Our criminal obsession

Behaviour that is harmless in some contexts turns sinister when we project adult sexuality onto children

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All over the world children and sex have become a powerful motif dominating the news this week. Here in Britain, the newspapers of the past few days have been full of salacious details of the trial of the pop star Gary Glitter for his downloading of sickening pornography involving the torture of children as young as three. But that was not all. Listeners to the Today programme were offered the reflections of a 14-year-old boy about why he had sex with a 12-year-old girl who is now the mother of his baby. "Sex Pest Girl, 12" was the byline carried by one tabloid over a story on the "youngest female to sign UK Sex Offenders' Register". And the acquittal of a female drama teacher who was maliciously accused by her 15-year-old pupil of seducing him reinforced the media's attention on the troubles of childhood sexuality.

Sadly, this obsession with child sexuality is not confined to this country. The attention of the European media was focused on the trial of an 11- year-old Swiss-American boy accused of molesting his five-year-old sister. Thousands of people in Switzerland were outraged by the sight of the boy appearing at the Jefferson County Court, Colorado, shackled to other young offenders and wearing handcuffs. Many of them were bewildered that something akin to playing doctors and nurses could be labelled a crime of violence by the US authorities. Although the court dismissed the case on Thursday, many Europeans lashed out against the puritanical climate that prevails in the US.

The disturbing phenomenon of ascribing adult sexual motives to children's curiosity and exploration of their bodies has become widespread in the UK. A growing number of children between the ages of 10 and 13 are being convicted of sexual offences and placed on the Sex Offenders' Register. In 1997, 200 boys between 10 and 13 were convicted of sexual offences in England and Wales. This has far-reaching consequences. Even if a conviction is quashed on appeal, the names of children are not necessarily removed from the register. One 10-year-old boy convicted of sexually assaulting an eight-year-old girl has challenged the decision to place his name on the register in the European Court of Human Rights. However, most parents of "child sex offenders" feel too intimidated to question the criminal label assigned to their children.

Like many of our contemporary obsessions, this one first emerged in the US. In the late Eighties, many experts began to inflate the definition of sexual abuse and turned their attention to child sex crime. Widespread anxiety about children's behaviour helped create a climate where virtually any childhood sexual activity could be potentially defined as abuse. In 1997, David Finklehor, a leading American authority on child abuse, declared that sibling abuse was the most common kind of victimisation facing children. According to Finklehor, such assaults affect 80 per cent of children. He used the evocative term "pandemic victimisation" to underline the sheer frequency of this form of abuse.

It was not only the experts who turned their attention towards childhood sexuality. The criminal justice system also jumped on this new bandwagon. The suspension from school of a six-year-old North Carolina boy for kissing a female classmate is symbolic of an era of moral incertitude. Last year a nine-year-old boy was charged with sexual harassment for allegedly rubbing himself against a girl of the same age in a lunch queue. Thankfully, he was acquitted. But others are not so lucky. In Jefferson County alone, prosecutors have filed 292 child-on-child crime cases since 1997.

The pathologising of normal childhood sexual behaviour has acquired epidemic proportions. In one California junior high school, all displays of affection - hugging, kissing, back-patting, even "high-fives" - have been banned. Not to be outdone, a school in Britain has recently banned five-year-old children from playing "kiss-chase". Maureen Fitzgerald, head of Cheynes Infant School in Luton, wrote to parents indicating that such acts constitute "inappropriate behaviour". A leading Luton educationalist told the press that "children have responded favourably to the banning of games that involve unwanted physical attention". Child sex criminals are in; playing doctors and nurses is out. When anything so innocent as kiss-chase can become stigmatised, even the most ordinary forms of childhood exploration can serve as fodder for the next series of sex crime statistics.

Predictably, British experts have signed up to the moral crusade against child sex monsters. A study to be published next year by Dr Kevin Browne from the University of Birmingham claims that at least one out of every 100 children is sexually abused by other children by the time they reach adulthood. It is only a matter of time before the figures will be raised to more alarming proportions. There already exists a consensus among professionals that sexual abuse by siblings is far more common than previously thought. If it is, it is because experts cannot resist the temptation of investing childhood behaviour with the norms of adult life.

"Inappropriate sexual behaviour" by young children has emerged as a new policy obsession. Typically, the difference between "inappropriate" and "appropriate" behaviour is in the eye of the beholder. New guidance for social workers states that they should recognise that children are at risk from their peers, and that they should not interpret sexual play as "normal". Social workers are advised not to accept a high threshold before taking action.

The suggestion that childish sexual encounters can be labelled "appropriate" and "inappropriate" represents a failure of the adult imagination. This distinction makes sense in the world of adults, where individuals can be expected to distinguish between what is appropriate and what is clearly "sexual". It has little meaning to children who have not learnt through experience the ambiguous world of sexual etiquette.

Physical and sexual acts by children should not be interpreted as immature versions of grown-up behaviour. A young boy of six who exposes himself to his mates and has a good giggle is not a potential adult flasher. Naughty children are just as likely to touch each other's private parts as talk about their smelly bottom and lie about the dinosaur they have just encountered. And when they push themselves on one another their action is no more criminal than when they are engaged in a playground fight.

There are numerous experiences that are entirely harmless when situated in the context of children's lives, which would take on a more sinister meaning if they were carried out by an adult. The fact that children's names are placed on the same register as adult sex criminals indicates that society is in danger of losing sight of a crucial moral difference between a child and a mature person.

When society overlooks the distinction between the games that boys and girls play and adult behaviour it is well on the way towards constructing child monsters. When an 11-year-old child is arrested in the middle of the night, handcuffed and locked in a juvenile detention centre for six weeks, the era of the child monster has clearly arrived. Beware of adult fantasies.

Frank Furedi is a sociologist at the University of Kent at Canterbury

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