Content note: This post directly addresses the issue of violence against children and youth, and its place in the larger context of the role of children in society.
BDSM is an adult activity. It requires adult judgment and skills. It is both illegal and unethical to involve people under 18 in sexual communities organized for adults. In some cases, 21 is the standard, because of the presence of alcohol. Serving alcohol to underage people can be just the excuse needed to shut a club down, so it’s for the preservation of the group.
However, people who don’t respect the boundary of legal age are everywhere. They target people who are not yet adults because they are less experienced, and therefore more vulnerable. There is always a power differential in this type of situation. Dating someone who doesn’t have the legal ability to make decisions for themselves, in addition to limited or no income, and often, no transportation, means that they are easier to manipulate and control.
Abuse against preadolescent children is even more heinous. The idea that this is purely a function of deviance in individuals is a dangerous one, I think. It’s a crime of convenience. The people who harm young children are most often the people closest to them. Yes, some people get close to children on purpose, but there are also plenty of parents and close relatives who abuse their own children. One of the most common perpetrators of child abuse is the romantic partner of a single parent. This is not about an innate interest, it is about who is nearby and vulnerable.
Part of the problem is that we, as a society, see children as objects and possessions. We routinely disregard the autonomy of children, and subject them to unfair and unpleasant treatment. It is often necessary for parents and children to do things they dislike, for their health and safety, but many things are simply because adults are lazy and don’t care.
Objectifying children is a parallel of the way we treat women. Women are frequently treated in paternalistic ways, not allowed to make their own decisions, and abused for the pleasure, profit and convenience of others.
Parents who treat their children like possessions are one reflection of this social norm. “Nobody can tell me how to raise my child” presumes not only that belonging to a community has no place in parenting, but also that the child has no say in what happens to them.
The idea of children as familial assets goes back to agrarian societies. In a farm-based economy, children were free labor, and having many would help to ensure that the family farm would survive into the future.
In an industrial society, children are also routinely exploited for labor, but where this practice is prohibited, children become an expense rather than an asset. Now, many people feel that because they must pay to provide for the child, they own the child and can do whatever they please with them. Most parents have no wish to harm their child, but for those who have no compunction about harming others, the child is a convenient target.
Children who are intersex or transgender are particularly at risk. When a child is born with physical characteristics that do not conform to binary sex and gender, many parents still subject that child to unnecessary surgery to make them conform. The damage done by this practice is long-lasting and deeply scarring, both physically and emotionally. Likewise, children know their gender, and many parents refuse to accept this and force them to conform to the gender they were assigned.
Whenever we disregard the feelings and wishes of children for no reason but our own convenience or entertainment, we put them at risk. I remember being required to do things that made me very uncomfortable, such as dancing with the ring bearer at a wedding, or accompanying my mother to unfamiliar places, full of adults I did not know, many of whom were drinking and using drugs. Girls, especially, are often required to display heteronormative socialization at a young age, to the extent of being paired with older male relatives for acts of faux heterosexuality, or enduring the inappropriate interest of older men without complaint.
Sexuality involving children is deeply taboo, on one hand, and yet, children are expected to conform to expectations of sex and gender, and are even pressured to display signs of future heterosexuality. Teasing kids about their “girlfriends” or “boyfriends,” for instance, is a very common practice that imposes adult perceptions. They pretty much universally hate it, and object strongly, and still adults persist in this creepy and inappropriate practice.
The right of children to say “no” to anything not necessary for their healthy, safe development supersedes the rights of parents – if not legally, then ethically. If we can’t agree on that, then we can’t be so surprised when abuse is so prevalent.