Time will tell whether Dennis Hastert will be convicted of the crimes for which he is accused—having sex with a male high school student, violating banking laws to conceal hush money, lying about it to federal authorities—all while using his power and position to do everything he could to block gay rights. If true, the hypocrisy is as galling as the crimes—railing against the very things you’re doing. He’d be joining a large throng of despicable hypocrites. Think Ted Haggard, Mark Foley, Larry Craig, the Duggar family.
Overnight, Hastert went from being a person many admired to a sex offender in people’s minds—a member of the most hated group in America. He’ll be shown little sympathy in the weeks to come by fellow Republicans, Democrats, and his previously proud neighbors in Illinois. In America, where sex still raises eyebrows, sexual abusers are quickly tried and condemned.
I don’t consider the following to be a defense of Hastert in any way, but I do believe there’s another side to this story—a story within the story that rarely gets attention—our culture’s role in propagating offenders. Prior to the 1980s, the term “sex offender” was rarely heard. Today we’re told there’s “one living on every block.” Perhaps it’s time to ask why the numbers are so high and how our culture contributes to the problem.
A brief history…
In the tribes of our ancestors, children learned about sex by looking at what was going on around them. Kids were considered asexual until they reached child-bearing age at which time they became sexually active adults. Growing up free of our Western prohibitions, boys experimented with boys and girls; girls did the same. When it was time to procreate to ensure the viability of the tribe, young men and women mated—in some tribes exclusively, in others with every member of the tribe as a means of social bonding. Even after the men began mating with women, they continued to enjoy, as they always had, sexual relationships with other men. There were no labels: “gay,” “straight”, or “bi.” Sex was a gift to be enjoyed and shared.
Written accounts survive of the Christian Conquistadors’ arrival in America and their astonishment at the sight of naked men fornicating with each other. When they called to the men, the men paused to look up—then resumed what they were doing free of shame. In response, the Conquistadors unleashed wild dogs, devouring the natives, tearing them apart limb from limb.
Hastert, like the rest of us, lives in the shadow of two thousand years of sexual repression. Like many men, he might have wanted to experiment sexually with boys as a child—take the camaraderie of boyhood to a deeper, more satisfying level—not because he was gay, but because he was curious. Maybe, like many of us, he unknowingly longed for the part of himself that was stolen eons ago. Maybe he wanted to reclaim his natural heritage, but never got the chance because there was no one to encourage him, living in a disapproving culture that held a hammer over his head. If only he’d found what kids are starting to find today—a growing tolerance for same-sex experimentation not tied to any label at all. In Hastert’s time, boys kept such yearnings in check—sometimes forever, sometimes until they could no long stand the deafening silence.
We look pejoratively at the practices of ancient cultures, yet it’s our own that sexualizes children, blurring the lines between kids and adults. Open a magazine and see six-year-olds made to look eighteen. Watch TV and hear ten-year-olds talk smack like adults. Go to a beauty pageant and watch kids parading a sexuality that won’t be theirs for years to come. Nothing would seem less natural to our ancient ancestors than encouraging men to be attracted to little kids. Yet our culture does, before swooping down with prison terms and lifetimes of sex offender registration as soon as men cross the line.
Also contributing to the sexualization of children is the objectification of kids resulting from the disintegration of the village. Villages, tribes, extended families, and neighborhoods have largely disappeared from the American scene, leaving many adults unfamiliar with what children are about. The hysteria over missing kids in the 1980s drove parents to shield kids even further from adults. The result: many adults today never come in contact with kids, and many kids believe all strangers are dangerous. What would our ancestors think about that? When kids are theoretical rather than real, without names or faces or individual personalities, they’re apt to be seen as little more than objects—objects to be used rather than persons to be cherished.
Until we find ways to return to the tribe—reuniting kids with adults, allowing kids to remain kids, and supporting kids in age-appropriate same- and opposite-sex exploration—the future Hasterts of the world, lacking sexual satisfaction, will continue to choose inappropriate paths.