This past Memorial Weekend I packed up my bags for a 14-hour trip that
required a lot of root beer, Advil and a decent collection of cassette
tapes. Our end point was a family reunion in southern Oregon. While I was
picking up my second-grader from school a very young, very small,
red-haired boy named Kip Kinkel was shooting down everyone he could hit in
his high school cafeteria -- not an hour away from our destination.
By the time we crossed the Oregon border, a solid gray rain was pouring
down. We stopped for gas, and I found the cashier crying in her tiny booth.
I looked at the TV bolted to the wall in near incomprehension -- my God,
what happened? Everyone in Oregon was crying. Fourteen kids were bleeding,
some of them dying, in Springfield -- a working-class, white, traditional
mill town -- for no sane reason at all.
It was so soon after Jonesboro, Ark., so soon after Pearl, Miss.
America's schools couldn't explode like this without a lot of people
demanding to know why. They name the usual suspects: violent television
(the president's favorite) and lack of adequate gun control. I'm
disappointed, and more than a little disgusted, that this is the best
analysis our leaders can come up with.
The gun control people have a point: If people went nuts and could NOT get
ahold of guns, the damage would be limited to what they could destroy with
their fists, knives and rocks. But Kip Kinkel wasn't from a family of gun
nuts. In fact, he was suspended from school for posession of a stolen one,
to his parents' mortification. Significantly, the boy in the cafeteria who
tackled and stopped Kinkel in his tracks was a kid who knew enough about
guns to seize it when Kip was reloading. In this case, the hero's gun
knowledge spared the school from even further carnage. As for TV, the
Kinkel family didn't approve of television either; they had had their
Springfield itself brags about being a redneck town, a town that fought
against gay rights in the last state referendum, a place where "outsiders"
(queers, non-whites, immigrants and non-Christians, among others) aren't
welcome unless they cotton to the town's conservative values real fast.
Springfield is a loyal town, and a place where caring and sensitivity have
been paramount since the shootings. But honestly, were Springfield's values
caring and sensitive before this tragedy?
Pundits keep pointing at the bigoted little towns where these rampages take
place and saying, "It's so wholesome, how could it happen here?" But there's
your answer: Sexual repression and provincial isolation are NOT wholesome,
they ARE the problem.
On the very day that Kip raised his rifle against his kin and class, the
state of Oregon released a survey on how teenagers in the state are faring.
The survey was sad to report that one out of 10 Oregon teens has attempted
suicide, and alcohol use is holding steady at 46 percent. It went on to say that
"the one bright spot is an apparent reduction in sexual activity."
According to the survey, "35 percent said they were sexually active, compared with 47 percent in
One explanation for the improved numbers, according to the state health
officer, is the "Students Today Aren't Ready for Sex" (S.T.A.R.S.) program.
S.T.A.R.S. is a well-known sex education plan, promoted to school districts all
over Oregon, that teaches middle school kids how to say "no" to sex and consider the benefits of waiting to have thier first sexual experience.
S.T.A.R.S. is actually somewhat liberal. Even though it doesn't teach teens to use birth control, it doesn't condemn getting that information from outside of school. What many Americans don't know is that since the Welfare Reform Bill
passed in August 1996, any federal funds for sex education programs in
the schools must explicitly teach that any sex ouside of marriage is
"psychologically and phsycially harmful" and that the expected standard of
human sexual activity is a married monogamous relationship.
Refusal skill programs like S.T.A.R.S., and other more conservative abstinence
programs, boast that they're successfully fighting the
consequences of teenage pregnancy. Does that mean that they encourage kids
to have oral sex and masturbate instead of having intercourse? Wrong.
Many abstinence programs treat all sex and all sexual feelings as corruptive. At best, they sidestep non-intercourse issues. At their worst, they
characterize the entire realm of sexual emotion as an antisocial menace
that can only be stopped by prayer, pledges and pluck.
Abstinence programs, with separate instructions for boys and girls, have
tips like these for
13-year-olds: "Boys who are too self-involved can become addicted to
masturbation. It won't damage you, but it's best to learn to control your
sexual behavior early."
Teaching your children that sex is addictive and dirty is NOT a "bright
spot." I'm alarmed that Oregon has climbing numbers of teenagers who are
afraid of sex, and I'm horrified that so many of the state's public institutions
have embraced the philosophy that adolescent sexuality is unhealthy. But I
know that they're hardly the only ones -- it's a nationwide trend.
For all the criticism people heap on "urban crime centers," how
come we never see these mad boys with their scorched earth policy there?
Every racial minority in America looks at what happened in places like
Springfield and says to themselves: "Those white people are crazy!" And they
are: White people kept in segregated little ghettos of racism are a mess.
Give us the big city, where a certain spirit of tolerance is a necessity.
The same goes with the big cities' scandalous reputation for teenage access
to birth-control pills and condoms. Have you ever heard of a "promiscuous"
teen who went gun-crazy and killed his schoolmates for no apparent reason?
Casanovas are in the business of getting laid, which ultimately is more
life-affirming than spending your time downloading bomb-making instructions
from the Web.
I meet many teenagers in my work, and I am appalled at how many of them
think they're "addicts" and deviants because they masturbate, or think
about sex once a day, or because they yearn for a lover and sexual
experience. The abstinence programs they experience in school would drive
anyone with an average sex drive crazy -- and teenagers often have no one
reasonable to talk to about the matter.
How can we be living at the edge of the 21st century and still believe in
the fascism -- what else can you call it -- of sexual control programs? How can we tell young people at the sexual prime of their lives
that they can't express themselves erotically in any way until we
pick the proper time? Do we actually believe we will be successful in
shaming and stifling them into submission? If preventing pregnancy were
really its objective, S.T.A.R.S. would be a very different program, but it
isn't -- it's about promoting a particular, repressive religious point of
Did Kip Kinkel have a girlfriend? No, he did not. Look at FBI profiles of
mad bombers and you'll find them all lacking in the love-life department.
I'm not so daffy as to imagine that the only reason Kip Kinkel wanted to
destroy his world was because he hadn't had a decent orgasm. But if more
details about Kip's mind ever come to light, I believe we shall see a young
man who, as part of his mental illness, is deeply alienated from his own
sexuality. He is not at all at home in his body or his erotic feelings. Kip
Kinkel may have been voted "most likely to start World War III" by his
classmates, but I bet he has never been kissed. No one -- least of all
himself -- has ever acknowledged that Kip is a 14-year-old young man with a
young man's desire for touch and arousal, affection and adventure.
In the weeks following the killings, many Springfield pastors have urged
their community to forgive Kip, to learn from this tragedy and to ask God
for guidance in a time of despair. I wonder if they would have forgiven Kip
if he were queer, if he had read porn on the Internet instead of bomb
recipes, if he had been caught masturbating in the park. I'm afraid they
would have misread sexual behavior outside their religious beliefs as
dangerous, and even harder to forgive than violence. Forgiveness comes with
awareness, and empathy, and compassion -- which, in a world infatuated with
intolerance, is harder and harder to come by.
(I'm indebted to the Eugene Register-Guard and its fine coverage of the Springfield shootings for this column.)