Observers sometimes say that the United States is an adolescent country, in that strange unsettled state where it can’t decide where it wants to go. In fact, I would opine that small towns -- if this one is any indicator -- also tend to be stuck in high school. They will frankly tell you that high school was “the best years of my life” and it’s not unusual for an old man’s obit to describe his high school athletic feats. The kids used to say to me, “Oh, I don’t want to grow up because then there’s nothing left but work.”
“Adolescent” is from Latin, meaning "to grow up." It’s a fluid time, both mentally and physically full of potential, but always a little out of control. Nowadays we extend adolescence into the thirties. It has become an economic category, both as commodities (soldiers, entry-level worker bees, starlets and singers) and as consumers (mounds of clothes, tangles of electronics, tanks of gas).
The adolescent mind is not quite solidified -- though it’s moving on past the identity formed at eight or nine -- because the last spurt of brain growth is in the early twenties, so vulnerability to both corruption and inspiration is very high. Kids are often changing from one school to another, some families re-configure once they think kids are old enough to be unsupervised, maybe the kid is sent off to a school where the people are entirely different. But mainly, if things unfold as they do in the modern world, suddenly there’s a vast cosmos and the kid is floating in the blackness of dark matter. It wasn’t always this way, because there just weren’t so many choices. And the terms of everything have changed. Kids used to start work at about the same age as kids begin school these days -- maybe 6 or 8 -- and they still do in Third World Countries. (Including the American ghettos.)
The incredible sexualization and commodification of everything, the resources for evading even conscientious families if a kid has a car and a cell phone, have pushed adolescents into unprecedented danger zones, some of which are simply unrecognized. For instance, birth control pills may prevent pregnancy, pregnancy does not kill women at the rates it once did (particularly girls still in adolescence), but the stability it takes to remain on a regimen might not be there in a kid, and no one really knows the consequences of taking the pill for a long time early in life. For another instance, HIV is an equal opportunity infector, though people don’t associate it with women. The first starlet to die of AIDS has not been identified. (I'm not saying there haven't been any.) That’s what it seems to take.
We are not clear-headed about any of the adolescent issues. The accepted practice of coaches using their adolescent young men’s bodies for brain-threatening ballgames that make a lot of money for a lot of people (including the coach) has covered for the extension of the practice to sex as an athletes' entitlement. Locker rooms are so convenient, to say nothing of group showers. In a Montana school the shower became the stadium for sexual hazing called “power gobbling.” When the victim’s family complained, they were asked to put off action until after the football season, since the main perp was a big aggressive kid, a “power player.” The grandmother did not wait.
Adolescent girls have always been held up as exemplars of sexiness -- Hugh Hefner’s ideal of the blonde sixteen-year-old -- even Neil Goldschmidt, much respected mayor of Portland in the Seventies, could not resist the baby sitter. Probably this is attached to the idea of virginity and certainly to the notion of control. Girls would be motivated to maintain secrecy to protect their own reputations and value as family commodities. A later gay mayor of Portland got involved with a young man.
There is a special word for men who have an eye for young men. It is not gay. It is "pederast." The irony is that a pederast is not necessarily relating to the younger man as a sex object -- the interest COULD be purely platonic, as in the case of a conscientious teacher. Nambla did nobody any favors by confusing platonic, nurturing, protective interest between adult and adolescent men with sexual affairs, pushing pederasty over into the category of pedophilia, the love of pre-adolescent children, which I assume also need not be sexualized or life would be hopelessly confused. It is not love ("philia") to have sex with a child. We don't seem to see the line between caring and sex. In fact, by now we need an entirely new word for men who wish to guide and protect boys. Mentor, sponsor, “big brother,” -- “teacher” seems a little risky.
We often seem to be in a modern crisis because adults don’t take enough of an interest in young people to convey what the youngsters need to know. In fact, our stubborn taboo on sexual information leaves it to the commodifiers who constantly emphasize that life MUST include a terrific, orgasmic, precious, explosive, transforming sex life that can only happen if you buy their product. (Deodorant. A hat.) People spend [sic] their entire lives searching for this ecstatic physical crisis, entirely neglecting other ways human beings can be very happy indeed, including platonic intimacy and the pleasure of watching a child unfold and grow.
This same dynamic of sexualizing and commodifying (which I consider far more dangerous and insidious than S/M or even drugs -- in terms of potential to corrupt the larger culture) prevents help by the very people who can address the damage done -- the counselors, relatives, friends and older-as-well-as-wiser. A high school counselor in the Seventies said he didn’t dare touch kids anymore, no matter how much they really needed a hug. He couldn’t even put a hand on their shoulder. We’ve made simple physical contact into a neon branding iron.
At the same time that we try to get adolescents under control (for our own adult uses) we’re erratic and unreasonable about the true victims of abusive pedophilia towards small children. We can get so involved in little kids that we crowd them out of their own lives. Parents who have never matured simply abandon their children, even at an age where they can die of starvation or exposure before they ever get to school where authorities will notice them. Because it takes two wage-earners to support a household in the way we think is now necessary, even middle-class small-town kids are being raised by day care. In households where only the woman is employed, parasitical boyfriends are stuck with the kids, whom they may resent and sometimes abuse. Then their death story is on the front page of the newspaper.
So far the majority of adults look out for kids up to a point. Some kids are already beyond ordinary help. Our solution so far has been simply to eliminate them. Not exactly kill them, but just let them die. Suffering.