My first thought after reading the news about Minnesota State University, Mankato football coach Todd Hoffner's felony child pornography charges was, "Dear God. Not again."
My second thought, as more information was released, was, "Well, at least everybody did it right this time," from the university's IT supervisor who reported what he saw, to members of the Mankato Department of Public Safety who took the charges extremely seriously.
My third thought, as the story continued to unfold, was, "His own kids? Tragic, but sadly not rare." Most children are endangered not by strangers, but by people they know well.
My fourth thought, after a few days of considering the range of parenting and approaches to sexuality I've witnessed over many decades on several continents, was, "Oh, wait. Did we overreact?"
My fifth thought was, "A whopping dose of clarity sure would be nice about now."
This is where I remain, nursing low-grade queasiness about the whole thing.
In the post-Sandusky era, many of us likely assumed we'd never live in the world of gray again.
But I doubt I'm the only person struggling with this story, wondering if this is, in fact, a case of child pornography or a crime of stupidity; weighing the danger of not protecting vulnerable children against the danger of telling happy children that their bodies are dirty; feeling guilty that I hope investigators find more clear-cut evidence, and guilty, mostly, that I know these intimate details of another family's life.
I've been thinking a lot lately, too, about the normative spectrum we live on -- like my overseas friends, whose young children came to the dinner table naked every night, my own children's eyes as wide as the saucers they were drinking milk out of. Like two popular cultural snapshots: "Modern Family" and "Family Guy."
Just because I'm more in sync with the sweet Dunphys doesn't mean my neighbors are.
Of course, not everyone is stationed in the gray zone. Two experts I respect aren't struggling at all.
Victor Vieth, director of the National Child Protection Training Center (www.ncptc.org), approached the complaint against Hoffner as a prosecutor and a father.
The films described, he said, "appear to meet the statutory definition of child pornography."
Vieth said the films also don't pass a modern test: "Would they feel comfortable putting them on YouTube?" he asked.
"Assuming the films are accurately described in the complaint and assuming a jury determines that a father's decision to film his children touching their genitals and spreading their butt cheeks to expose their anuses is not a 'lewd exhibition' of children's genitals," Vieth said, "then what is? How far are we willing to push our children?"
But William Seabloom, an expert in the treatment of sex offenders, sees this as an example of a "puritan view of the world that still controls our society, politics and the media."
To Seabloom, what appears to be "a fun and silly encounter," has been dramatically altered to set these children up as victims, which may "potentially affect their lives" in a negative way.
In Europe, where Seabloom has done extensive research, "a different comfort with nudity, even among siblings of opposite genders, is considered normal, and curiosity is natural," he said.
Still, he respects others' concerns and says there are clear protocols in place to determine Hoffner's potential culpability.
As facts continue to become available, many of us in the gray zone may shift to one direction or the other. But not without effort. It's difficult to know for sure how to avoid being flip -- or alarmist.
It's difficult to know for sure how to best protect children without robbing them of their own sexuality and, tough, too, to acknowledge and respect different norms in different families because we seldom have these conversations until trouble brews.
Cases like this make us uneasy, and that's a good thing. Because cases like this encourage crucial conversations about healthy sexuality, and that can only be good news for our children.
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