In the recent debates about raising the consent age of porn to 21, I found some interesting quotes and assumptions. They are typified in the following statement at Alas! A Blog: "I notice you’re avoiding the suggestions I gave for why some 18-20 year olds may be less mature, i.e. what it is about college that creates that liminal state."
This statement assumes two things. The first is classist and racist - it assumes all people will go to college. I leave that one as an exercise for the reader, at least right now. What interests me is the second premise - that there is something inherent about college that creates a liminal state.
For people who haven't taken anthropology or psychology, a liminal state is an "in between" state where something is neither one thing or the other. Traditionally (I use the word fairly loosely; request clarification if you need it), liminal states were meant to be temporary as a person transitioned from one status in a community to another (or from one place to another; shamans (athro. meaning) undergo liminal states constantly as they move from world to world to world). US culture, as well as many other modern, Western cultures, have some examples of the brief, ritualistic liminal state; weddings are one; funerals another. However, the coming of age liminal state has been stretched and stretched and stretched until it encompasses years.
Biologically, humans develop incredibly slowly as compared to other mammals (and, indeed, other animals). Humans are born undeveloped so we're small enough to not kill our mother on the way out, and it's two years - or so - before we can even walk. If you look at our closest cousins, you can see the amount of time needed for aging from dependant to independant shrinking as you leave the hominid family and skitter off to other mammalian branches. It's a striking picture of eventual biological result in terms of mobility, language, and tool using skills trumping the temporary need for extra work on the part of adults.
As would be indicated by the slow development of humans physically, the brain has been analysed and found to have a similar slow rate of growth. Around puberty, the frontal lobe - the part of the cortex associated with planning, logic, reason, and abstract thought - begins it's huge spurt of growth and it doesn't cap off until around age 21-23, when we currently assume human brains stop developing (there is some significant evidence that humans who continue to learn continue to have brain development throughout their life and that late age learning can re-start this process, but the research is in its infancy).
These biological realities, puberty in particular, has informed the cultural development of humans. Almost all traditional cultures have the coming-of-age around puberty. Even in US culture, some subcultures continue to have Rituals associated with that age - the Jewish bar mitzvah is a good example of such with the bat mitzvah as an interesting commentary on gender equality in the Jewish community. However, without the social significance placed on such a ritual across the board, it is largely inert in terms of power. The 13 year old before hand has the same reality as the 13 year old after, except ofr some slight shifts in his or her religious community. The ritual has no teeth; the liminal state between child and adult doesn't work.
The US liminal state between child and adult is currently five years long, arguably eight. Rights and responsibilities are introduce gradually, and usually with no relation to each other. For the purpose of discussion, I'm going to use the word "teenager" for someone in the liminal state between child and adult; culturally, one is considered a teenager when one is thirteen or so, and this teenager label continues until one is about eighteen, with a couple hang-on rights for a later age. The timing of rights and responsibilities for teenagers varies surprisingly widely across European culture and its colonial offspring, and i personally think there are too many confounds to use any of these as data for when rights and responsibilities "should" be introduced due to the significant cultural differences even within European culture and its colonial offspring. Here I will be considering US rights and responsibilities timing alone, but I'd welcome comments from other European cultures or colonial offspring given specifics on which you're talking about.
In the US, the rights go roughly like this: right to marry w/parental approval (and have sex with spouse) (12 and up), right to have sex with another teenager (13 and up), right to drive on public roads (15 1/2 and up), right to work with parental approval (16 and up), right to marry (16 and up), rightt o leave school (16 and up), right to have sex (18 and up), right to sign a contract (18 and up), right to enlist in the military (18 and up), right to work (18 and up), right to drink (21 and up), right to rent a car (25 and up w/credit card).
Most of these rights have been put in place recently. Up until the 1900s or so, for example, children could work. In fact, the industrial revolution rested, in large part, on the shoulders of the 5 to 13 set from poor families who had little fingers, would accept a pittance to help their family, and would never think of suing if they lost a few fingers or toes. The life expectancy for chimney sweeps was 15; in other words, they were expected to be DEAD before we would now allow them to legally work.
The laws restricting child employment were put in place to protect these children; somewhat ironically, they made children a burden instead or a help, financially speaking. Outside of family businesses, like farms or restaurants where children can work for the family but not be paid and thus not violate the law, children and teenagers became all but unemployable unless it was under the table (and I've not heard much about under the table being big from the point these laws were put in place on; it makes me wonder if the burden, for once, was placed on the businesses and not the employees - perhaps due to the fact that throwing a child in jail for working never goes over well; if only the same standard were held for immigrants and illegal immigrants).
What this means is that older children couldn't be pulled out of school and put to work to support the family or provide childcare for younger children. Also, with the ascendance of the nuclear family, childcare from the previous generation was/is in steep decline, leaving the entire burden for supporting all children on the parents alone, and a single parent if one of the two decides to leave. What this indicates is an extension of the dependancy of children into teenagehood in order to protect them while simultaniously increasing the burden on the parents to provide for their increasingly dependant children/teenagers.
The educational system, as well, is primed toward keeping children dependant. Vocational Tech is the only tract which even begins to prepare a teenager for adulthood via giving him or her a means of self-support, and it carries the stigma of both intellectual inferiority and low class prospects. No matter that a skilled mechanic or plumber can make quite a lot of money; I would argue that it is the capability for work alone which causes the stigma to be attached; humans tend to value what is most costly in terms of time/money to maintain; a largely empty education aimed at getting more education is such a social indicator, and currently the liminal period of junior high and high school is aimed at being a baby-sitting center while leaving the teenager with no adult prospects, currently not even the ability to REASON, on the other end of the ritual.
College extends the liminal state further; unless the teenager/adult is going it alone (which I, for one, didn't), college is paid for largely by the parents and it is well nigh impossible to get colleges to not take into account the money the parents have without making oneself independant of them legally and formally at 18, instead of the informal adult-but-can-still-be-claimed-as-dependant that I was under until I was 22. The desire to extend the age of consent for being in pornography until 21 does fall solidly within the informal liminal state of the US, then. However doing so, like the limits on drinking, brings into sharp relief some of the values of our country.
An eleven year old can't consent to anything and is not even considered a teenager, but he can be tried as an adult in a court of law if he does something bad enough (English ruling). Teenagers are increasingly being tried as adults. In 1997, the Juvenile Crime Control Act was passed to make it easier to prosecute teenagers as adults. This moved the minimum age possible to prosecute teens down to 14 from 15 in the USA. In other words, before a teenager has the right to do just about anything besides have sex with another teen or marry with parental approval, said teenager will be held accountable, as an adult, for crimes deemed "heinous", usually involving murder or attempted murder. In addition, the timing of the right to legally drink after the right to legally go to war is an interesting one. Adding in the right to consent to be in porn just highlights that death is considered less of a problem than sex or alcohol.
The liminal state imposed on humans by European culture and it's colonial offspring is unrealistic, illogical, and reactionary. Instead of introducing rights, rational thinking, and awareness of consequences, it insulates children and teenagers until they do something "bad enough" to have that protection removed, or if they're poor or have the wrong skin color and do something kind of sort of bad.
Personally, if Garance Franke-Ruta really wants to shut down Girls Gone Wild (and I agree, it's idiotic) one would think that a legal requirement of paying each person who appears on a tape for public sale receives a percentage of the earnings, say 1%, will do wonders for shutting the whole thing down. If 100 people are recorded, suddenly the company is making no money at all. For some reason, that puts a HUGE smile on my face. You'd have to make it specific to video tape sales, so as not to hamstring news programs and daytime talk shows, but the idea is workable and it places the restrictions where they BELONG, on the person doing the exploitation, not on the exploited. (This is my rational for why companies employing illegal immigrants should be targetted while the illegal immigrants shouldn't be as well, btw, and why prostitution should be regulated so that the prostitutes are the most protected while their customers/employers are under heavier restrictions to see to their employee's welfare).
By the way, that's why I don't agree with the comparison between abortion rights and the right to be video taped for a t-shirt; abortion rights is removing legislative power from the bodies of women; I'm not a huge fan of adding more legislative power to the bodies of women, no matter how high minded the goal. In both cases, the removal of legislation allows for individual independance while the adding removes it. Target the exploiters, not the exploitees; history has shown that well-meaning laws are easily turned into increased restriction of the rights of the exploited (yes, I will try to back this up if you ask, but I really don't want to).
I also think the US education system and laws surrounding teenagers need a major overhaul, but I don't see that happening any time soon.
To come back to the initial quote, though: "I notice you’re avoiding the suggestions I gave for why some 18-20 year olds may be less mature, i.e. what it is about college that creates that liminal state." IMO, there is nothing inherently liminal about the college state alone. The entire teenage years are within a liminal state, with the cap off at either leaving school formally, HS graduation, college graduation, or graduate school graduation. Within that liminal state, individual teenagers may mature earlier or later (from what I've seen, the poorer you are the earlier you mature), but in terms of the critical social expectations which shape the post-liminal adulthood state all teenagers are equally expected to be children/teenagers and thus are not treated as adults and thus have no motivation to behave like adults.
Extending the liminal stage doesn't make it more final in any sort of way, it just makes it longer.
As a side note, spiritually undertaken liminal states are very different and often quite, quite brief. European culture and it's colonial offspring also have the longest liminal state I have ever read about anywhere; this does not endear it to any anthropologists I've read who have studied it.