Sexual harassment and felony sexual assault are serious crimes in society and the bent of most reasonable people is those found guilty of those infractions must pay a harsh penalty in the loss of face in the community and serious jail time and a lifetime branding for some as “registered sex offenders.”
What happens, however, when the social norms and the ongoing tradition of a sub-culture in a community accepts anti-social behavior and inappropriate touching as a normal interactional expectation?

Is the following scenario felony sex abuse or not?

Two middle-school students
in Oregon are facing possible time in a juvenile jail and could have to
register as sex offenders for smacking girls on the rear end at school.
Cory Mashburn said he and Ryan Cornelison slapped each others’ and
other kids’ bottoms every Friday. “Lots of kids at school do that,” he
said.
Cory and Ryan were brought to the principal’s office Feb. 22, where
they were questioned by school officials and a police officer. They
were arrested that day and taken in handcuffs to a juvenile detention
facility.
Court papers said the boys touched the buttocks of several girls, some
of whom said this made them uncomfortable.

The papers also said Cory
touched a girl’s breasts. But police reports filed with the court said
other students, both boys and girls, slapped each other on the bottom.
“It’s like a handshake we do,” one girl said, according to the police
report.
The boys were initially charged with five counts of felony sexual
abuse. At a court hearing, two of the girls recanted, saying they never
felt threatened or inappropriately touched by the boys. The judge
released the boys but barred them from returning to school and required
that they be under constant adult supervision.

How should the law handle sub-cultural norms and the values of the young?
Should teenagers be held to the same standards of the law as adults?
Are the following adult cultural exchanges felony sexual abuse or not?

  • Handshakes that linger too long
  • Winking and smiling
  • Patting on the back
  • Hugging
  • Kissing on the cheek
  • Kissing on the hand
  • Caressing a hand
  • Placing an arm around a shoulder

Where are the lines drawn between human affection, workplace respect, inappropriate touching and felony sexual abuse?
Are those lines imaginary, real or arbitrary — and where and how should they be drawn?
Is the intention of the “toucher” the determining factor?
Or does only the perception of the “touched” matter?

9 Comments

  1. Hi David,
    This is really a difficult topic.
    This “butt slapping” is no way appropriate or fun for anybody – be it child or adult. But whether a 13 year old should end up in jail as a registered sex offender is a matter of serious consideration. They could be – if they were 23 instead – no questions asked.
    Your list of adult cultural exchange is a complete “no no” in a workplace in India and would be considered as inappropriate.

  2. This is a hard topic to discuss, Katha, and I thank you for your usual expert insight.
    Punishing teenagers with jail and a record that would follow them for the rest of their lives does strike me as a very hard punishment.
    Thanks for the commentary on the list! That’s amazing they are not appropriate in India. How do you handle those situations here?

  3. Hi David,
    I agree punishing teenagers with jail is a bit too hard.
    The things mentioned in the list are appropriate when you are in an informal social get together in India or with your friends but not in a formal workplace – unless you know your colleagues for ages.
    I think things are same here. No one would do anything mentioned in the list in a workplace unless they know you for years! Things are different when you are with your friends or families!

  4. This sounds like teenage exploration rituals to me – similar things have been going on for many years in the UK.
    Going back further did you ever play Doctors and Nurses – Cowboys and Indians as a child?
    How did you interact as a teenager – how did you learn about boys or girls ?
    I would suspect the answer is *by fooling around* – rough and tumble – tickling matches and such.
    The danger here ( and where the line is crossed ) is the issue of consent. If these kids joined the group/club/gang/society knowing about the bottom slapping – they have by applying to join given their consent. It very much sounds as if it is a MUTUAL activity.
    If however there are groups going around doing this to non – members and people /children who have not consented – it becomes a different matter. A matter of coercion/bullying in a school environment – and one of sexual harassment in the workplace.
    I know that I would have settled for the bottom smacking group at school – much better than having your hands tied to the hot water pipes by the bullying crowd.

  5. I agree this is sort of a natural sexual exploration, Nicola.
    When I was in pre-school — perhaps 3 or 4 — several of us went to “the castle” on the playground and we each took turns pulling down our pants and then spinning around for a full view of everything. Boys and girls together.
    Then we got caught. And punished at school. And humiliated at home. Not a great experience overall, really, but it was thrilling in the moment.