The AP reports this story about a woman and her boyfriend sentenced in Rhode Island on child neglect charges for having sex in front of the woman's nine-year-old daughter. I'm not saying that having sex in front of your nine-year-old child is a good thing. In fact, I think it is probably a rather bad idea. However, I'm not sure how I feel about the State of Rhode Island prosecuting on that basis.
In this case, the daughter in question lives primarily with her father and spends the summer with her mother. After having spent the summer with her mother, the daughter told a teacher at school that her mother and her mother's boyfriend liked to have sex in front of her. The mother admits as much, testifying that she doesn't "believe in hiding anything," and apparently thought that having sex in front of her daughter would be the best form of sex education.
I think we can all agree that the mother in this case is stupid and probably unfit to raise a child, and perhaps there's grounds here for a civil suit that would grant the father full custody. However, I think the state's involvement sets a dangerous precedent.
I once knew a guy whose teenage step-daughter accused him of fondling her. I don't know if the guy was guilty, but I doubt it. Knowing the step-daughter as I did, I was always pretty sure she made the accusation to spite her mother. If she didn't, I'm sure someone else has. Somewhere, at some time, some vindictive child has wrongly accused his or her parent of abuse. Fortunately for the innocent, proving sexual or physical abuse is serious business. The bar seems somewhat lowered to me if all one has to claim is that somebody's parents had sex without closing the door.
Angelyn and I talked about this last night, and her position was that no prosecutor would use this precedent inappropriately. She must trust the government much more than I do. I cannot help but think of the crusading Kansas Attorney General who ordered medical professionals in his state to report all teenage sexual activity (including hickeys) as presumptive evidence of sexual abuse. While claiming to fight child abuse, the Attorney General's real goal was to cut the legs off abortion clinics and doctors who issued birth control to teens. Clearly privacy took a back seat to this man's conservative agenda.
Normal people have sex in front of their children every day. How about new parents? Do they always wheel the bassinet out of the room before getting jiggy beneath the sheets? I doubt it. True, an infant couldn't testify in court, but under the precedent set in the Rhode Island case, wouldn't it be considered child neglect nonetheless? Imagine if you will a gay couple who've adopted. Is there any doubt that a conservative prosecutor could find ways of using this precedent to file charges? While you're making your case against me, please be sure to explain how John Lawrence was arrested in 1998 for having consensual anal sex in his apartment. Lawrence v. Texas struck down homosexual-only sodomy laws, but if police could somehow catch gay people having sex in the same room as an infant, they have a new law by which to prosecute. And let's not stop at gay people. Several conservative states have been losing their grip on cohabitation laws. All they need to do now is catch unmarried couples in the act of having sex in the same room as their children, and they're set.
How slippery is this slope? What about showing your child a medical reference book with illustrations of coitus? What if a child accidentally walks in on someone masturbating in the bathroom? Or discovers his father's hidden collection of Playboys. Like I said, I'm not arguing that having sex with your child is an inalienable right. However, the precedent set in Rhode Island strikes me as opening a door that needs to stay closed. Bad parenting isn't the same thing as abusive or neglectful parenting. I know lots of bad parents, but I wouldn't want the state to run in and intervene in every dysfunctional family.