As a teenager and young adult, I used to be active in online youth rights advocacy. I wanted to see young people be treated like human beings, not their parents’ property. I was involved with the National Youth Rights Association from the ages of 17 to 21, but I left in frustration after growing tired of unchecked racism, misogyny, classism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia amongst some of the membership. I felt as though I was constantly on the defensive, as though I had to prove I was equally deserving of civil rights. One of the only people who actually managed to get banned from the NYRA forums for an extended period of time was an outright Nazi who adulated Hitler and ranted about the “Zionist-owned government.” If you managed not to be a Nazi, the erstwhile executive director would let you stay around in the interest of protecting the Open Marketplace of Ideas. In particular, misogyny, xenophobia, ableism, and transphobia went almost entirely unchecked. News flash: people defending behaviour-modification programmes, spewing vitriol about queer people, or claiming that women are inferior aren’t acting in good faith. They want to be monopolists in the market of ideas. In retrospect, the proliferation of unchecked bigotry on the NYRA forums feels rather like Twitter and Facebook nowadays. Free-speech absolutism can result in Nazis, alt-righters, and MRAs pushing everyone else away. It’s a textbook demonstration of Karl Popper’s tolerance paradox.
The youth rights movement didn’t just have a problem with proto-alt-righters and MRAs. There were plenty of people who hung out in youth rights spaces who made excuses for child molestation, calling it “youth liberation.” There are a few radical youth rights activists who repeatedly advocate for the “right” for adults to have sex with children and underage teenagers. It doesn’t take a lot of research to find out there’s a clear reason why society frowns upon so-called intergenerational sex, and it’s not because opponents of child molestation are a bunch of uptight prudes. When I was involved with NYRA, I remember seeing a fair number of adults in their 20s making sexual advances to younger teenagers. People routinely defended teachers who slept with their students. These people weren’t part of NYRA’s leadership and the forum moderators—including me—tried their best to shut down discussion of adult-child sex, but it was still a recurring problem.
Why do people make these arguments?
I suspect that many of these radical youth rights advocates were labelled precocious, gifted, or prodigies as children. Their atypical development unconsciously influences their attitudes toward children in general, even if typically developing children have radically different experiences. If you learned how to read at 3 years old, you may very well think that it’s reasonable to encourage 4-year-olds to sue their abusers; after all, since they knew how to do it, so should other children. If you followed politics intently at 10 years old, you may think that all 10-year-olds can understand political discourse geared toward typical adult audiences. If you had the same reading comprehension as an adult at 8 years old, you might think, “Hey, if I can understand this stuff, so can every other child.” This kind of reasoning leads them to think that allowing 7-year-olds to file lawsuits against adults who have molested them is a viable option for protecting them from harm. This is the same kind of justification that child abusers make to themselves: “She’s so mature for her age.” “He’s intelligent enough to get it.” Even if these advocates may not intend to sound like child molesters trying to rationalise their harmful acts, they end up using the same self-centred arguments. It’s the old “mental age” concept lurking underneath: if precocious children can consent to sexual acts, does that mean that adults with intellectual disabilities with more life experience cannot because of their lower “mental age”?
Of course, some of these molestation defenders could just be wannabe child abusers themselves. In any case, if you think Roy Moore, Michael Jackson, Kevin Spacey, and Jimmy Savile did nothing wrong, there’s probably something deeply flawed with your argument. On top of that, there are also organisations that actively lobby to discredit the narratives of child abuse survivors by labelling efforts to protect children from predators as “moral panics” or “hysteria.” One can oppose Perverted-Justice-style vigilantism and still advocate for children’s safety.
Child sexual abuse is an unambiguous moral ill. Couching the right of adults to molest children and adolescents with impunity in the cloak of youth rights is not youth liberation. Civil rights encompass both positive and negative freedoms—freedoms to and freedoms from—and children and adolescents have the right to avoid exploitation by self-serving adults.