As underlined by Michel Foucault in his writings, in modern times, children and adolescent sexualities have been under close and systematic surveillance. While in the 19th and early 20th century the masturbating child was the main figure of these disciplinary norms and practices, from the mid 20th century these concerns, not to say panics, have gradually dislocated towards sexual abuse and exploitation of minors. As part of this dislocation ‘remedies’ have shifted from the realm of biomedical, usually psychiatric, interventions towards criminal justice.
The resource to criminal law as the only possible measure to address sexual abuse of children and adolescents is one legal and policy area in relation to which consensus is to be found across the political spectrum, from right wing anti-sex groupings to a wide range of feminist expressions. This wide support is correctly mobilized by the abject nature of brutal sexual crimes committed by adults against children or young teen agers. In result, beginning with the US but later expanding to many other countries, laws and related policies to address the problem became increasingly draconian. These norms entirely dismiss important aspects of sexual development, such as sexual curiosity and desire experienced by infants and teen agers, the ability of young adolescents to consent in engaging in sexual games and, most principally, the concrete realities of consented sexual encounters amongst persons below the age of sexual consent defined in legal frames.
As Sarah Stillman insightfully describe and analyze in detail in her article “The List”, published by the New Yorker on its March, 2016 edition, current US laws and additional measures, such as the creation of public lists of sexual offenders now apply indiscriminately to adults, teen-agers and event persons as young as 9 or ten. Most principally, she investigates and provide solid evidence in relation to the drastic implications of these expanded sex laws on the lives of these very young people who had sexual engagements with younger persons, ranging from long term probation and imprisonment, unemployment, stigmatization and even suicide. The article also speaks of new initiatives taken mothers and families of these young ‘sexual offenders’ that call for laws and related regulations to be changed.
Stilmann has also interviewed advocates who in the past claimed for draconian legislations and other measures to be adopted, but today, in recognizing these dramatic effects, are stepping back from their original view that that an underage ‘sexual offender” would inevitably mature as an adult sexual predator and this is why they were to be treated as they have been. The article is a cautionary tale to everybody who considers the criminal justices system as the only road to be taken to prevent sexual violations of people underage.
Interestingly enough, in April, the Indian blog Kafila has also published an article by Shweta Goswami that also interrogates the potential risks of setting public registries of sex offenders (broadly speaking).