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Free Youth Now: An Introduction to Youth Liberation

Saturday, 26 December 2020

The Age of Consent Problem

I'll begin by noting that this is a difficult and emotional issue. It might bring up some strong emotions. I recognize that and try to discuss this issue in a humane and sensitive way. (Also, if I have overlooked any major aspects of this discussion, please feel free to leave a comment.)

The age of consent -- specifically, the age at which youth can consent to have sex -- is one of the most common objections to youth liberation. 

The objection usually goes something like this: "You say youth should be free and paternalism is bad. And that kids should make all of the same decisions that adults can (aka equal rights). Therefore, you think that kids should be allowed to have consensual sex with adults. If that happens, kids are going to be manipulated and sexually abused by older people. So, the whole youth rights argument isn't valid." 

The abuse and manipulation of youth are valid concerns. And I'm not saying that consensual sex between children and adults should be legal. As discussed below, there are reasons to think that it should remain illegal while still being consistent with a youth liberation position. 

What I am saying is that the common version of the consent argument against youth rights paints an incomplete picture of the situation. And it misses a bigger point: We live in a society that oppresses youth and has gross power imbalances; these power imbalances throughout society are what we should really be concerned about. These inequalities have serious implications that affect all of our social relations.

Moreover, we live in a society where sexual violence is rampant among people of all ages. But exploitation is wrong at any age. We should be focusing on making sure that all sex is consensual, and promoting healthy relationships generally. 

The main point is this: We need to challenge the existing normalization of power and control over children that leads to rampant abuse by family members and other people in positions of power. The oppression of youth exacerbates rape culture throughout society by disrespecting bodily autonomy and by normalizing coercion and power hierarchies from a young age

So, back to the common objection: "If all youth had equal rights, then young children would be legally allowed to have consensual sex with adults, which would be bad because kids are easily manipulated and would be abused and taken advantage of."

The first thing to do is to reframe the problem. Most people are rightly concerned about the idea of children being taken advantage of and sexually exploited by adults. But most people miss the broader issues at stake. 

For example, most people overlook the fact that children are already being taken advantage of and sexually exploited by adults at disturbingly high rates. The vast majority of this abuse is done by family members and/or in the home -- homes which children can't legally leave under most circumstances. And this abuse is often a direct result of the oppressive forces under which youth live

From an early age, most children are taught that their bodily and personal autonomy doesn't mean much. Most young people have to do what adults in positions of power say in almost every single aspect of their lives, usually without any explanation or reasons. And often youth are punished if they resist or disobey. 

Right now, children can legally be hit; they can be forced to stay in their rooms or sit at a desk all day; they can be fondled by their relatives against their will. They can't fight back; they can't leave. There are no real options for kids other than to submit. 

So, given these cultural norms, how would a child understand that it's not okay to be sexually touched? How is a child supposed to deny an adult, when the rest of their existence demands obedience? 

Another aspect of oppression is that kids are economically dependent on adults. This means that (a) kids couldn't practically leave an abusive situation even if they were legally allowed to, and (b) kids can more easily be coerced and manipulated (for example, the popularized narrative of strangers using candy to trick kids wouldn't be so forceful if kids could buy their own candy). 

The result of this dependence and conditioned, forced subservience is that children's oppression contributes to rape culture. Our society denies children any meaningful rights to consent or to stand up to people in power. The law demands children's obedience to adult authority. One of the first lessons many children learn is that might makes rightThis is a recipe for disaster. 

Children can't be expected to learn how to say "no" to sex if they aren't even allowed to say "no" in so many other aspects of their lives. So it's no wonder that issues of consent and sexual assault plague people of all ages. We are indoctrinated from infancy to believe that our will and preferences are inferior and must give way to the desires of people with relative power. How is a child supposed to know at what point touching crosses the line if the line never involves the child's consent? 

Of course, even if young people had more control over their bodies, there would still be huge power imbalances. Some of these imbalances are economic, some of these physical, and some of these come through experience and age. And these imbalances may very well mean that consensual sex between adults and children should remain illegal. But at this point, we can't even imagine what a society free from youth oppression would look like. 

Further, non-consensual sex (rape) is always illegal. And if young people had the right to sue, they could actually bring these cases in civil court. As it currently stands, youth rely on the state to prosecute sexual violence. 

For all of these reasons, we should be concerned with the existing power imbalance between adults and children. These power asymmetries mean that kids need protection and autonomy. Consent laws could legitimately protect youth from abuse and be consistent with youth liberation by recognizing young people's rights to control their bodies and other aspects of their lives. This position accepts that this is paternalistic, but would argue that it is justifiable. A strictly logical or philosophical approach might reject that conclusion. But the realities of the oppression of children demand a more nuanced approach. 

Additionally, it's impossible to say, at this point, how this conversation might proceed if youth were afforded more freedom and participation in our society. For example, if youth could vote, maybe they would support statutory rape and age of consent laws? Maybe they would push to make them even stricter? Maybe they would envision a completely different system for regulating sexual relations and promoting healthy relationships? Who knows? Not adults. And that's exactly the point. 

It's difficult to imagine what truly consensual social relations could even look like because we live in a society with such gross power imbalances and disrespect for bodily autonomy. And because we live in a society where the oppression of youth is normalized in so many aspects of life. 

Further entrenching this oppression and increasing the power of those adults is not a serious solution. In fact, it just makes the problem worse. At the same time, merely "protecting" youth by gradually denying more and more of their autonomy is not a solution either. 

The solution is recognizing children's bodily autonomy and self-determination rights. The solution is giving children respect and legal rights to refuse coercion and control. And the solution involves creating a society where enforced hierarchies of power are not normal. The solution is youth liberation. 

Friday, 25 December 2020

Youth Liberation in 85 words

Youth liberation is the process of young people realizing freedom from all forms of age-based oppression.

It is rethinking assumptions about the incompetence and inferiority of youth. 

It is questioning the laws, systems, and institutions that deprive youth of their liberty. 

It is providing youth with the support they need while ensuring the autonomy that all people are entitled to. 

It is confronting all forms of oppression. 

Youth liberation is creating a world where people of all ages can live healthy, fulfilling, and liberated lives. 

Monday, 21 December 2020

Movie Review: Shoplifters

A couple of days ago I watched Shoplifters (see the trailer here), a 2018 Japanese film that explores the question: "What is family?" 

It portrayed young people and social relations in nuanced, unique, and -- at times -- a liberatory way that invites attention and discussion. 

Spoiler Warning: If you are planning to watch the film, this post may contain spoilers. 

I'll keep this post fairly short. I just wanted to bring attention to some ways in which Shoplifters explores and challenges contemporary ideas about family and childhood. 

One theme is the blurring of the lines defining what family is or isn't. For example, one of the characters is referred to as "grandma," another one "mother," and others are "sister" and "brother." But as the film progresses, we learn that the relationships are not what they seem -- that almost none of the characters are biologically related. This isn't necessarily uncommon throughout the world, but it is relatively rare in "developed" societies where the isolated nuclear family is the dominant social structure. 

The effect of this blurring is to challenge and subvert conventional ideas of what makes a family. 

We begin to ask: How much legal and moral weight should biological relations be given? How does this change when kids are harmed by their blood relatives? Or when kids express a desire to live with another family? 

To further complicate these questions, the "family" that has come together in the movie seems to truly love each other (most of the time); they pay attention to each other, they listen, they look out for each other, they have fun together, and they support each other. 

This is contrasted with the biological family relations depicted in the movie, which feature abuse, coercion, neglect, and deception. 

One scene towards the end of the film finds Noboyu, the "mother" (who isn't the biological or legal mother of the children, Shota and Yuri) asking: 'What makes a mother? Does just giving birth make you a mother?' 

Legally, yes. But, why? 

Towards the end of the movie, we see Yuri's abusive biological mother try to coerce her into apologizing for nothing and then attempt to use the promise of buying her clothes to get her to obey. This is a classic example of how kids' forced economic dependence gives parents outsize power in controlling kids. And it left me with a sinking feeling, imagining the next decade of parental oppression Yuri would face. 

However, while the film questions society's romanticism of and attachment to the traditional nuclear family, it doesn't shy away from the problems and complexities of the alternatives. 

For example, we see that, despite the abuse, Yuri is essentially kidnapped. While we know that the kidnappers (Osamu and Nobuyo) saw that Yuri's parents were abusive, we also see that they know they are kidnapping someone. And, in the end, we learn that they had taken Shota from his parents many years before (and the details of that event are unclear). So, we are confronted with legal violations and moral ambiguity.  

Moreover, there is the theme of kids shoplifting throughout. It seems consensual for most of the movie, but towards the end, we see that, at times, pressure and coercion were involved (e.g. the adult Osamu pressures Shota to help him steal). Thus, the film exposes a potential dark side of kids choosing their families and unregulated adult/child relationships -- there may still be exploitation, and not all adults have pure motives. 

Moreover, some of the relations are -- at least in part -- financially motivated, leaving us to question how the financial incentives to enter into social relations affect our perceptions of the relationships. 

Nonetheless, despite the kidnapping and ambiguously exploitative relations, the kids seem happiest with their "chosen" family, rather than their biological or state-appointed living situations. 

This calls into question the legitimacy and the justice of forcing kids to stay in constrained family arrangements, even when it's against their wills. 

The film also provides a sharp critique of the state system and laws that operate to send kids back to abusive homes -- and that value parent's "rights" above nearly every other consideration. (Also, it's important to note that, at least in the U.S., when the state does take kids away from abusive homes, it usually does so (a) without the consent or input of the youth, and (b) often at rates that disproportionately affect and criminalize families of Color, and especially Black and Indigenous youth and mothers.)


What makes a family? Should kids be able to choose their own families? What does it mean that most adults are even comfortable asking that question? 

Also, any suggestions for other movies or books that address these issues?  

Tuesday, 8 December 2020

The Pandemic School-Opening Debate: Where are the Youth Voices?

If I see one more opinion, editorial, policy recommendation, or letter claiming that kids either should or should not be sent back to school, without any reference to the actual opinions or wishes of kids, I am going to lose my mind. 

I know, I know, we have laws saying that adults don't have to listen to kids and kids have to do whatever adults say.

But seriously. This is a pandemic. Lives are at stake. It's time to start listening to young people. 

The litany of articles around this debate I've seen is disturbing. And, so far, not a single one I've read is focused on the voices of young people. 

I should note that one benefit of all of this public debate is that some people are finally being honest about the purposes of school: it's not just about "education" -- it's largely about child care and economic productivity. And, some people are beginning to take note of how school before COVID-19 wasn't all that great for many students. 

Still, almost every single one of the articles in this debate relies exclusively on anecdotal evidence and isolated narratives to conclude that school closures are "bad" or "harmful" for kids. Many don't include any data or evidence, and just summarily conclude that school closures are bad for all kids. 

Of course, I'm not trying to say that school is all bad. Or that school closures don't do harm to some children and families (they do -- and they have a disproportionate impact on marginalized communities -- especially for families with parents who work outside the home, households lacking reliable internet or computers, and families with children with special needs). I also acknowledge that school (for better or worse) serves important functions like child-care, and for some children, it is a temporary safe space. 

Moreover, I don't want to gloss over the unequal access to education and learning resources that consistently leaves marginalized and poor youth with worse options (although studies have actually shown that the pandemic isn't making the achievement gap any worse so far, which is interesting). 

That said, it's time to confront the false narrative that school closures are bad for kids across the board. It's time to confront the other side of that narrative -- that opening schools back up would be good for kids. And it's time to recognize that by ignoring youth voices, and assuming what is "good" or "bad" for kids as a group, this debate about school re-openings continues to marginalize and oppress youth. 

For those who have actually gathered or looked at real data, the results indicate that school closures may actually be improving the wellbeing of youth (as reported by youth). 

One survey about the mental health and social effects of school closures shows that school closures have actually been a good thing according to most youth and families; psychological wellbeing has improved without the stress of school

Another report found that "teens’ mental health did not collectively suffer during the pandemic when...compared [to pre-pandemic surveys]. The percentage of teens who were depressed or lonely was actually lower than in 2018." And this positive mental health occurred despite all of the trauma and challenges of the pandemic! 

Some youth are thriving in remote learning. And teens are finally getting enough sleep. The bottom line is that young people are largely reporting they are doing well without school

Moreover, recent data has shown that, on average, students are improving at reading at the same rate they did pre-pandemic. In other words, kids are learning to read even without in-person school. 

The point is that the common narratives in the media about school closures being terrible for students are just not true. Across the board, these narratives paint an oversimplified picture of schooling that serves adult -- not youth -- interests. Worse yet, these narratives ignore youth voices. 

Instead, we need to listen to and include youth in decision-making processes. And respect youth autonomy. 

Just the fact that someone even needs to point that out -- that not listening to youth about how they live their lives is somehow a legitimate option in our society -- is disturbing. 

Another point is that to "listen to youth" doesn't mean to tokenize one or two youth narratives. Just like it would be with any other marginalized group, it's inaccurate and harmful to assume that all kids have the same opinions and needs. That's just classic ignorant paternalism. 

So, here's the takeaway: adults can debate about whether to open or close public schools during the pandemic all they want -- but at the very least, listen to the people who are most affected by that choice: the youth.