Our criminal obsession

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

Share
Related Topics
FRANK FUREDI

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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Java Developer - 1 year contract

£350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...

Junior Analyst - Graduate - 6 Month fixed term contract

£17000 - £20000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

SAS Business Analyst - Credit Risk - Retail Banking

£450 - £500 per day: Orgtel: SAS Business Analyst, London, Banking, Credit Ris...

Project Manager - Pensions

£32000 - £38000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The power of anonymity lies in the freedom it grants

Boyd Tonkin
Rebel fighters walk in front of damaged buildings in Karam al-Jabal neighbourhood of Aleppo on August 26, 2014.  

The Isis threat must be confronted with clarity and determination

Ed Miliband
Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone