Politics and Our Children
Many readers appear to have
found my commentary on sexual politics to be just as amusing and
iconoclastic as my commentary on art, so I hope I will be
forgiven for continuing to develop my opinion along these lines.
This essay will not concern sexual politics between men and
women; it will concern how our new sexual politics is affecting
In the last century we have
had a unique opportunity to fundamentally change the way we raise
children. Just as our attitudes towards women, racial
minorities, and the poor have undergone a sea change, so have our
attitudes toward children. We no longer raise children
under the Oliver Twist rubric, expecting them to be slaves or
ornaments. We have attempted to treat children with more
kindness and consideration, to listen to them, to learn from
them, and so on. But while our intentions may have been for
the best, we have failed. The pendulum has, for some reason
or many, swung in the far other direction, and our children are
now out of control. We all know the famous examples:
Columbine and other school shootings, gang warfare, street crime
by teens, and so on. But even disregarding this far end of
the spectrum, average teens are more rebellious and more
undisciplined than ever. Fifty years ago, a high
school or junior high in the US had some small number of
“hoods”. In the 60s we got the beatniks and then the
hippies: we had a small amount of rebellion from a small sector,
and this rebellion tended to be based on some statable scruple.
Protest was focused, that is—it wasn’t just bad behavior for
the sake of bad behavior. But after Nixon and Reagan, the
rebellion spread. It not only spread, it became unfocused.
More than that, it became unstatable. A high school became
a conglomeration of different sorts of rebellion, with almost
everyone in some sort of splinter group of dissatisfaction.
But most groups couldn’t even say what the problem was.
Some groups, like the hippies and Goths, still toyed with
political ideas, but the groups just as often split based on drug
choice or clothing styles as on anything else.
We have all read decades’
worth of commentary on this problem, and since Columbine the
amount of ink spilled is truly fantastic. There are a lot
of people who really desire a solution, but no one seems to have
put his finger on the problem. The right tends to talk
about family values and more discipline, while the left tends to
want to spend more money on studies and conferences—which will
allow us to share the pain of our teens and create a culture of
support and understanding. Both approaches seem to contain
a kernel of good sense, but on closer scrutiny they dry up and
blow away. Both are an attempt to apply a pat, generalized
answer to a question that is basically undefined.
Discipline is the only part of all this that has any content, but
discipline works only when it has a definite direction. If
we are going to push, we have to push teens from one thing to
another. If we don’t know what is wrong or what is right,
then discipline is just more cruelty. All the rest,
including “family values” and “cultural support,” is just
windiness and nebulosity.
We will never begin to solve
the problem unless we admit that there is a reason
why teens are rebelling. Almost everyone on both political
sides seems to assume that teens are rebelling out of boredom or
contrariness. It is deemed to be a cultural malaise, and
the teens are just doing their own unfathomable part. The
right especially seems to think that teens rebel only because we
are allowing them to. They are just spoiled little snots,
acting out. Well, there is a good deal of that going on,
but it is not the primary cause of the situation. We may
indeed need more discipline, but discipline alone will not solve
the problem. It will only cover it up for a while.
We assume that teenagers have
always been rebellious and that toddlers have always been
hellions, but it isn’t really true. Children of all ages
are often headstrong, and most require very positive discipline
of some sort, but the teenage years were not always what they are
now. In past centuries, most of the difficulties of these
years were caused by puberty. Young people had to get used
to new bodies and new desires. They still have that, of
course, but now they have much bigger real
problems. And here is where I offer the so-far-unseen
It has recently begun to be
reported on that the age of onset of puberty has lowered.
It has been reported on because it has become so obvious.
But the truth is that the age of onset has been changing for more
than a century. In the 19th
century, age of onset was normally 14 to 16 for both boys and
girls. For many, puberty might not end until 17 or 18.
This began changing at the end of the 19th
century, with medical and sanitary advances, better diets, and so
on. By the 1950s, it is estimated that the average age of
onset had already dropped by a full year. Since the 50s the
rate of advance has increased, until now we see many boys well
into puberty by 11 or 12 and some girls seeing primary signs of
puberty (breast swelling) at 8 or younger. All the
causes of this are not known, but hormones in food and other
intended and unintended contamination of water, air and food may
be a primary cause. This is on top of the obvious factor of
better overall health.
Why does this matter, you may
ask? Well, it only matters when it is combined with another
grand societal change, which is the age of consent and marriage.
While biology was moving in one direction, culture was moving in
the other. In the 19th
century, people (especially girls) might marry at 14, or even
12. I am not condoning this. There is certainly
something perverse about marriage before puberty. But the
fact remains that, in most instances, the age of puberty and the
age of consent or marriage were pretty much the same.
Statistically they were close.
But they are no longer close,
and this is perverse for an entirely different reason. It
is perverse because it creates, not just by expectation but by
law, an extended period of extreme sexual difficulty.
The average age of puberty is now estimated to be about 12.5, for
both boys and girls. The age of consent in the US is, on
average, 18. This is a period of five and half years where
sex is frowned upon, and often illegal. To state it in
another way, a primary human function (perhaps the
primary human function) is placed in a state of taboo,
semi-taboo, or illegality. It is placed in this state of
taboo in its very first phase. As soon as young people
become sexual, their sexuality is placed by society in a negative
category, or several negative categories. It remains in
this negative category for almost six years. If you do the
math, six years is one third of the life of the teen living it.
If a teen is celibate from 12 to 18, then for one third of his or
her life the teen will have been starving a natural function and
But it is even more than this,
for it is not only sex that is frowned upon, it is also
marriage. Teens used to be able to skirt the sex
prohibition by getting married, but that is no longer true.
Up until the 50s or 60s, there was little or no stigma attached
to young married couples. Now there is, especially among
teens from “good” families, rich families, or families with
college expectations for their teens. If someone presented
you with a married couple from the US and told you they were both
in their teens, you would assume either 1) that she got pregnant
and they had to marry, 2) that they were both very rural, or
3) that they were both not very smart. In the recent
past, almost no one would have jumped to any of these
conclusions. As I have said in another paper, teen marriage
is even more frowned upon than teen sex, since teen sex does not
necessarily affect anyone’s college or career plans. It
is thought that teen marriage must.
There have been other
important changes, ones that are rarely mentioned. One is
that as recently as the fifties and sixties, high school girls
were not prevented from dating college boys. In fact, it
was a cliché. It was understood by all concerned that high
school boys were too immature for many older teen girls. A
small gap in ages has been common for centuries, perhaps for all
human history. We find it a commonplace when we watch
movies from the 50s, or when we watch movies about
the 50s. High school girls wanted to date college boys, and
many of them did.
In the rest of the world, it
still happens. Even in western Europe there is no stigma
attached to high school girls dating college boys. If
anything it is a badge of honor, a minor feminine conquest.
It was common in the US until the 70s, when some parent used the
age of consent law against a boyfriend, and now it is a thing of
the past. Dating is not strictly illegal, of course, but
sex is. Without the potential of sex, both sides think,
“why bother.” College boys no longer drive by the old
high school, to see how Peggy or Sue is doing. It is too
dangerous: they could actually be arrested.
Some may imagine that I am
just reliving an old kvetch: I am still complaining because I
couldn’t cruise the high schools when I was in college.
But I don’t remember ever wanting to cruise the high schools
when I was in college. Had I gone to college in my home
town, I might have had the impulse to do so, but I ended up far
from home, soon too busy with “serious” relationships to
cruise any hot spot. No, what clued me to the problem was
considering the thing from the side of the girl. After
college I went back to cruise the college, and I found that the
girls had changed. They were weird and getting weirder.
The sort of girl I had always dated had gone into a funk, and
since this was the only sort of girl I wanted to date, I had to
try to figure out her funk.
What sort of girl am I talking
about, you may ask? I am talking about the smartest
prettiest girls in the class. When I was in high
school, these girls ignored the hell out of me, of course.
I had a strong feeling they were my type, but they didn’t
happen to agree. A few years later a few began to agree and
I settled into a blissful, if short, span of years. But
pretty soon thereafter, something changed. And it wasn’t
There were no Goths when I was
in school. My high school didn’t have any Goths or
hippies, much less gangsters or rappers. I predated all
that. We had a few very tame punks and that is about it.
This was the late 70s and things were very quiet. No guns,
lots of virgins, lots of Bibles. I went through puberty at
14 and had sex at 17. Only three years of misery;
perhaps less, because I wouldn’t have known what to do with a
girl when I was 14 or 15 (just ask Cindy). I needed
some time to settle in. Say two years of misery.
Anyway, the serious rebellion
didn’t hit the high schools in the US until the 80s. It
had been drifting in through the music for many years, first in a
mostly principled way from people like Dylan and Mitchell, then
in a slightly more dramatic and slightly phonier way from someone
like Jim Morrison and finally through punk, from bands like the
Sex Pistols. But punk didn’t hit the mainstream in
the US until the early 80s and by then it had splintered into a
hundred directions. All of these splinters were crying and
screaming, but very few of them could really say what it was all
about. Why so angry? Why so alienated? Was it
sex, politics, psychology? Most people still can’t say,
the punks and Goths and metalheads included. One thing is
pretty clear: it hasn’t really been about politics since the
60s. Marilyn Manson may talk about Bush when he is giving
an interview, but his audience often doesn’t care about that.
They are just bottled up and they need a release.
Why? Well, the very form
of that last sentence is a giveaway. They need to scream
and shout and hop up and down and knock eachother about.
They need to feel physical pain. They need to be
Because they are sexually
repressed. They weren’t or aren’t allowed to have sex,
and when they had sex they couldn’t allow themselves to feel
good about it. There was no positive release, just more
created tension. This is also why they are angry.
be angry at their parents for creating a society that is sexually
broken, but many can’t figure out how to state that blame in
sensible sentences. So they just develop a generalized and
unfocused anger. They are mad at society and their parents,
and they are mad at themselves and eachother for not being able
to focus the anger, to be able to do anything constructive.
So they don’t do anything constructive. They just
“deconstruct.” They deconstruct themselves with lots of
unfocused and illegible psychology, and they deconstruct their
surroundings with graffiti, modern art, raucous music and random
Girls are just as active in
this deconstruction and violence and rebellion, and it is because
girls have at least as much to rebel against. Girls have
gained cultural support in a thousand ways since the 80s, mostly
institutional support from schools and governments in creating
new opportunities. But concurrently they have suffered more
and more from sexual lines that make less and less sense.
They have more career opportunity but less sexual opportunity.
You will say that sexual mores have relaxed greatly since the
80s, but this is not true. Only a given few of them have
relaxed. Others have tightened, as I said above. We
are somewhat more forgiving if two 16 year olds have casual sex,
it is true, since if they use birth control and don’t have
cooties, no harm done. But we are more disapproving of
serious relationships than ever before, since we think they must
get in the way of college and career plans. And we have
forbidden any age difference in dating. To return to the
high school girl dating the college boy, I don’t think any
adult understands the enormity of this, for the girl.
The college boy can always date someone else. It is
therefore not a great onus upon him, as I would be the first to
admit. No, the onus is on the girl, who must date a high
school boy or no one. Given the choice, many date no one,
and this is a huge hidden societal problem.
In the past it was the
smartest and prettiest who were able to date the college boys.
Everybody knows this, since it is common sense. They were
the most in-demand. Now, what happens if, overnight, you
disallow the smartest and prettiest girls from dating the college
boys? The shallowest of these girls will just date the best
guys in the high school, since they must be seen at the top of
the given heap. But what of the other girls? What if
the high school boys just don’t interest them, in all honesty?
What do they do then? I’ll tell you what they do: they
become Goths and punks, they cut and dye their hair and pierce
themselves and throw everything back in your face. That
is what they do. That is the real explanation behind the
fact that the brightest and most attractive students are the ones
most likely to become rebels of one sort or another.
Everyone knows that high IQ students are more likely to commit
suicide, to be Goths or punks, to join cults, and so on.
This is one of the major reasons why, at least on the female side
of the equation. They are forbidden to act naturally, to do
what they would do in a reasonable universe, so they act
unnaturally and in an unreasonable way. They are not
allowed to date who they want to date, and should date, so they
When a horse or donkey or dog
balks, a good trainer will assume that there is a natural
reason. You are asking the animal to do something he cannot
do, or something he does not understand. An animal does not
balk just to be contrary, or because he is of a certain age.
An animal balks because he cannot go on, physically or mentally.
Man is an animal. A high school boy or girl
balks because he or she is being asked to do something that is
unreasonable. Being crammed together all day and all year
in a big ugly building and listening to just-say-no lectures is
not reasonable, let’s face it. High school used to
make a bit more sense, due to the fact that more reasonable
information was being imparted and the fact that a majority of
students weren’t sexually ready to enter the world years before
graduation. Smart students weren’t bored to death, since
the classes weren’t taught to the lowest common denominator
(or, I should say, it wasn’t quite as bad as it is now,
qualitatively). Many were satisfied being given a few years
to gain confidence, since they hadn’t gone through puberty in
grade. And those who were more advanced, in whatever
way, could date older guys or girls. The high school wasn’t
in a sexual lockdown.
Ironically, high schools are
now having to build real fences, install actual detectors, and
undergo physical lockdowns, and it is because they first created
this legal and moral lockdown years ago—a lockdown most have
forgotten exists. Society created a sexual lockdown
decades ago, with mores and actual laws, and the physical
lockdown has become necessary because the inmates have finally
decided to revolt. With each passing year they revolt more
and more. But the lagtime in between the two lockdowns
means that everyone, the kids and the parents both, have all but
forgotten what the revolt is about. The kids remember that
they are being repressed, but they can hardly remember the law or
taboo that is repressing them. They don’t know that the
world was different fifty years ago. They believe their
parents when their parents tell them it was always hard.
They blame themselves for being such bad kids. But still
they must revolt.
And revolt they must and
should, for their parents didn’t have the sexual problems they
have. Their parents didn’t go through puberty at
age ten or twelve, their parents got married at 18 or 20 or 22
and had kids immediately. Their moms dated college
boys if they wanted. Their dads may be 3, 5 or even 10
years older than their moms and nobody cares. Their parents
had two or three years of privation in a milieu when almost
everyone was deprived and knew it. Kids now have five to
eight years of privation while watching half the world snog and
snuggle on the TV and internet. Their parents watched Dick
van Dyck and Mary Tyler Moore in separate beds. They have
to watch everyone doing it, from fake lesbians and fake
heterosexuals on HBO to Homer and Marge Simpson on Fox.
This and the kids also have to
deal with the artifacts of their own rebellion. Not only
must the kids survive the primary fact of a long, and, some must
feel, penal celibacy. They must also survive being reminded
of it every moment by their capturing heroes—the Morriseys and
Morissettes, the Nine Inch Nails and Beastie Boys and Eminems.
Their light is turned on at six or eight by the Backstreet Boys
or N’Sync, they are jaded at 14 by Sarah McLachlan or Natalie
Merchant or Tracey Chapman, and finished off at 18 by Marilyn
Manson, all before their first time.
My generation had it easy: we
only had to survive the light melancholy of Bread or Stevie
Nicks. Listening to Olivia Newton-John sing Please
was never likely to leave anyone suicidal. My parents
courted to Johnny Mathis and Frank Sinatra and “Somewhere my
Love”. Peyton Place was about as smutty as anything got
back then. This was when they actually had glee clubs.
I think “glee” has since been purged from the dictionary.
Kids these days never see or hear anything remotely like glee.
Even Sesame Street is too politically au courant to stoop to
glee. By age ten, forget it, kids are smoking cloves and
reading the Marquis de Sade.
There are two pretty obvious
solutions to all this, neither of which is going to be easy.
The first is to delay puberty. The only natural way to do
this is to ban any hormones that induce it. Anything that
may mimic these hormones must be kept out of the body.
First we have to identify these substances and only then can we
hope to filter them all. Of course this will not affect
changes due to overall health. We can hardly malnourish our
children in order to delay puberty.
The second is to better match
our cultural timetable to nature’s timetable. As the
onset of puberty comes earlier and earlier, so must our
expectations of sexuality and reproduction. Study after
study tells us not only that puberty comes earlier, but that
younger mothers are healthier mothers. Women who have their
first child before 20 are less prone to all sorts of cancers and
diseases, and their children are healthier, too. The risks
for all sorts of retardation and deformity continually rise with
the age of the mother. Knowing this, we still encourage
women to wait until they are 30.
I am not recommending a return
to old-style “family values” but we must come to terms with
the facts of biology. I have no problem with women wanting
both careers and babies. But if we can make this possible
for 30-something women, we should make it possible for teenage
girls. If a woman can have a full-time job and a baby
or two, then why can’t a teenage girl? Neither high
school nor college is as time-consuming as a full-time job.
Why should women have choices and girls none? Or, more to
the point, why should women be praised for bravery and girls
suffer a stigma? It is not logical.
Just as pressing as
reproduction is sexuality without it. Girls who don’t
want to have babies must nonetheless find a way to be sexual
creatures. A 16 year old girl—who may already be six
years past puberty—must have just as much right to a sex life
as a 26 old woman or a 66 years old woman. We don’t want
the girl preyed upon by bad men of any age, but how is a college
boy a necessary danger? If she is brought up properly, he
is more likely to be good for her than bad. We think we can
skirt some problems by only allowing teens to date eachother.
But one partner in a relationship with some experience is often
better than none. It is two virgins that can do the most
damage (as is a joke in Europe).
The major solution, though, is
to move college up two years. Send the kids to college as
soon as they can drive, at 16. Let them grow up with a
little bit of freedom. And if they want to move in
together or get married at 16, let them. Encourage them to
love eachother and maybe they will. We now encourage them
to treat eachother casually, and they do. Which, of these,
really makes more sense?
And if they want to have
babies, we should encourage that, too. If it doesn’t make
any sense the way society is now set up, then we just have to
change the way society is set up. Sex and reproduction and
happiness and satisfaction should be the priorities, and business
should be the enabler of all these things. As it is,
business is the priority, and we deform everything else in order
to fit this schedule of business.
For instance, if young mothers
or couples cannot have babies in the current market, it is
because they cannot afford child care or medical insurance or
other such things. But in many western countries, these
things are already provided by the state. Here in Belgium,
people can’t believe that a rich country like the US would so
effectively stigmatize and privatize a thing like having babies.
If the US does not want to permanently subsidize these things
(babies) and does not want to raise taxes in order to do so, then
it could provide assistance to young people as a loan, to be paid
back later in life. After age 30 or 40, sex may not
be such a pressing issue in the person’s life, and he or she
will have the degrees and experience necessary for a higher
income. Once the kids are out of the house, both the man
and the woman may be more career-oriented. They will need
something to do, and that is the time for industry and
advancement. Maybe that is the time to pay for all those
diaper services and vaccines and so on.
It must be true that happier
and healthier young people must mature into happier and healthier
old people. Young people who were not deprived of sex and
children will turn into productive and well-cared for older
people, who have plenty of grandchildren to entertain them at
lunch and after work.
As it is, it is nothing more
than cruelty to continue to countenance the sort of sexual
existence we have hoisted upon our children. They may be
rich and spoiled beyond belief, in many ways, but in the most
important ways they are still worse off than Oliver Twist.
Not only will we not give them more gruel; we will not
give them any.
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