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A Call to safeguard our children and our liberties

{This is the statement of an informal group of educators, health workers, criminal justice workers and other community activists, mostly from Boston and the Northeast.}

As people concerned about children's welfare and a just society, we speak out against the troubling direction of current campaigns to protect children from vaguely defined sexual dangers by criminalizing and scapegoating a wide range of people and behaviors. These approaches often ignore the realities of childhood and adolescent sexuality and they sometimes equate affection with violence. They distract us from the problem of far more serious forms of violence against children and young people. They erode essential freedoms for everyone. Current hysteria is so pervasive that anyone who suggests a more thoughtful discussion risks being branded a child abuser. To truly protect children as well as empower them to be themselves, and to protect a free society, we insist on a more sensible and compassionate approach.

Most child abuse has nothing to do with sex. It is important to speak out against true sexual abuse, which has so often remained hidden and denied within families and communities. However, non-sexual violence and murder of children is as pervasive as sexual violence. Poverty, malnutrition, ethnic discrimination, poor education, and inadequate health care are all forms of abuse that threaten millions of young people in our affluent nation. Yet there is no national commitment to halt these deadly and more pervasive forms of harm to children. Instead, our attention is riveted by any case involving sex.

Recent child sex abuse campaigns make little or no distinction among diverse behaviors and circumstances. Any sex equals violence, and seventeen-year-olds are 'children.' The brutal rape of a six-year-old girl by her father; uncoerced sexual relations between a fourteen-year-old boy and a thirty-year-old woman; an affair between an eighteen-year-old boy and a sixteen-year-old girl: these are clearly very different cases, yet they are all portrayed as rape under the law and in the media. We do not believe that affectionate, mutual sexual expression is the same as violent rape. To equate them is to trivialize rape. Furthermore, in sex cases involving children, hard evidence seems unnecessary: the allegation suffices. It also seems odd that we speak of older and older youth as children in need of protection from sex abuse, but consider younger and younger children to be adults when accused of crimes.

Demonizing any class of people as devoid of humanity and beyond redemption is wrong. Laws now brand any transgressor of under-age sex rules as a 'sexual predator,' even when no violence or force is alleged, and even when the young person is a month or a day shy of the legal age of consent. In addition, society's fears and hatred of homosexuality often leads to a scapegoating of gay people, falsely stereotyping them as child molesters. Demonization is destructive even when applied to truly violent offenders. Those who commit sexually violent crimes do not come out of a vacuum. They come out of our communities and families. The message conveyed is that the main danger to children is the stranger about to pounce on them, the pedophile whom we can expose and stigmatize. Yet most sexual contact between adults and minors is among family and friends. To view dangerous offenders as totally 'other' than us prevents getting to the roots of such crimes. Permanent stigmatization not only makes impossible re-integration into society of those who are rehabilitated, it signals a breakdown in civil society.

"Protect the children" has been a battle cry to expand coercive state power and imprisonment. The past two decades have seen many new forms of state repression in the name of protecting children: There are sweeping new censorship laws; registries to track people for life and expose them to public ridicule; civil commitment to incarcerate those not convicted of a crime but deemed 'dangerous;' life-time parole for sex offenders in some states; and mandatory life sentences without parole for second offenses; thought police empowered to monitor those imprisoned, on parole or under 'civil detention' with mandatory lie detector tests and aversive therapy in some jurisdictions; mandatory reporting laws that turn doctors and therapists into agents of the state; prohibitions against freedom of association; and extra territoriality - allowing prosecution of citizens for behavior outside the state or nation, even when that behavior is legal in the other jurisdiction. These assaults on civil liberties have befallen us because so few have been willing to risk being seen as 'soft on child molesters.' We hold that civil liberties are indivisible. We argue that longer sentences, harsher treatment in prison or calls for the death penalty merely escalate and perpetuate the violence. Repressive state powers cannot be neatly applied only to 'bad' people. They threaten us all.

The power and capriciousness of the laws and attitudes wrought by these campaigns have put up a destructive barrier between adults and children. Currently, caring adults may reasonably fear that any affection will be branded as abuse. This fear means that adults - whether parents, teachers or strangers - often withhold that which all kids need most: affectionate, respectful attention. The real challenge is to support and expand programs for children and youth which develop caring, loving, thoughtful, whole human beings. Among these are day care, after-school care, sex positive sex education, and better training and pay for those who work with children. The aim of all these programs should be to empower young people to learn to make their own decisions about their lives. Children and youth need to view themselves not as potential victims, but as part of a community which supports and nurtures them, encouraging them to speak up and act responsibly on their own beliefs. We want children to love life, not fear it. If this is to happen, there must be adults courageous enough to demand an honest and constructive approach to sex and youth and to call for an end to the prevailing hysteria. Only then will we be able to safeguard the liberties we all need to develop fully.

SIGNED: Dr. Richard Pillard, psychiatrist;
Paul Shannon, educator;
Cathy Hoffman, peace activist;
Chris Tilly, economics professor;
Marie Kennedy, community planning professor;
Eric Entemann, mathematics professor;
Tom Reeves, social science professor;
Bob Chatelle, writer & anti-censorship activist; and Jim D'Entremont, playwright & anti-censorship activist;
Ann Kotell, health worker;
Carol Thomas, social justice and religious activist;
French Wall and Bill Andriette, gay writers and editors;
Nancy Ryan, feminist activist;
Reebee Garofalo, popular culture professor;
Dianne McLaughlin, community & criminal justice worker;
John Miller, economics professor;
Molly Mead, urban social planning professor;
John MacDougall, sociology professor;
Laurie Dougherty, social science researcher & editor;
Monty Neill, educator & political activist;
Rev. Margaret Hougen & Rev. Edward Hougen;
Roswitha and Ernest Winsor, criminal justice advocates;
Paula Westberg, teacher;
Rosalyn Baxandall, American Studies professor & community activist (New York);
Chris Vance, bisexual youth & education worker;
Mark Salzer, teacher & political activist;
Barry Phillips, educator;
Clark Taylor, Latin American studies;
Sarah Bartlett, educator;
Rachelle Simon, incest survivor;
Noel Rosenberg, computer support tech;
Adolph Reed, political science professor (New York);
Rev. David Olson;
Phillip Kassel, civil rights attorney;
Jim Hunter, social worker (Maine);
Howard Zinn, historian & activist;
Ruth Hubbard, educator & women's health activist;
Jenifer Firestone, gay family activist;
Chip Berlet, researcher & journalist;
Paula Rayman, women's & public policy educator;
Yvonne Pappenheim, Writers for Action;
Saul Slapikoff, educator & activist;
Steve Schnapp, popular educator & activist;
Betsy Duren, computer technician;
Eric Rofes, education professor & community activist;
Michael Petrelis, political activist;
Cynthia Aguilar, daycare provider;
Jamie Suarez-Potts & Kazi Toure, Criminal Justice Program, American Friends Service Committee (Cambridge); and others.

For information, call Paul Shannon, 617-497-5273;

e-mail; write c/o POB 1799, Jamaica Plain, MA 02130.

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