Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

Children in Sex, Adults in Crime: Constructing and Confining Teens

Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

Children in Sex, Adults in Crime: Constructing and Confining Teens

Article excerpt

This paper explores two pieces of legislation proposed in Ontario in 2001, the Rescuing Children From Sexual Exploitation Act and the No-More-Free-Ride For Young Offenders Act, in order to examine how young people are alternatively defined as children and as adults due to current constructs of childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and victimhood.

Cet article examine deux lois proposees en Ontario en 2001: la Loi de 2002 sur la delivrance des enfants de l'exploitation sexuelle et la loi sur les leunes contrevenants qui ne permet plus a ceux-ci de s'en tirer aussi facilement, afin d'examiner comment les jeunes sont definis, d'une part comme enfants, et d'autre part, comme adultes, a cause des constructions actuelles de l'enfance, de l'adolescence, de la vie adulte et de la victimisation.


Childhood, adolescence and adulthood are not simply direct descriptions of certain stages of life, but concepts whose meanings and applications shift contextually and politically (James, Jenks and Prout, 1998; Lesko, 2001, 1996; Adams, 1997; Griffin, 1993). Adolescence is a category that is particularly variable. Its fluidity is examined here through an examination of two pieces of legislation that were proposed by Ontario's conservative government in 2001: the Rescuing Children From Sexual Exploitation Act and the No-More-Free-Ride for Young Offenders Act. While neither piece of legislation has directly come into effect, both reflect populist positions and similar legislation used elsewhere: in Alberta's Protection of Children Involved in Prostitution Act and British Columbia's proposed Secure Care Act in the case of the former; in other provincial calls to "toughen up" the Young Offenders Act (Alvi, 2000) and in American legislation calling for "adult time for adult crime" in the case of the latter. Both positions are linked to conservative, 'law-and-order' political platforms.

In this paper I discuss these two proposed acts side by side because, in combination, they reflect and reproduce conflicting constructions of adolescence. My primary focus here is not to evaluate how these proposals address prostitution and criminality per se. Rather, I explain how teenagers can be "rationally" framed as children in one moment and as adults in another. I argue that this is possible for the following reasons: current constructs of adolescence and their relation to conceptualizations of childhood innocence and adult accountability; gendered practices and discourses as they intersect with sexuality and crime (and, in turn, constructions of childhood and adulthood), and finally understandings of gendered victimhood and agency. I also consider how the acts are particularly relevant to aboriginal and other racialized youth, whose unequal social positions historically and currently intersect with conceptualizations of childhood, adolescence, sexuality and crime.

Constructing adolescence

   The current schizophrenic formulations of youth--dependent and
   vulnerable or independent and responsible--enable states to
   selectively choose between the two constructs to manipulate young
   people's legal status, to maximize their social control, and to
   subordinate their freedom and autonomy (Feld, 1999, p. 9).

As Vivian Burr outlines, social constructionism includes a number of different theoretical inclinations united by the belief that the world as we experience it is created or constructed through language and culture, produced and reproduced through social interaction (Burr, 1995). Discourse is a key component of much constructionist theorizing, in which how we talk about things, our stories, representations and meanings, produce knowledge and truth (Foucault, 1972). Some feminists have had an uneasy relationship to Foucauldian thought as it is seen to destabilize positions of oppression, reject a humanist subject and fail to theorize large-scale, emancipatory politics (Sawiki, 1996). …

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