year-old young lady walking her gratuitously adorable white toy poodle in the aforementioned story) the rationales proffered by those who want to segregate youth from the rest of society and deny them all freedom of movement often come down to misdirected concerns about safety. Unsupervised children, we are told, will hurt themselves, hurt others, or be harmed by strange people with ill intentions. This is despite the fact that crime rates are actually far lower than they have been in years past when unsupervised children out and about were a more readily identifiable feature of urban, suburban, and rural life. Writing at the dawn of the second wave of the women's liberation movement of the 1970s (a much more laissez faire time in terms of youth being unsupervised compared to today), Shulamith Firestone, Richard Farson, and John Holt realized that calls for women to abandon themselves completely to mothering and supervise their children constantly were largely rooted in sexism dressed up as concern for children's welfare. Those who have subsequently written about the daycare ritual abuse and sexual molestation panics of the 1980s such as Richard Beck and Roger N. Lancaster have similarly noted that the mechanics of these modern day witch hunts were set in motion in large part due to increasing concerns within society about the fact that so many women were putting their children in the care of others while they worked outside of the home for the first time. Clearly, something other than an increase in actual dangers and risks to young people is driving these phenomena and a great deal of it has to do with the sexist notion that women belong in the home and should be watching and caring for their children at all times instead of occupying public space themselves.

   However, in the contemporary United States, while adult women do continue to suffer as a result of these problematic attitudes and the laws, policies, practices, and social norms that grow out of them, the greatest victims are in fact young people themselves. The fact that cultural anxieties about women's increasing independence from hearth and home present in the guise that they do speaks to the fact that very few people in America today are comfortable with openly stating that a woman's place is always and only in the home caring for her children and looking out for her husband. What we are comfortable with stating openly is that children need constant supervision. Young people should never be let out of an adult's sight. Curfews should be imposed to keep teenagers locked away after dark. Allowing a child the freedom to inhabit public space should be criminalized. Even supervised young people should be kept out of some public spaces just because some people don't want to see them. We as a society are increasingly comfortable with promulgating the notion that adults without children should see children out and about as little as possible and never on their own. While sexism may be fueling a great deal of this trend, anti-youth ageism is fanning the flames even further. And ultimately, young people are the biggest losers in this situation.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Book Review: Roger N. Lancaster's "Sex Panic and the Punitive State"

   As many of you know, I have been doing a lot of research into moral panics of the 1970s and 1980s era in order to explain how previous tentative yet meaningful steps in the direction of youth liberation in the 1960s and 1970s had been rolled back in the ensuing years. I have been doing this research specifically because writing about this is part of the introduction of the large scale book project that I am currently working on in reference to youth rights. Towards this end, I have already read and reviewed Richard Beck's book We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s. I am following this review with one of the anthropologist Roger N. Lancaster's book Sex Panic and the Punitive State, which was published in 2011 by the University of California Press.

   The thesis of Lancaster's book is that a series of sexual panics, in particular those related to minors, fundamentally changed America over the course of the 1970s and the 1980s and ultimately contributed to dynamics that made the United States a far more punitive place than it had been before. From a youth liberationist perspective, perhaps the key insight of this text is Lancaster's insight that successive waves of sex panics, with their focus on a stereotyped idealized and asexual innocent (fictional) child victim, have created a network of laws, policies, practices, and assumptions embedded deeply within the culture and the workings of the state in reference to minors, adults, and sexuality that is increasingly draconian and out of touch with reality. The effects have come to extend far beyond anything having to do strictly with sexuality and have not been for the good.

   One bedrock tenet of my youth liberationism has always been that serious youth liberationists cannot be afraid to confront the harm that comes to both youth and adults as a result of authoritarian attempts to police youth and intergenerational sexuality because, while this may be politically fraught territory, it is also the ground upon which successive waves of sexually inflected moral panics have eroded the rights of youth and others in all manner of ways that extend far beyond the realm of sexuality. Youth liberationists can do this in a responsible way that recognizes that sexuality is an ethically fraught territory for people of all ages and that sexual exploitation can indeed be seriously harmful as radical feminist theorists such as Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon have written about eloquently. For this reason, I have long believed that feminists, youth liberationists, and everyone else should take a view of sexual politics that seriously grapples with the observations of sex critical radical feminism while pushing back strongly against notions of sexual panic that are used as a means of social control increasingly disconnected from any sense of proportion or reality.

   Writes Lancaster in a particularly poignant passage regarding the sex panics of the 1980s, "They distilled diffuse anxieties about sex and children into the pervasive perception that all children everywhere are at perpetual risk of sexual assault. In the resulting culture of hypervigilant child protection, the denial of childhood sexuality and the perpetual hunt for the predatory pervert are opposite sides of the same coin: the innocent and the monster, the perfect victim and the irredeemable fiend... They spawned expansive new subfields of psuedoscience - fanciful psychological profiles of abusers, whimsical diagnostic tools said to predict future predation or recidivism. They powerfully contributed to the consolidation of an ever more comprehensive culture of child protection, thus extending the purviews of both long-standing official bureaucracies (child protection services) and newer, quasi-official ones (victims' rights advocates)."

   In order to illustrate his point, Lancaster list a variety of important ways that these successive waves of sex panic "have led to to new terminologies and produced new ways of speaking and thinking about children." He writes that a "blanket 'no touching' policy" has pervaded many organizations responsible for child care in contravention of the long acknowledged wisdom that all people, especially very young people, need hugs and other forms of wholesome non-sexual touch in order to thrive. He notes that the insights of Freudian psychology, which acknowledged the reality that children are sexual beings and that all relationships "can have an erotic dimension without any overt sexual activity ever occurring" have been superseded by a new cultural logic that insists that acknowledging such psychological truths harms and damages children by "sexualizing" them. Lancaster states, "Commonsensical propositions, easily uttered before the 1980s - children sometimes develop crushes on their teachers, adolescents sometimes seek out sexual relationships with adults precisely because the latter are more mature, more experienced, and more sophisticated - have become suspect." Lancaster also notes that research findings which further the association between sex and trauma in the lives of youth are quickly afforded official status by politicians, journalists, activists, legal officials, and others while studies which find evidence to the contrary are ignored or even made into the targets of outrage and censorship. Finally, Lancaster notes that an obsession with the concept of childhood innocence "has become more valued than children themselves" as a focus on projects like abstinence only sex education and protecting children's and adolescent's sexual purity takes priority over securing the rights or material welfare of young people in any wider sense and that the term "pedophile" has, since 1960s, become a household word denoting an increasingly widening set of sexual behaviors and desires.

   Lancaster wisely notes that unrealistic and stereotyped notions of youth asexuality are all too often quickly leveraged against youth themselves who fail to perform notions of childhood innocence to the satisfaction of the adults around them. He cites the statistic that ostensibly 41% of sexual abusers are said to be minors, but also notes that ultimately this statistic is problematic because "nonviolent, noncoercive sex acts between minors (or between minors and mature adults)" have come "to be classified as abuse." Ominously, the same sorts of logic that fueled the Satanic ritual abuse and daycare child molestation panics that were the primary subject of Richard Beck's We Believe the Children are now being employed in the service of labeling and punishing youth deemed to be "sex offenders" by overzealous and ill informed teachers, social workers, and law enforcement officials. Amazingly, Lancaster documents that in Maryland in 2001, for instance, one hundred and sixty-five elementary school aged youth were suspended from school for sexual harassment, including three preschoolers, sixteen kindergartners, and twenty-two first graders. Notes Lancaster wryly, "Children-who-molest, children-who-harass, children-who-abuse are mostly children who fail to validate adult fantasies of childhood innocence. And those fantasies are becoming increasingly fantastic." This is but one example of what youth liberationists are talking about when we insist that, all too often, child abuse and child protectionism are ultimately two sides of the same coin. A preoccupation with safeguarding an imaginary veil of childhood innocence does no such thing but in practice does ultimately lead to real and devastating harms for actual real flesh and blood children.  

   One fascinating and important point that Lancaster makes is that while mainstream acceptance of lesbian, gay, and bisexual Americans has increased, the shadowy specter of the pedophilic child predator continues to perform a great deal of the sociocultural work that the figure of the deviant homosexual menace once performed. For this reason, Lancaster argues that sexual panics are especially detrimental to the freedom, rights, and interests of members of the LGBTQ community. In making this argument, Lancaster draws on the work of the renowned queer theorist Lee Edelman, a thinker whose name I have long been vaguely familiar with but who Lancaster's work truly made me want to read and engage with for the first time in a meaningful way. Lancaster also draws on his own identity as a queer man and his own experiences of how sex panics can wreck havoc within the LGBTQ community to buttress his analysis of the wider social phenomenon.

   Situating some fairly healthy and benign intergenerational relationships within the larger context of LGBTQ culture, Lancaster writes, "Like butch-femme or hustler-john relationships, intergenerational relationships were a long-standing paradigm of American gay life until recently. Equipped with fake IDs, teens as young as fifteen or sixteen were sometimes difficult to distinguish from young men who did not quite look their age ('twinks'). Their admirers (chicken hawks) were scarcely numerous, but but they were a visible part of gay life in the late 1970s, when I arrived on the scene. (I should note here that, to the best of my knowledge, I have never met a textbook pedophile, someone whose sexual object of choice is a sexually immature child, and the chicken hawks I knew as a youth all condemned relations with children, as well as relations involving the use of force, deception, or exploitation, as they understood these terms.) No doubt opportunities for exploitation existed in these settings. But because participants in these relationships frequented the same bars and shared gossip through overlapping networks, they were subject to the norms of the subculture. Mature minors, young adults, and mature adults alike took a decidedly dim view of sugar daddies who mistreated their 'boys.' And whether the younger party was younger or older than eighteen, there was an explicit expectation that the older partner would mentor the younger, helping him to acquire education, skills, savvy, or other forms of cultural capital. It does not seem self-evident to me that deeply criminalizing this sort of relationship, banishing it from subcultural oversight and regulation, benefits minors." Lancaster goes on to note that in many cases it was the older lovers of mature gay youth who cared for, provided for, and loved these youth when ultimately their own biological families had abused, abandoned, and shunned them for their sexual orientation.

   Ultimately, I think that serious youth liberationists need to read this book in order to develop a deeper understanding of how the impacts of multiple waves of sexual hysteria in reference to youth in particular have shaped American culture in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Lancaster's work should make it exceedingly clear that sexual freedom for youth must be on the youth liberationist agenda not because we seek to aid and abet the sexual exploitation of young people by older people or by each other, but because we see the very real harms that overtly puritanical and protectionist approaches to youth sexuality do to young people in particular as well as to society as a whole.
Roger N. Lancaster's book Sex Panic and the Punitive State published in 2011 by the California State University Press.
 
  

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Book Review: Richard Beck's "We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s"

   As many of those who follow my work may know, I am currently in the process of writing a book on youth rights issues. When one endeavors to write a book about a topic that one has thought about as deeply and studied as much as I have in reference to youth liberation, it is interesting to realize those areas within your subject area of expertise about which you still possess significant gaps in knowledge. In the introduction that I am currently writing to the book, I was able to write confidently about the relationships among various works of youth liberation theory that appeared in the 1970s and how these works reflected the cultural, social, and political preoccupations of that moment in American history. However, when I came to the point in my narrative where I needed to write about how the moral panics and the reactionary cultural conservatism of the 1980s had winnowed away the preceding decades' advancements in youth liberation, I felt that I needed to do a lot more research to give an accurate account of the dynamics at play in the situation.

   In searching for books about youth and moral panics in the 1980s, one title that kept coming up again and again in my searches was Richard Beck's "We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s." This book, published in 2015 to critical acclaim, deals primarily with a slew of unfounded but highly consequential accusations of the sexual abuse of children by daycare workers in the 1980s and early 1990s. The title of the book initially made me uneasy as a youth liberationist. Since I knew that the book was about the ways in which these accusations of sexual molestation turned out to be overblown and unfounded, was the book called "We Believe the Children" as an ironic note meant to undermine the credibility of young people making accusations of abuse? Certainly no youth liberationist wants to promulgate such a narrative. However, the wonderful reviews for the book allowed me to overcome my hesitation and I am glad that I did for I discovered upon reading this fascinating book that the title is to be read in an entirely different light than I initially presumed.

   Perhaps the key insight of youth liberationism as a philosophy is that child abuse and child protectionism are all too often too sides of the same coin. In an ostensible effort to "protect" children (which in many cases is a euphemism for "controlling" them), children are placed in situations that are far more sinister than the often exaggerated or even imaginary threats from which adult caregivers seek to protect them. And by stripping young people of autonomy and freedom in the process, they then lack the means to escape the real terrors that besiege them. I don't suppose that Richard Beck would call himself a youth liberationist. In fact, I would be surprised if he had even heard that our movement exists. However, he intuitively understands this abuse/protectionism dynamic exceedingly clearly and in many ways, an exploration of this truth can be said to lie at the heart of his book.

   One of the most important things to understand about the pandemic of overwrought yet devastating accusations of sexual abuse by daycare workers in the 1980s that shook the nation is that this was not primarily a moral panic driven by lying children fabricating accusations of sexual abuse. Instead, the panic was almost entirely parent driven and the children caught in the crossfire of the hysteria were ultimately badgered, coerced, threatened, and confused into testifying to sexual molestation by adults that had previously been their caretakers. In addition to parents, social workers, police, prosecutors, child psychologists, and medical professionals were responsible for driving the panic and in many cases eliciting problematic testimonies of alleged abuse from young people. The reasons that these  individuals were so keen to glom onto this narrative of monstrous child abuse by daycare teachers varied. For example, the mother who set off the infamous McMartin Preschool sexual abuse case allegations was dangerously mentally unstable and out of touch with reality. Other parents found that involvement with the anti-molestation movement gave them a cause and an identity. Some prosecutors, police officers, social workers, and psychologists pushed problematic narratives out of careerism. But on a deeper level, Beck suggests, allegations of mass child molestation in daycare centers, ritual abuse hysteria, and the notions of recovered memories and multiple personality disorder really caught on because they all served more or less as a rebuke to the changing family dynamics that the sexual revolution, second wave feminism, and other social movements unleashed in the 1960s and 1970s. Casting daycare centers as hotbeds of child abuse, Beck argues, was a way for society to reassert that women should be in the home and not in the workforce serving as the primary caretakers of young children who should be kept away from those outside of the family unit at all costs.

   In addition to the book's focus on daycare sexual abuse allegations, the book also deals with the notion of repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse being discovered by people later in life and then seen as the cause for the person's present psychological maladies with perhaps the most notable being multiple personality disorder. Beck is highly skeptical of the discourses surrounding repressed memory and multiple personality disorder and convincingly demonstrates that much of the supposed science used to support the existence of such phenomena is bogus. However, Beck argues that for many women in particular framing their experiences of oppression, abuse, and unhappiness within the context of the nuclear family in terms of ritual or sexual abuse that they have recovered memories of made sense in the legal, social, cultural, economic, and political context in which they found themselves.

   Writes Beck, "What was the source of this pressure that asked women to shoehorn all of their different experiences into a rigidly generic father-daughter incest narrative? Some part of the answer can be found in the legislation that extended the statute of limitations for adult survivors of childhood abuse only if the abuse had been sexual. Those laws did nothing to help adults who may have wanted to bring suit against their parents for physical abuse or neglect, and this created an incentive for women to talk about their childhood traumas in terms of sexual abuse regardless of their actual experience. Delayed discovery laws then created an additional incentive for plaintiffs to claim they had completely repressed memories of the abuse until recently. Plaintiffs who said they had always remembered what happened to them, that what they recently discovered was not the abuse itself but the psychological harm it caused them, had a harder time winning a favorable verdict. Finally, because there is no point in bringing a civil suit against someone who simply does not have much money, the suits that did wind up in front of a judge and in front of the media usually involved upper-middle-class families, who were also usually white. That this archetypal narrative of incest, trauma, repression, and recovery, all taking place in the context of middle-class family life, did not match the vast majority of abuse experiences that people actually had did very little to weaken its appeal. The narrative was a kind of key, and women who would or could not make use of this key found that the doors to social and legal recognition and aid remained closed."

   One particularly fascinating anecdote from the book involves the case of the Ingram family. In this family the father, Paul, was a police officer who excelled at his job and belonged to a tight knit police department. At home, he was rather authoritarian in his parenting style and had difficulty connecting on a personal, human level with his children although he loved them. When he and his wife, Sandy, had gotten married they had been Catholics but later on they became very involved with a charismatic evangelical Protestant church where people spoke in tongues when moved to do so by the Holy Spirit. The couple had five children, including a daughter named Ericka. During the 1980s Ericka was in her teens and early twenties and frequently attended a church camp called Heart to Heart and at one of these retreats, a charismatic preacher/psychic/motivational speaker began to speak about young girls being sexually abused and when a sobbing Ericka took to the stage, she told Ericka that she had been sexually abused by her father.

   In order to understand why Ericka so quickly bought into this notion and even welcomed it, it is worth knowing that Ericka had recently read a book by a woman who had claimed that her ostensibly respectable, Christian family had actually engaged her in horrific Satanic ritual abuse. She had also been hospitalized with pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) and had been told by a doctor that the only thing that could cause PID was sexual intercourse. This is not true as PID can also be caused by ovarian cysts which Ericka had and since Ericka was a virgin at the time the doctor told her this, she was very much rattled by the diagnosis. Thus, when her father was identified as a sexual abuser at the Christian retreat a lot of things probably began to fall into place for Ericka mentally.

   When Ericka went to the police to tell them that her father had been sexually abusing her and had also been involved in Satanic rituals, he did not resist the notion that he was an abuser but instead felt that perhaps it was appropriate that he was arrested despite having no memory of ever having done any of the things which Ericka was accusing him of. Writes Beck, "In 1988 Ingram and his colleagues all subscribed to what was then common wisdom among many police officers about child sexual abuse: victims could repress and forget their trauma for long periods of time and, crucially, so could perpetrators. Ingram himself had attended a statewide crime prevention meeting focused almost entirely on repressed memories, and he thought the presentation he heard there was very convincing." After two hours of police interrogation, the highly suggestible Ingram was ready to confess to all sorts of crimes. Egged on by the police as well as his pastor and his daughters, Paul told all sorts of wild tales of criminality.

   Finally, a professor from the University of California at Berkeley who was a sociologist of religion was called in. The professor was named Richard Ofshe. The police knew that Ofshe had done lots of academic work on the sort of thought reform that cults like the Church of Scientology, the Unification Church, and Syanon as well as the totalitarian governments of Soviet Russia and North Korea subjected people to. The police thought that perhaps the Satanic cult which Paul claimed to have been in had subjected him to mind control and they wanted to know all about it.

   However, the professor had also done academic work on the topic of false confessions. It was not long before he figured out the fact that this man had not done any of the heinous things that he said he had done. Ofshe tested his theory by telling Paul that Ericka had told him of a wild story in which he forced her to have sex with her brother while he watched. Ericka had not made such an allegation, but Paul was quick to confess to the accusation and began providing "memories" of the occurrence to the professor and the police. When Professor Ofshe confronted Paul with the truth, he refused to back down, still insisting that he had in fact done these horrible things. Writes Beck, "Ingram built the memory-generating machine inside himself at great personal cost, and it is not surprising that he would have been so reluctant to relinquish its benefits. It allowed him to say and believe that his daughters always told the truth no matter how crazy their stories became - by confessing his crimes, Ingram was now protecting his children, even if he had betrayed them for years. Ingram's memories also provided him with an elegant solution to the problem of how to be a good cop while being interrogated by cops. That his family and his workplace somehow accidentally conspired to incarcerate him for decades did not weaken Ingram's identification with either institution. He pled guilty and was sentenced to twenty years in prison."

   While in prison, Paul came to realize that he had not in fact done any of the things which he had been accused of doing and tried to appeal his conviction. However, as he explained to a journalist while he was incarcerated, real feelings of guilt about his parenting caused him to plead guilty to imaginary ritualistic and sexual crimes. He had been distant and emotionally abusive and occasionally physically abusive. Paul's guilt at his authoritarian parenting style ultimately led him to confess to bizarre sex crimes that he did not commit.

   Another important insight offered by Beck's book is the extent to which preschool aged youth were inundated with questions and suggestions about sexual abuse until some of them ultimately agreed that they had been abused in order to get the people pushing the abuse narrative off their backs. Ultimately these youth were abused, not by the supposed pedophiles and Satanic child molesters, but by the parents, social workers, psychologists, and police officers that harassed and harangued them. For instance, Bruce Woodling was a doctor that spent much of the 1980s "looking for ways to find medical evidence of chronic abuse in children" in Beck's words. The book goes into detail regarding Woodling's colposcope and his "wink response" test which involved probing the anuses, vaginas, and other genitals of the youth in his care. The fact that this was all done with good intentions only exacerbates the matter. Importantly, Richard Beck does not attempt to argue in We Believe the Children that the youth at the heart of these sexual panics escaped completely psychologically unscathed from their ordeals. However, what he does make clear is that those who most seriously harmed these young people were in actuality those most invested in promulgating a narrative of child protection in reference to them. While I was recently reading Dr. Lawrence R. Ricci's book What Happened in the Woodshed: The Secret Lives of Battered Children and a New Profession to Protect Them (which I also reviewed here on The Youth Rights Blog), I found myself thinking that some forensic markers of ostensible child abuse that attempt to locate the fact of abuse on the body of the child in question by reference to physically visible bodily signs could ultimately undermine efforts to protect children by leading to false negatives and undermine the rights of those falsely accused of child abuse by leading to false positive. The information that Richard Beck offers about this topic in We Believe the Children would appear to suggest that those are indeed pertinent concerns.

   One insight that I took away from this book as a youth liberationist and which I think that all youth liberationists should take away as well is the fact that it is ultimately self-defeating and irresponsible for youth liberationists to refuse to engage on the issue of sexual rights for young people and pushing back against the climate of sex panic that has increasingly come to permeate American culture, society, law, and politics in reference to young people. This is because exaggerated fears of adult sexual predators that ostensibly prey on youth and exaggerated conceptions of childhood and adolescent asexuality and immaturity lie at the root of so much ageist repression that has since extended a long way into domains that increasingly have less and less to do with sex. But if youth liberationists care about securing any liberties for young people, we cannot afford to be hesitant or avoidant in terms of pushing back against problematic narratives surrounding youth, adults, and sexuality. Instead we must insist on sexual freedom for all people regardless of age (while also being unafraid to draw upon the nuanced account of the harms that sometimes result from sexual objectification and exploitation regardless of the ages of those involved that second wave feminist thinkers like Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon provide us with, thinkers and activists whom Beck is quick to disavow but who I strongly believe have important insights to offer about the nature of sexual exploitation and abuse that are not ultimately rooted in ageist notions of sex panic that the book describes as fueling the daycare and Satanic ritual abuse panics of the 1980s).

   Beck's account of 1980s sex panics is also useful for the way in which it situates these cultural phenomena squarely within the context of pervasive societal sexism and homophobia. A number of those falsely accused of committing child sexual abuse were gay, lesbian, or bisexual (or in some cases inaccurately thought to be so). This contributed to a sense that they were inherently guilty in the eyes of all too many average Americans in the 1980s. Similarly, men who worked as teachers, daycare providers, or other types of caregivers for youth were seen as inherently suspect as a result of doing so for reasons rooted in misandry and homophobia. Finally, misogyny was a major driving force of these moral panics. As more and more women moved into the workforce during the 1970s and 1980s and therefore looked to daycare providers, babysitters, nannies, and other non-family providers of childcare, society struggled to reconcile itself to women's increased activity within the public sphere and negative judgements leveled at women who did not fulfill traditional gender roles by choosing to work outside the home and therefore to entrust others with some of the day to day care for their children were regarded as behaving in a problematic way. Constructing daycare centers as sites of rampant child abuse was one way that society attempted to force women back into their traditional roles as full time wives and mothers who did not regularly work or volunteer outside the home to such an extent that it could be said to interfere with their full time child rearing responsibilities.

   Of particular interest to youth liberationists is the way that Beck stresses the extent to which the daycare, ritual abuse, and incest sex panics of the 1980s served to invisibilize any form of youth abuse, neglect, exploitation, or maltreatment that was not primarily sexual in nature. While social services aimed at ameliorating the challenging material conditions of poor and working class youth and their families were increasingly gutted and the physical and emotional abuse, oppression, and neglect of youth within the family was increasingly tolerated or even valorized in the name of patriarchal notions of parental rights, the increasingly exaggerated specter of the child molester whose monstrous crimes were defined in contrast to the norms of the nuclear family loomed large in the popular imagination of the era.

   In the excellent final chapter of Beck's book, he makes explicit the ways in which the legacy of the sexual moral panics which he chronicles continue to militate against the freedoms and liberties afforded to young people in America today and the disastrous consequences this has had for women and youth alike. He cites several examples of women who have been prosecuted for allowing their children to play unsupervised for limited periods of time in local parks or to sit by themselves in a car while the mother attended a job interview. Beck appears to imply that such negative state imposed consequences of allowing young people a certain measure of freedom tend to accrue to poor women and women of color in particular. Beck also writes about how the moral panics of the 1980s have led to all too many normal childhood and adolescent sexual experiences being pathologized to the detriment of youth who have done nothing seriously wrong. This can be especially troubling whenever the law gets involved and permanently labels increasingly younger and younger individuals as sexual offenders. In summary, Richard Beck gives a wide ranging and persuasive account of the myriad ways in which the fears unleashed upon American society by the sex-oriented moral panics of the 1980s functioned then and continue to function now as an important means of social control with ramifications for youth, women, men, poor and working class people, working mothers, people of color, and sexual and gender minorities in particular.

   Richard Beck's interest in the phenomena of repressed and subsequently ostensibly recovered memories of sexual and ritual abuse is another major part of the book's narrative. Beck carefully notes the many ways in which an increasing body of scientific and psychological literature on these topics has cast credible aspersions on the credibility of the memories of trauma and sexual abuse that individuals claim to recover in therapy. But Beck's analysis goes even deeper than that. According to Beck, the narratives surrounding these phenomena served to depoliticize the issues of rape, sexual abuse, incest, and patriarchal oppression within the family which feminists had worked so hard to politcize previously. Writes Beck in the book's penultimate chapter, "An earlier feminist analysis of incest and abuse had placed blame squarely on the nuclear family as an institution, as a way of distributing power among small groups that allowed fathers and husbands to exercise dangerous amounts of control over their children and wives. But recovered memory discarded this argument and replaced it with horror-movie plots and a parade of traumatized child-women. The isolation these women experienced in treatment, their dependence on the therapist as a surrogate parent figure, and the unprovability of their allegations rendered them completely nonthreatening from a political point of view."

   In conclusion, I would urge every serious youth liberationist to read this book. I would add the caveat that I believe that Beck's account of the feminist anti-pornography movement of the 1980s caricatures it to a certain extent and inappropriately lumps this movement in with other phenomena to which it may arguably bear a superficial resemblance but which I think is fundamentally different in kind from the sexual moral panics chronicled in We Believe the Children although an elaboration of this critique of the book and an explication of my interpretation of the works of Andrea Dworkin (one of my favorite feminist philosophers and a woman that I believe had deep youth liberationist sympathies as well) and other anti-pornography feminists is beyond the scope of this post. That criticism aside, I strongly endorse the rest of the analysis presented in this book. It will give you a deeper and fuller understanding of how we got to where we are in the current American legal, political, social, economic, and cultural moment in reference to youth issues. I was hoping that this book would contribute to my understanding on that front which is why I read it in the first place and it ultimately did all of that and more. I highly recommend this excellent book and cannot say enough wonderful things about it.

This excellent book was published in 2015 by Public Affairs Press.
    

Monday, June 25, 2018

Remembering and Celebrating the Work of Richard Farson, Radical Youth Liberationist and Author of Birthrights: A Bill of Rights for Children

   June 13, 2018 marked the one year anniversary of the death of the psychologist and author Richard Farson, the radical youth liberationist writer behind the 1974 classic of youth rights theory, Birthrights: A Bill of Rights for Children. He was ninety years old when he died in La Jolla, California. I would urge every single person concerned with the rights and liberation of young people to read Birthrights if they have not already done so. It is the first book on youth liberation theory that I ever read and it is in no way an overstatement to say that doing so dramatically changed the course of my life. It is to this day the best book ever written about the oppression of young people and how our society might do better by them. There is no other single volume which provides a fuller articulation of youth liberationist grievances, principles, values, and hopes for the future. It is both extremely accessible in its language and format and yet highly theoretically substantive and sophisticated, a rare combination in theoretical work on almost any topic.

   I have been thinking a lot about Farson and Birthrights in particular these days as I have recently begun work on my own book on the topic of youth rights and liberation. Birthrights was published during an era in American social and cultural history in which fairly radical notions in reference to the rights of young people were taken far more seriously than they were today by intellectuals and activists and yet, the more I reflect upon the conditions of American society at this present moment, the more I feel that the time is ripe for a second wave of radical youth liberationist writing, theorizing, and activism. There is no better encapsulation of the first wave of youth liberationist theory than Birthrights and as such, it provides those of us charged with ushering in a second wave of youth liberationist activism and theorizing with a wonderful legacy upon which to build. We are trailblazers, yes, but we are also part of a transgenerational lineage of radical youth liberationist thinkers, writers, and doers. It is important not to forget that.

   A good deal of what makes Birthrights so powerful and convincing is that Farson saw youth oppression both in its specificity and in its totality. He was able to see how youth subordination within the family, compulsory education, legal age restrictions, the juvenile justice system, and oppressive, patronizing, and paternalistic attitudes towards young people, to name just a few major areas of concern in reference to youth subjugation about which he wrote in Birthrights, were both serious and unique problems in their own right and also how they worked together as part of an interlocking system of force and coercion designed to keep young people, in Farson's own words, "incapacitated, oppressed, and abused." Farson's eye for both specificity as well as the panoramic view of youth oppression (and what might be done to remedy the situation) has been highly influential for me in reference to my own writing on youth liberation and has guided me in terms of how I approach the structure of the book that I am currently at work on regarding youth rights issues.

   Another important element of Farson's analysis was his focus on intersectionality long before the critical race theorist and legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw formally coined the term in the 1990s. Throughout Birthrights, Farson makes reference to the struggles of various groups within American society - women, men, prisoners, racial and ethnic minorities, disabled people, sexual minorities, poor people, elders. He sees how young people belonging to more than one marginalized group are impacted by multiple axes of oppression. He also sees how the struggles of groups other than young people may intersect with young peoples' own struggles.

   Finally, Richard Farson brilliantly understood that youth oppression is not just a product of laws and customs, although it is indeed a product of those forces. He also had a special sensitivity to and gift for describing the ways in which ageist attitudes impacted how adults saw young people and ultimately how young people came to conceptualize themselves. This is evident when Farson discusses the way that so-called "child prodigies" are in a certain important sense pathologized in contemporary American society, how youth sexuality is always only understood against the backdrop of deviance, how ageist attitudes towards young people infiltrate and impact the ostensibly scientific work done to study youth, and how adult preferences for children who are cute, obedient, quiet, docile, and apolitical reflect deep antipathy towards young people as individuals and their political interests as a class.

   As a second wave youth liberationist, I am so grateful for the gifts that Richard Farson provided to us via his work as a first wave youth liberationist. I pray that he rests in both peace and power and that his memory is forever for a blessing. Perhaps most importantly for those of us interested in continuing his youth liberationist work, I pray that we take his passing as a sign of a charge to keep in reference to continuing the work for youth rights and liberation that that first wave of youth liberationists began back in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. It's time for a second wave. I think we're up to it and I think that we're incredibly fortunate to have Richard Farson's brilliant work to guide us along the way.

Richard Farson: 1926-2017.