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A kiss is just a kiss // We're in a moral panic about child sexual abuse

The news has been full of reactions to the story of the 6-year-old North Carolina boy who kissed a 6-year-old girl and was immediately suspended for this "unwarranted and unwelcome touching." As a former little girl, I think what he did was a big improvement on the way boys used to express affection, by hitting or pulling hair. But in today's climate, that little boy is an incipient sex offender. His story illustrates how confused many Americans have become in deciding what exactly constitutes sexual abuse and sexual harassment and what should be done about them.

The savage streak of Puritanism that lurks just below the surface of American culture erupts from time to time in what sociologist Stanley Cohen called "moral panics" _ crusades and contagions that occur when people's general anxieties become attached to particular events or deviant individuals who represent to them a threat to the social order. Moral panics have been attached at various times to pedophiles, marijuana smokers, communists, homosexuals, rock 'n' roll musicians and, most famously, alleged witches. In each case, the hysteria generated to "root out" these sources of evil, along with laws passed and bureaucracies instituted in the wake of that hysteria, have caused more devastation than the original problem.

Today, we are in the midst of national hysteria about child sexual abuse. As with all moral panics, it stems from legitimate worries _ in this case, about the safety of children in our hypersexualized age. And it stems from the rage produced by sensationalized stories of sexual predators and psychopaths. But pedophiles and sexual psychopaths have always been with us. What distinguishes a moral panic from reasoned efforts to deal with sex offenders has to do with the tone and sweep of the solutions offered.

We can tell we are in the grip of hysteria when parents are afraid to kiss their baby's tush, when teachers are warned not to cuddle a frightened child, when grandparents are worried about embracing children on their laps and when adults interpret children's kisses and normal sexual curiosity as signs of mental illness or "harassment." Considering how much children need cuddles, kisses and embraces, I wonder why no one thinks it's an act of child abuse to deny them these expressions of nurturance and affection.

The problem is that "sexual abuse" has come to include everything from seeing a flasher to being raped; from a single unpleasant experience to repeated coercion. It is assumed, again with no evidence, that all of these experiences are psychologically equivalent and equally devastating. Few dispute that we must do everything we can to help children who have been traumatized, but we must also be careful not to let hysteria inflate minor events into traumatic ones.

Because of the growing number of people who have enlisted with the Sex Abuse Police, however, new categories of "abuse" must continually be defined, so as to punish more perpetrators and treat more victims. Most of the time, however, the alleged "behavior problem" is nothing more serious than expressing affection, playing doctor or masturbation _ entirely normal forms of childhood sexuality. (Adults who think "childhood sexuality" is an oxymoron have conveniently forgotten their own childish curiosities.)

Of course it is important to protect children and punish perpetrators. Our task, however, is to do this in the most constructive way possible, without giving the Sex Abuse Police so much rope that they hang the innocent.

Sometimes it takes an outsider to show us the folly of our ways _ and a way out. I was privileged, a few years ago, to exchange letters with the writer and social critic Jessica Mitford, who died this past summer. Our topic was sexual hysteria, and she told me the following story about her daughter Dink:

"In about 1948, when she was 7, we lived near the Municipal Rose Garden (in London)," she wrote. "Dink and the other little girls used to meet and play there. The children reported that they'd often seen a man who would be lurking in the bushes and came out exposing himself to them. Our neighbors reacted predictably; the men were going to catch him, castrate him and Lord knows what. Useless to point out that chaps who do that are unfortunate specimens but they very seldom go on to rape or other violent behavior. In the course of this episode, I found out that the police term for these deviants is "lily-waver,' which I thought rather appealing.

"A mother of one of the other kids came round to complain that Dink had been seen talking to the fellow. All the other children had been ordered not to talk to him, and had obeyed. So I called Dink in and asked, "Did you speak to the lily-waver?' "Yes,' she answered stoutly. "He said, "Little girl, have you ever seen one of these before?" And she answered, "Yes, of course, loads of times." '

"Upon which," Mitford concluded her letter, "I imagine the lily must have wilted."

What Mitford understood, what we would all do well to learn, is that the first line of defense against sexual molesters and sexual hysteria is honest sexual information, a sense of perspective and a sense of humor. Children will be better protected by parents who instill in them Dink's attitude than by fleets of prissy school superintendents or overzealous therapists driven by moral panic and an anti-sexual agenda.

Carol Tavris is a social psychologist who writes frequently on behavioral research.

Special to the Los Angeles Times