A few weeks ago, I was watching television and I saw one of those attention-getting news teasers. You know what I’m talking about—”Nuclear war might start soon, details at eleven!” and so on. This particular night, we were told that a child pornography ring had been discovered (and its members, of course, arrested) somewhere in the DC metro area.

Now I don’t know about you, but when I hear the term “child pornography” I think of depraved old men leering at inappropriate images of children. Of course, all involved parties in these cases—most particularly the guardians of the photographed children—should be arrested and prosecuted. But what about cases when the “child pornography” is not child pornography at all?

The “child,” in this case, was a sixteen year old boy who was participating consensually in the sex acts and knew that he was being photographed.

In our legal society, there have been three landmark ages on the road to adulthood. The first—age 16—was the point at which teens were allowed to get their licenses to drive (although this landmark is quickly evaporating). The second—age 18—is the point at which parental legal authority ends and teens are permitted to vote, enter into contracts, get a credit card, and have consensual sex with other adults (and even be photographed doing it). The third—age 21—is the point at which people may legally consume alcohol.

Eliminating the outliers (driving at age 16 and drinking at age 21) and a couple of other random things, all legal decision-making authority poofs into existence for people when they hit the age of 18. A person who is 17 years and 364 days old is, in most respects, legally equivalent to a two year old. If that 17 year old consensually participates in the filming of a pornographic video, the filmmakers will be charged with the same crime as a guardian who videotapes the sexual abuse of that 2 year old.

What this exposes is a larger problem in our society (which I have addressed before—see Unnaturally Repressed Young Adults). We have failed to properly delineate the differences between a child, an adolescent, and an adult. An 18 year old is old enough to choose the leader of the free world, but not to have a beer? A 16 year old is old enough to operate a Ford Explorer on Interstate 66, but not to serve on a jury? In Virginia, as in many other states, 14 year olds can be tried as adults if the crime was heinous enough; so a 14 year old is expected to be an adult when it comes to where he points a gun, but not with where he points his penis?

The Code of Virginia §1-13.42 includes this ludicrous example of legislation: “The word ‘infancy’ shall be construed to mean the state of being under eighteen years of age.” Yes, a 17 year old is legally an infant.

If that doesn’t strike you as bizarre, nothing will.

As I mentioned in Unnaturally Repressed Young Adults, it wasn’t that long ago that adolescents were given many of the rights and responsibilities of adulthood. The Jewish Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies, for example, occur at ages 13 and 12 respectively and mark the passage from childhood to adulthood. As recently as the 1800s, most societies in the world expected adolescents to work, to marry, and to make their own decisions.

Today, people seem to think this was some baseless, archaic practice, but it was rooted in physical realities. Mental maturity, if fostered and encouraged, occurs around the same time as physical maturity. The reason it doesn’t seem to happen here is because neither physical or mental maturity is fostered or encouraged; it is looked down upon, stifled, and repressed. Adolescents are told that they are they are incapable of making decisions, that they cannot sign a contract, that they cannot manage their finances, that they are stupid (let’s teach you what a noun is for the twelfth straight year!), and that they are ill equipped to determine when they are physically, emotionally, and mentally ready to have sex. It is no wonder that they rise no further than these low expectations.

What has happened here is that we have entered into a destructive cycle. Adolescents are not encouraged to develop mental maturity, so they do not have it when they are later given the various rights of adulthood. Then, because these adolescents are not exercising their adult rights responsibly, society moves to take them away.

The evaporation of the age-16 milestone is a perfect example of what I mean. After a lifetime of being expected to do little more than nothing at home and mindless busywork at school, we handed teens the keys to a car and said, “Make good executive decisions while you control this 2-ton piece of high-powered metal!” Obviously, with absolutely no preparation for the responsibility of driving, said teens were more likely to make stupid mistakes and crash.

Our society, rather than fixing the underlying problem, raised the driving age and imposed more restrictions on teenage drivers. How the mindless imposition of restrictions was supposed to teach responsibility was never explained and—true to my predictions—these changes in the driving laws have had little effect on accident rates. The state legislature should be proud.

I do not necessarily advocate a return to the days where 13 year olds were given the full rights and responsibilities of adults. But it is clear that our obfuscation of the line between child and adolescent has stifled the healthy development of helpless children into successful adults.

Because we never expect or demand that adolescents and young adults fend for themselves, they often live as parasites on their parents’ dime well into their legal adulthood. Because we will not encourage adolescents to engage in the safe, healthy sexual relationships that their bodies demand, they instead indulge themselves in informal rendezvous at parties or in the back seats of their SUVs (resulting in unwanted pregnancies and worse). Because we do not allow them to make their own decisions during the formative years of their mental maturity, they will invariably make bad ones when they finally get the chance later.

In the darker days of American history, you had to pass a literacy test to vote. The ‘official’ argument was that only people who were literate could possibly know enough about the issues to cast a vote. Unofficially, however, the policy was nothing more than a thinly-veiled effort to prevent minorities (who were kept illiterate by the education systems of the day) from voting. This country kept black people from becoming literate, and then told them they couldn’t vote because they couldn’t read.

While I do not believe it is nearly so intentional, our society does largely the same thing today with adolescents. We refuse to give them the tools with which they can become responsible adults, and then tell them they can’t have any rights because they are irresponsible.

It is time to break this destructive cycle. It is time to raise our expectations. It is time to give adolescents a challenge, and let them surprise us by rising to it.