Defining an ordinance isn#039;t easy

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 10, 2002

City Attorney David Hoversten and city council members are seriously engaged in crafting an ordinance that addresses problems created by "adult-oriented businesses." I encourage them to factor into their thinking an honest and accurate term to replace the euphemistic "adult." What sloppy language and confused thinking has called "adult" is anything but adult and, indeed, is recognizably juvenile.

A long time ago we recognized there are certain types of entertainment and substances that are strongly harmful to children and youth. (Mind you, these are equally harmful to adults and most equally so.) Nonetheless, as we have always done concerning many dangers and risks faced by children and youth, we have protected them by law at a point in their young and tender lives when they can be exploited and become unwitting victims. We assume, for instance, that a child under a certain age is not likely to be in full self-control and that anyone over that age is automatically guilty of statutory rape when such a person has engaged in sexual activities with the youngster. We set drinking and smoking age limits.

As reluctant as we are to impose standards of morality on private individuals, we have drawn the legal line at children and youth. At this point, we assume people beyond the age can be allowed to be socially responsible for themselves--but also morally and legally accountable for themselves. Again, this is not to say the proscribed activities and uses are not harmful beyond this age or that it is acceptable for people of this age. It is simply that we allow greater latitude and impose fewer restrictions.

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Somewhere in the dark pages of ancient history, someone has said that engaging in such activities and use of such substances are prohibited by children and youth but technically allowed or reluctantly tolerated in adults. The use of the term "adult" in this context is quantitative or formal, but not qualitative or substantial. That is to say, the reference is arbitrarily confined to chronological age, number of years since birth. In this sense of the word, a person is formally considered an adult at age eighteen or twenty-one, depending upon particular laws and the matter.

Only in this quantitative or formal sense of the word can we appropriately refer to "adult-oriented businesses." However, there is a more serious and meaningful sense to the word. As such, it is a synonym of "mature." It is the sense when we say, "Act like an adult" or "Be adult about this."

Somewhere in equally dark but more recent pages of modern history, someone began to confuse the senses so that people who have grown old without growing up found an excuse to say engaging in these harmful activities is "adult" and kid themselves that it means grown-up.

Adult sex is, I am convinced, when a man and woman love each other uniquely so as to wed and express their committed love by relating sexually. They use sex as an expression of singular love. It is a relational experience and not recreational play. It is inter-personal engagement and not physical release. This is adult.

When people seek to substitute vicarious experiences for reality and when they play at sex, rather than being mature and adult, this is childish or juvenile. Picture people at the two local bars in question ogling "exotic dancers." Then tell me the difference between this and four-year-olds saying, "If you show me yours, and I'll show you mine."

"Adult" as in "adult-oriented businesses" is not a literal use of the word but the figure of speech termed "euphemism," i.e., "an agreeable word for a disagreeable thing." I personally favor laws that allow broad latitude for older people to do childish things. Yet, let's not call it adult, and let's not pretend such people are adults in any meaningful sense.

Dr. Wallace Alcorn’s column appears in the Herald on Mondays.