IT'S BEEN a good week for the media, and a bad week for parents.
The arrest of former schoolteacher John Mark Karr in the slaying of child beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey launched a flurry of excited stories about pedophiles, child abduction and murder. The cable news stations could hardly hide their glee, and even the New York Times joined in.
In a two-part series on pedophilia, the newspaper reported that many pedophiles now use Internet support groups to swap how-to tips on getting jobs as camp counselors and teachers. Increasingly, the Times said, "pedophiles view themselves as the vanguard of a nascent movement seeking legalization of child pornography and the loosening of age-of-consent laws. They portray themselves as battling for children's rights to engage in sex with adults...."
Great. For anxious parents, it was a week of being paranoid and creeped out -- a week to double-check the window locks, run a background check on the preschool music teacher and remind the kids not to enter beauty pageants, talk to strangers, go online or leave the house until their 40th birthday.
True, the statistics suggest that an American child is about as likely to share JonBenet's fate as she is to be killed by lightning. The abduction and murder of children by people outside their families is exceedingly rare.
But as the mother of preschool girls, I know how easy it is to succumb to irrational panic in the face of this week's 24/7 media obsession with pedophilia.
All summer I'd absent-mindedly allowed my little barbarians to streak through the house naked, bodies festooned with grape jelly and Crayola Washable Markers. Now, with pedophiles apparently lurking everywhere, demanding civil rights and social acceptance, I was suddenly insisting that the girls put their clothes back on, right this minute, please.
I eyed my neighbors with newfound suspicion. That guy mowing the lawn down the street -- why was he smiling at us?
It was only when I hauled the girls off to the local shopping mall that my paranoid fears were replaced by all-too-rational anxieties. First, we darted into Abercrombie & Fitch, joining a gaggle of preteens checking out the T-shirts. Perhaps a slinky pink number that coyly declared "The Rumors Are True"? Or maybe the masculine gray one emblazoned with "Something About You Attracts Me -- I Wish I Could Put My Finger On It"?
Well, no thanks. We headed toward Limited Too, where we found thong-like underwear sized for 7-year-old girls. My 4-year-old was entranced: "Mommy, those underpants have no walls!"
We soldiered on, through Old Navy (where the toddler section carries clothes that make 2-year-olds look like Britney Spears), through Toys R Us (where ads for the scantily clad Bratz Babyz dolls, with their bottles and their painted toenails, boast that these "Babyz already know how to flaunt it, and they're keepin' it real in the crib!"), and past the Disney Store (where little girls can covet seashell bikinis like those worn by the Little Mermaid and glittery halter tops like those worn by Princess Jasmine in the surprisingly broad-minded sultanate of Agrabah).
By the time we made it to CVS Pharmacy, I thought we were out of the woods. Wrong. Those bare-midriffed Disney princesses are everywhere -- even, it turns out, on diapers sized for people weighing 18 to 34 pounds.
In our hyper-commercialized consumerist society, there's virtually no escaping the relentless sexualization of younger and younger children. My 26-month-old daughter didn't emerge from the womb clamoring for a seashell bikini like Princess Ariel's -- but now that she's savvy enough to notice who's prancing around on her pull-ups, she wants in on the bikini thing. And my 4-year-old wasn't born demanding lip gloss and nail polish, but when a little girl at nursery school showed up with her Hello Kitty makeup kit, she was hooked.
In a culture in which the sexualization of childhood is big business -- mainstream mega-corporations such as Disney earn billions by marketing sexy products to children too young to understand their significance -- is it any wonder that pedophiles feel emboldened to claim that they shouldn't be ostracized for wanting sex with children? On an Internet bulletin board, one self-avowed "girl lover" offered a critique of this week's New York Times series on pedophilia: "They fail, of course, to mention the hypocrisy of Hollywood selling little girls to millions of people in a highly sexualized way." I hate to say it, but the pedophiles have a point here.
There are plenty of good reasons to worry about children and sex. But if we want to get to the heart of the problem, we should obsess a little less about whether the neighbor down the block is a dangerous pedophile -- and we should worry a whole lot more about good old-fashioned American capitalism, which is busy serving our children up to pedophiles on a corporate platter.