|Rage of Consent (2001)
Over the last hundred years, puberty has steadily begun earlier,
yet we have legally and culturally extended the age of childhood
later and later. Hyper-sexualized imagery of young adults and
teens is increasingly more pervasive and overt, not just in pornography,
but in mainstream advertising. Meanwhile, we criminalize and make
taboo adult/teen sexual interchanges and relationships more and
more. Many think of such relationships as "child sexual abuse,"
and legally they are considered statutory rape, or at the very
least contributing to the delinquency of a minor. We now even
criminalize peer relationships and interchanges when one of the
teens involved is under the legal age of consent, even when the
age disparity is only a year.
These mixed messages create an incredible rift which not only
serves to confuse young men and women, but also poignantly illustrates
some serious hypocrisy in our culture. Apparently it is acceptable
to objectify and sexualize teens for fun and profit on the part
of an adult, yet it is NOT acceptable for young men and women
to discover their own sexuality, to empower themselves with it,
and to make choices regarding relationships and that sexuality.
The fact that we even call a post-pubescent a "child" in some
circles is somewhat outrageous, considering that for most of history,
these "children" were economically able, had marriages and families
they maintained and supported, and some of them led armies, began
cultural revolutions, or wrote incredible works of literature
and art. Even in our time, most nations would allow, if not encourage,
them to fight in wars. We treat them as adults in criminal trials
as young as age twelve, and the pro-life movement encourages teen
mothers to have their babies (though often offering them no continued
support to mother them).
Yet one of the most common criticisms I get for editing and running
Scarleteen (a sexuality information clearinghouse for youth which
serves thousands of teens daily) is some variation of: "How can
you say that a child has the right to be sexual?"
Perhaps the better question to ask is: Who are we to say anyone
does or does not have a right to enjoy their bodies, to be intimate
with others by their own consent, and to make their own choices
sexually, as full beings, when we permit such rights in nearly
every other aspect of human life? More importantly, by denying
young adults positive sexual experiences, relationships, and information
during their formative sexual development - in fact, criminalizing
their consensual behavior - what damage might we be doing to our
youth? Might some of us be "sexually abusing" them?
This curious extension of childhood, coupled with what was once
decent awareness but has now become hysteria about sexual abuse,
has created a taboo where there was none before ... one which
stands counter to reason and human sexual development. In our
species, as well as most others, puberty creates the sexual signals
which potential mates recognize, and it does in fact signal fertility
and the development of sexuality. It obviously does not create
consent in and of itself - but lest we forget, puberty is not
merely physical development, and sexuality covers a broader spectrum
than mere genital contact.
To state that a person of any age has no right to make choices
regarding their own bodies, as is developmentally appropriate
for each individual, is alarming. That sentiment in and of itself
likely puts them in more danger, and creates a far more negative
environment for their sexual and emotional relationships, than
a consensual relationship with an adult or a peer could possibly
Can we say that teens are children if we try them as adults, and
gauge our marketing efforts to capitalize on their income as well
as profiting from their sexuality and physical appeal? Can we
say someone is a "child" who has begun or completed those physical,
hormonal and emotional changes which take them out of childhood
by definition? Can we call a relationship detrimental or harmful
on the basis of the age of either party for a youth, any more
than we might for a legal adult - especially in an environment
which adds to any negative aspects that might exist - when there
is long-standing evidence which shows us that most of these relationships
have been no more harmful overall than peer relationships have
been, and are nearly as common?
In a general query of Scarlet Letters' readers, as well as a survey
of adults who have had or do have a sexual attraction to legal
minors, the average respondent had approximately 60% of their
teen sexual relationships with peers, and 40% of them with adults.
Of twenty in-depth interviews, only one respondent felt there
was anything inherently negative in their consensual relationship
with an adult as a teen based solely on age-in-years. One other
respondent who was sexually abused as a child also discussed positive
sexual or sensual experiences with another adult, keenly noting
the differences between abuse and consenting sexual activity.
Beth, 29, who had a relationship with an adult from the age of
fifteen to twenty, said, "Prior to that [relationship] I only
had one real sexual relationship with a peer. There's no comparison
between the two. With the peer was what I would describe as a
typical teen relationship; somewhat shallow intellectually and
emotionally. The relationship with the adult was much more what
I would consider a whole relationship; balanced in terms of emotional,
intellectual and sexual intimacy."
Alex, 25, said of his relationship with an adult as a teen, "All
in all, it was a positive experience. I had an early taste of
adult concerns and responsibilities with the person that I was
involved with, but it was also a lot of fun. The sex was fantastic,
and she was a really great friend. If more people of any age couldhave
that kind of relationship we'd be better off."
Charlotte, 34, stated that, "In general, boys and girls of my
own age were more pushy about sexual interaction than adults were.
I'm pretty sure this was due to the impatience of young people
discovering sex as well as the caution of older people engaging
in sexual activity that could land them in jail if discovered.
The older people had more of a vested interest in keeping me happy
and pleased by the experience.
"There are many things that I am grateful towards my adult partners
for. They helped to expand my intellectual horizons, teach me
more advanced social interactions and give me a different perspective
on things from the point of view of a different generation. The
man I dated when I was seventeen and he was thirty-five even helped
to set me on my career path, a life choice I definitely do not
regret. From older lovers I learned the firsthand history of computers,
the firsthand history of the hippie and civil rights movements
and many other similar things that I would not have been as likely
to pick up had I not spent a great deal of close time with someone
twice my age. I'm not saying that sex is the only way to broaden
one's horizons like this but it was certainly more often a pleasant
way for me than unpleasant."
Miranda, 16, said, "When I have been with adults, I've always
felt much more comfortable. I feel like I am relating to them
as a peer. Most of my relationships with adults have been purely
sexual, which was how I wanted it at the time. I felt less inhibited
when I was with a man in his twenties. I've been a very sexual
person from a young age and whenever I was with someone my own
age they got weirded out by that. Older people appreciated it.
The major drawback to being with adults was dealing with my parents.
When they found out that their fifteen year old daughter had had
sex with a twenty-five year old man, they really freaked out,
which is understandable. Of course, they don't really understand
that I can give informed consent."
In relationships of this type which have had negative aspects,
that negativity often appears to be in part not because of the
relationships themselves or the age-disparity, but because of
the treatment of that disparity by communities and culture at
Paul Okami, Ph.D, is Consulting Editor of The Journal of Sex Research,
and author and co-author of numerous sexuality studies such as
Childhood exposure to parental nudity, parent-child co-sleeping,
and "primal scenes": A review of clinical opinion and empirical
evidence (The Journal of Sex Research), Sexual experiences in
early childhood: 18-year longitudinal data from the UCLA Family
Lifestyles Project (The Journal of Sex Research), Self-reports
of "positive" childhood and adolescent sexual contacts with older
persons: An exploratory study (Archives of Sexual Behavior), and
Sociopolitical biases in the contemporary scientific literature
on adult human sexual behavior with children and adolescents (in
Pedophilia: Biosocial Dimensions, ed. J. Fiereman).
He states that "Any time you deal with a group of relationships
that are illegal and compare them to a group of relationships
that are legal, it would be surprising to find that there weren't
negative effects associated with the illegal relationships that
you don't normally see in the legal ones. This is true if only
because there may be added stress in the illegal relationships
related to fear of discovery, and all sorts of painful consequences
of actual discovery.
"The question of interest is whether there is something fundamentally
damaging about an older and younger person involved in a sexual
relationship. I think if we're talking about adults and teenagers,
it's a silly question. Apart from consequences of prosecution
on charges of statutory rape, there is no evidence at all that
there is something intrinsic in adult-teen sexual relationships
that is damaging to anyone. If that were the case, the majority
of marriages throughout history and around the world would have
to be characterized as pathological."
From a personal standpoint, when I was in my teens, I had a wide
variety of relationships with both same-age peers as well as legal
adults. I had been sexually assaulted and molested early in my
adolescence, and had no trouble knowing or determining what was
or was not abusive. Truly, I cannot toss one group or the other
by age alone in the negative pile, because they all differed,
not by age groups, but as most relationships differ - based on
the dynamic between myself and another person.
However, one of the most pivotal relationships in my life was
with a twenty-three year old man when I was fifteen. Certainly
he had his own set of problems, and they were plentiful: he had
been a molestation victim in several foster homes after landing
there because of his father's suicide and his mother's severe
psychosis. He, like me at the time, was suicidal and had a drug
dependency, though he was the one person who got me over my suicidal
behavior (something my therapist would later credit him for).
However, this was also by far the most wonderful and intimate
relationship of my teen years. He was more respectful of my sexual
boundaries than all of my same-age peers. He held me in higher
esteem, and treated me with more respect, care and love than others
my age. That may be because he was older, that may be because
he was who he was - there really is no telling.
But what is telling is that at a certain point, we went through
the horrible experience of being threatened with statutory rape
charges and various threats due to our age-disparity, and despite
my leaving home to escape those threats, he committed suicide
shortly thereafter. Matthew had a lot of stresses, and he likely
would have done what he did regardless. However, the stress on
both of us from the community disdain and the legal threats -
in a relationship that was far more respectful of me than any
legal one I had had up to that point - was massive, and he left
no doubt it contributed highly to his decision to take his life.
Right now, the ages of consent in the United States are the highest
of any country worldwide (save for a few nations which have higher
ages of consent for male/male sexual activity; the U.S. is at
least even-handed in nearly all states on that account). Our rationale
as a nation is that it serves to lower teen pregnancy and STD
rates, as well as sex crimes, and that it "protects our children."
However, that is a fallacy.
We have, in fact, a higher rate of all the above than any other
developed nation. Our youth begin sexual activity earlier than
youth in nations whose age of consent is far younger (Durex Global
Sex Survey, 1999 - 2001). In countries where the age of consent
is as low as 12, their rates are far lower in terms of pregnancy,
disease and sex crimes than they are here (though teen pregnancy
rates have been decreasing in the past decade, they are still
higher than in other nations). And sadly, our age of consent laws
and our cultural taboos have done nothing to halt widespread sexual
"There's just as much sexual abuse as there ever was, and to that
now we've added grotesque nationwide sexual panic, hysteria, insane
judicial policies, and a host of other woes. In my view, as a
society, we're not at all interested in helping children in the
area of sexuality, but rather, our interest is in punishing adults
who respond sexually to children. Children suffer from the hysteria
just as much, or more, than everyone else," adds Okami.
Another common rationalization for criminalizing minor/adult relationships,
is, of course, that it can help "catch" pedophiles and child molesters
- though pedophilia is not a crime, just as sexually fantasizing
about sex outside of marriage is not adultery. So, while some
might accept some teen/adult relationships, the looming question
is always: "But what about the pedophiles?"
Well, what about the pedophiles? Let's first address what a pedophile
is: an adult who is sexually attracted to prepubescent children.
An adult attracted to teens is NOT a pedophile. When it comes
to human sexuality, psychology and sexology - not the ever-shifting
cultural climate - an attraction on the part of anyone to a pubescent
or post-pubescent person is considered both normal - and is, and
has always been, common.
Even if we look beyond the norm and look directly at pedophilia
- which is generally uncommon - it is important we understand
that pedophilia and child molestation are not one and the same.
Someone who molests or rapes a child need not be attracted to
that individual to molest them, and often is not sexually or romantically
attracted to that individual. In fact, studies have shown that
most child molesters are not pedophiles (Okami & Goldberg, 1992).
Rape is sex without consent. Though child molestation is rape,
it does not follow that all sex with a minor is rape. Unless we
are stating that our young men and women are mentally disabled
and thus unable to give consent - thus making all sexual acts
performed by a minor into rape by definition, whether with adults
or peers - we cannot say that a youth who says "yes" emphatically
to any sexual relationship has not given consent, IF we have furnished
them with the information they require to do so. And if we do
say such, then we need to ask how it is ethical that our culture
agrees a teen CAN make a fully capable adult decision to destroy
a body, and be tried as an adult for such crimes, but cannot legally
enjoy one - even their own.
What about those adults who are attracted solely to young men
and women, or to teens as well as adults? We have an idea, as
a culture, that having a limited pole of attraction in terms of
age must indicate some form of sociopathy, though only when that
pole of attraction is below a certain age-in-years. Our idea is
that adults who are attracted to legal minors either simply wish
to use them for sex, or wish to abuse them in some way, or are
incapable of social relationships with adults. And while that
may be the case for some - just as it may be the case for any
person - that is not the case for all.
While some adults attracted to teens identify as "hebephiles,"
Paul Okami finds that to be both unnecessary and misleading:
"Hebephilia (also called ephebephilia) is a nonsensical designation.
Sexual attraction to adolescents is a species-typical characteristic
of adult humans, particularly men. A strong preference for adolescents,
while not average, does not warrant a label of disorder unless
it is accompanied by strong subjective distress or results in
coercive sexual behavior. Unlike pedophilia which is rare, puzzling
from an evolutionary perspective and probably does warrant a label,
strong attraction to adolescents is more like a sexual preference
than a disorder. The only reason they affix a label to it is because
of age of consent laws. It's just another example of the confusion
of law and psychiatry."
Dissident, 32, who is attracted primarily to teen women, reminds
us that, "Minor-attracted adults of every attraction base have
existed throughout human history, just like homosexuals and intergendered
individuals, and like the latter two, the former were highly regarded
in sex-positive and more socially enlightened societies in the
past, particularly as mentors and teachers of youths. It was not
considered horrible or inappropriate that the great concern for
these youths on the part of adults had a sexual element to it
in societies that respected youths as intelligent and articulate
human beings, who did not see sexuality as a 'negative' thing,
for youths or anyone else, and who considered the sexual experiences
of youth to be a natural part of their education."
The irony here is that our culture may well have created a potent
Catch-22. By disempowering our youth and hampering them from economic
and emotional independence, by classifying young adults as children
at older and older ages, and by rearing them to view adults as
superior beings, we may doom many of these relationships from
the start when they might otherwise be beneficial, and create
trauma and negativity in them that would not otherwise be there.
Bing, 21, who is attracted to minors and adults, says, "The younger
person can enter into this kind of relationship for the wrong
reason: for status, for self-worth, or for something that's lacking
from another relationship." And in a culture which tells its youth
they have no status until they are adults, creates such a level
of dependence on parents (and in some cases makes it criminal
for parents to empower their youth), and attaches such value to
age-in-years, those scenarios may well be of our own design.
When we make something taboo - especially in a culture whose common
sexual ethos is often based on desires which arise from feeling
as if one has been "naughty" - we do not make something less appealing,
but more so. Some minor-attracted adults and teens who participated
in these interviews described feeling more inclined to initiate
these relationships, and feeling in less control sexually because
of the taboo and criminalization of them, than they would were
the pressure off.
In some cases, our worry about the age-disparity of such adults
in terms of a power imbalance may be a misnomer when we are dealing
with adults who are specifically attracted to children or teens.
Many adults who are attracted to teens or youths describe themselves
as feeling as if their own emotional and sexual development is
much less akin to that of their fellow adults than it is to minors.
In other words, when we worry about them "rushing" teens into
activities or situations, we may be in error because many of them
may in fact find the pace a teen sets far more comfortable for
them than they would with an adult partner.
"I'm very passive sexually, and by that I mean that is that although
pressures may be present I don't initiate anything with anyone,
adult or child," Frank, 25, states.
"I feel comfortable around most people, but I do like the company
of youths more than adults. They are often better listeners and
show a sincere interest in who I am. [I find that] adults are
often artificial. I hate having to second-guess people, and I
don't trust [easily]. Kids are more real and easier to figure
out. Maybe it's because I feel safer with kids and don't have
to worry as much about getting hurt by them," says Splash, 30.
Luke, 30, says of his relationship with a young man, "It has at
times been easy and difficult for me to be happy with the pace
that has been set by my young friend. My pace is and has always
been on the side of slow, whereas my current young friend has
wanted our relationship to become sexual since early on. We have
spent years talking about the reasons why it is and was important
to wait for him to understand all he could about it and his choices
in regard to taking such a step; what it would or could mean to
him, how he might or might not feel about me, himself or others,
how he views himself and his sexuality and how that could change,
and even what benefits he might enjoy if the relationship had
a sexual component. He remained steadfast in his desire to become
intimate with me, and never once has he intimated that he regrets
or feels used or abused in any way because of his decision. I
have been very reluctant to have sex with him until recently,
his age has finally made it legally safe for me to do so. I feel
he is more well adjusted emotionally and sexually secure than
the majority of his same age peers. I believe his attitudes and
morals to be very in line with and in tune to the person he is
on the inside as well as on the outside, which in my opinion is
a very beautiful one. On another note, his grades in school steadily
increased since I have known him and helped him and he now has
scholarship to a very well respected university. When we first
met, he barely understood English and had recently moved to the
It is also worth noting that young men and women are not without
power, despite our culture's attempts to disempower them. In the
milieu of adult/minor relationships, they are presently equipped
with a great power due to our laws: If the adult behaves in a
way the teen doesn't like (including not just genuine issues of
non-consent, but also acts which the teen happens to find disagreeable),
the teen can then report them to the authorities for statutory
rape or molestation. This has happened numerous times when a young
adult was consenting to the relationship before something disappointed
or upset them. Anyone who states that children and young adults
cannot manipulate just as well as fully grown adults has clearly
not spent very much time in the company of youth.
Another worry is that an adult who becomes involved with a minor,
or who is solely attracted to them, may hurt the minor when and
if that attraction fades as the minor grows older, beyond that
adult's pole of attraction. Obviously, issues like this, and statements
like the above quotes, may make some of us feel uncomfortable
if we feel there is a sexual aspect to them, especially if we
are concerned that our offspring are not sexually educated or
really equipped to make sound choices.
However, the same issues are often just as applicable with any
sort of couple. How many people can we think of who are in a pattern
of divorcing an elder partner to remarry a younger one? Quite
a few. How many of us ourselves have experienced a change in our
desire for a partner physically, or a change in the nature of
our relationship over time? Most of us. How many of us found ourselves
in relationships we had to pull back from because we weren't ready
for them? A lot of us. How many of us had peer relationships as
teens which developed into lifelong partnerships or which did
not alter with time? Not very many. And many of these sorts of
issues exist within any romantic or sexual relationship, regardless
of our age.
Thomas, 26, who has an attraction to teen women, says, "One might
assume my attraction decreases when a girl achieves maturity.
In my case, it doesn't. I don't know exactly why I'm attracted
to teenage girls more than adult women. I have touched on a few
reasons, but some may be found in adult women. I am attracted
to a teenage girl's body from her developing breasts and legs
to her still childlike face. However, any relationship based on
appearances is doomed to failure. We all change, both physically,
spiritually and mentally, we can't avoid this. Why should I be
allowed to change, but not her? She may no longer be fifteen years
old, but she'd still be the woman I love. A person may be attracted
to blondes or brunettes, but in the end it's the person within
that you love. Why should it be any different for me?"
There are also some adults attracted to legal minors who, for
various reasons, feel that it is not best for them to be sexually
intimate with a minor in any way. For many presently, that is
the case simply because it is illegal and may be detrimental for
both parties in our current climate, and they neither want to
be in jail themselves, nor put a minor through the sort of trauma
a prosecution entails, or the forced secrecy required to have
such a relationship at the present time. But some feel - that
problem aside - that they do have a greater amount of power than
a minor (especially in our society) and thus feel they cannot
fairly become involved without dominating the relationship. For
others, their religious beliefs do not support premarital sex
in any scenario. And some respondants stated in their interviews
that a minor can be unable to give informed consent simply because
they do not have the information - via comprehensive sexuality
education - with which to make a decision, because our culture
at large is so negative and uncommunicative about sexuality in
"I just don't see how it's possible for an adult to pace a sexual
relationship by a minor's wishes and needs in our culture. For
it to work, the minor would have to know what he wants and be
able to communicate it effectively to the adult without the adult
reading something else into it or thinking he knows better than
the minor," Splash said.
Tori, a 36-year-old mother who had relationships primarily with
adults as a minor said, "I wasn't informed [enough to give consent],
no. Let's put it this way - I had the intellectual ability to
make informed sexual choices; however, I didn't have the emotional
or sexual skills needed to make those choices. I grew up in the
Bible Belt, and I was very sexually active and curious, which
thus branded me a slut. I wanted to have sex but I did not know
how to disentangle my emotional baggage. I had more baggage than
a lot of people, and less than some others. In hindsight, I wish
I would have held off on the sex. That, or I wish being sexually
adventurous would be celebrated - then I wouldn't have felt the
need to get married at age 20 and start having children right
"In my country, the age of consent is 14, and that's just fine
by me as a parent. I wouldn't want the power to force my kids
away from someone they thought they loved. I was having sex just
to piss off my parents. If I refuse to be pissed off at my kids'
sexuality, then that removes a negative motivation for my children,
and increases the chances that they will do what makes them happy.
I have a fifteen year old daughter, a thirteen year old son, and
a seven year old daughter. I have been very upfront with them
and with each child it has been easier to teach sexuality is a
part of living. I teach them sexual choices just as I teach that
there are healthy and less-than-healthy choices with other lifestyle
issues. Sex, like food, is necessary and enjoyable, and the more
you know about it, what your own likes and dislikes are, the better
off you'll be. When they ask me about sex I am the opposite of
my own mother and her hushed, angry admonitions."
"If I knew more about sex I'm sure my choices would have been
more informed," says Julia, 23. "I found out a lot as I was going
along. I wasn't coerced or tricked into anything, though, and
I think I made good decisions - for me - with the information
I had at the time. It's still pretty confusing."
We would be incorrect and irresponsible if we did not acknowledge
that some adult/minor relationships can be negative, and negative
for more reasons than simply because of a culturally unacceptable
age-disparity. And obviously, abuse exists among peers and adults
- in fact, is sadly pervasive, though it occurs the great majority
of times in interfamilial settings, and in physically forceful
or coercive situations. Some relationships do have serious power
imbalances by their nature, and in other situations, sex-negativity
in general can have a profoundly negative effect.
"Father/daughter incest, stepfather/stepdaughter sex, and force,
violence, and coercion are all associated with greater likelihood
of harm," states Paul Okami. "For some people, the more voluntary
the experience is, the more problems result because of guilt felt
over complicity in a socially despised activity. For some youth,
rape or other forms of forced sex - being clearly not their fault
- may be accompanied by far less guilt. Guilt can be a terribly
punishing emotion. This is why generalizing from group scores
can be misleading because different children react idiosyncratically.
Another factor is sex (gender). Boys are far less likely than
girls to label their experiences abusive and to suffer consequences.
They are far more likely to label the experiences voluntary and
enjoyable, particularly if they are with women rather than men."
Some respondents attributed a few other negative facets to their
relationships, like Julia, who married a man considerably older
than she at a young age. "I'm twenty-three, just finding out there's
a lot of stuff out there I've never heard of, and I'd really like
to try it before I'm fifty. My husband (22 years her elder), however,
has tried it all, and doesn't want to go through all that again.
And he gets awfully nervous about me trying it."
Needless to say, adults who are attracted to minors in our culture
experience a great deal of negativity, even when they are not
engaged in any relationship at all. Dissident explains, "It has
taken a terrible emotional and spiritual toll on me to have an
attraction that is socially stigmatized and criminalized by society;
the majority of people around me in THIS society utterly loathe
me for my attraction base. Every time I turn on the TV, or read
the newspaper, I see how individuals like myself are routinely
lied about, misrepresented in the cruelest ways possible. We are
told that we are 'sick' and 'evil,' that we are a 'threat' to
the age group whom we love. We are subject to unconstitutional
entrapment schemes and hunted down like animals in chat rooms
by cops and 'child advocate' vigilantes posing as teens, and our
privacy is routinely invaded for the slightest sign of 'criminal
"Our own families are ashamed of us for something that is not
only not our fault, but which is not pathological but perfectly
natural. That society does not want to understand us but simply
to pillory us, and that we are used as political bogeymen to attack
the civil rights of everyone, creates a continually difficult
and traumatic life for us to bear. Since I am 'out' in real life,
I am often subject to snide and cruel remarks behind my back,
and my attraction is a large source of ammunition for any person
to use against me in any sort of argument as a sure fire means
of making their status more 'ethical' then my own (i.e., if I
was berating a Neo-Nazi for his racist views, he would likely
say to me, 'Well, at least I don't like little girls!'), etc.
It's very hard to live like this, and the many emotional problems
that we suffer come after the fact, and not as a result of, our
attraction base ... and this is why suicide and even substance
abuse can be common among our minority group."
What Dissident says is important to bear in mind, not only for
the well-being of such adults , but for the youths they may become
involved with. If we tell a youth that the person whom they may
love is a "pervert" or a sociopath because they love them, we
send a crucial negative blow to the self-esteem of that youth
by telling them that only an adult who is a pervert could possibly
cherish them or find them sexually appealing. Worse still, imagine
the youth who may grow to have a limited pole of attraction or
an attraction to minors being reared with constant messages that
anyone with that attraction base is sick or evil - which thus
includes himself or herself in that group.
As with any pervasive and arbitrary moral messages, we would be
foolish to think they only effect a limited sphere or populace,
especially when it comes to sexuality. Any sort of sex-negativity
or oppression of consensual and caring sexuality affects all of
us distinctly, and is damaging to all.
Yet in spite of all of these messages, and so much profound negativity
towards these relationships, most respondents described relationships
that sound just like any relationship: with strengths and weaknesses,
joys and hardships, growth and changes.
Antonia, a twenty-two year old from Germany, spoke with insight
about her relationship. "Frank was twenty-five when we met, and
I was sixteen. I can't really describe what attracted me to him
the way it did. Whether it was the fact he looked like Bono did
in the late 80s or whether it was partly because Frank was what
all that the guys I was going to school with weren't: he was a
man. He was an artist, he was well spoken, he rested in himself.
"Later on, I'd realize that he let me be the way I wanted to be.
He challenged me. He let me explore things, and I could share
my passion for the arts with him. At the same time, he never gave
me the feeling that I was below him, which my previous partner
had done. I introduced him to new things, too, and we were surprisingly
equal in that respect. The first time I saw him again after our
first meeting (which had ended with me initiating some kissing
and such), he wanted to let things rest the way they were (not
get more involved with me), but changed his mind at the end of
the evening. He asked me why the hell I was the way I was, how
he had never met someone like me before and how he thought I would
grow up to become an even more startling woman. I think he really
wasn't used to being attracted to a sixteen year old, while I
didn't find my attraction to him any different at all. We ended
up sitting in front of my friends house until four in the morning,
first talking and later doing different things, and our relationship
basically started that night.
"It lasted for about a year. It wasn't monogamous, and it was
long-distance, and we never told each other what we really wanted
from each other. I visited him quite regularly; we would spend
time together, when we were away from each other, we'd write letters
and talk on the phone often. He traveled quite a lot and would
send letters on paintings and envelopes with stories and drawings
on them. I left little traces in his life during these months,
which always moved me. I pushed the issue of intercourse, because
that's what I wanted with him. He was worried about what the people
around him would think about him being with me. I'm sure he got
weird comments because he was so obviously having sex and a relationship
with 'that sixteen year old.'
"What we lacked, though, were communication and negotiation skills.
We would talk about everything - but not about our relationship.
I always felt that I loved him more than he loved me. I felt small
and young compared to the women around him; I felt like I couldn't
keep up. I ended up backing out of the relationship because I
couldn't handle it anymore; I couldn't handle the sex I had pushed
so much, and because I feared I'd get emotionally hurt. It all
simply ended - there was no big bang at the end. When I saw him
again about a year after we had last met, we talked about us for
the first time, really. He was in a steady, monogamous relationship,
and I was single and love/hating it and jumping from fling to
fling. I don't know why that made it easier for us to talk about
us, but it did. He told me he hadn't understood how we had faded
away, and said that he always wanted to make things more serious
with me but thought I wouldn't want that, because if I had I would
have said as much. So in all, it ended in a very sad kind of misunderstanding
and a serious case of mis-guessing and not telling the truth about
"I surely learned from this relationship that no matter what kind
of relationship it is, honesty and directness are a must. I look
back at it with fondness. I still understand very well why I fell
in love and lust with him. And it was good the way it was, even
though it took me a while to understand that. And the 'promise
of things that might have been' isn't as threatening and scary
as it was with other relationships."
As a culture-at-large, we endlessly complain about the lack of
responsibility and accountability in our youth. Yet the reason
we do not see it, and the reason our youth may appear to be becoming
less and less responsible, may well be because we do not allow
them the opportunity. Not only economically, or in terms of their
education and familial responsibilities, but in terms of the relationships
which they seek out on their own - and which are often pivotal
for their growth and development, both sexually and socially.
It is not invalid to feel that our youth are not capable of decision-making
and responsible sexual choices, IF we have not equipped them with
the support and information to do so - if we have in fact created
a climate in which they cannot do so. However, if so, then the
deficiency is not on the part of our youth! If our rationale for
criminalizing adult/youth relationships, or youth sexuality in
general, is that youth are "led only by their hormones," or unable
to be responsible due to their age, why then would we encourage
them to become engaged with same-age-peers who are likely to be
the same way? If our rationale is this, how then can we hold them
responsible as adults for crimes they commit, yet claim they cannot
make the same choices in regard to their sexuality?
If we were to rear our children in environments which empowered
and supported their sexuality and self-esteem, and were supported
as parents and mentors in doing so ... if we made sure they received
lifelong and comprehensive sex education, and we treated them
like young adults, placing the responsibility and accountability
for their actions on them ... that old rug, the "moral protection
of the feeble innocents," would be pulled right out from under
us. A young adult can say yes or no, and when they have the pertinent
information, support, and a healthy self-image, they can make
informed choices capably.
We hear again and again that we ought to tell children that "no
means no." But if we tell them that their "no" has weight and
meaning, we cannot tell them that their "yes" has none. And if
we give their consent no value or worth, than their non-consent
becomes worthless as well, and it should be unsurprising when
it then gets ignored.
The hard truth of the matter is that in criminalizing these relationships
- or any aspect of responsible, consensual youth sexuality - we
are not protecting our youth efficiently. If we were, we would
also be making sure we didn't turn their relationships negative
with our own judgment, or send them mixed messages about sexuality
by refusing them sex education while featuring them half-clad
on a billboard. We are, in part, likely looking to protect ourselves
and our culture from sexuality, which many find terrifying, powerful
and threatening. We may also be looking to create our own power
imbalances by keeping our youth from being capable and independent.
But while any parent knows that that letting go can be incredibly
hard and painful, in order for a youth to become a capable, healthy
adult, it is necessary.
We allow our children to cross a busy street when we have given
them all the guidance we can to show them how to do so as safely
as possible. We know when we let them cross alone - as hard as
it is - that there is a chance that even with all we have given
them, something may go wrong, and they may be harmed. That is
simply something we cannot control, and that is the risk we take
because we know how important it is that we give them that independence.
And sexuality is truly no different.
We have no evidence that relationships among peers are innately
any more positive than those between youths and adults (and plenty
of evidence to show how pervasive abuse like date-rape is among
peers). In addition, we have no evidence to show that adult/minor
relationships are inherently negative in an environment which
does not vilify them, or vilify sexuality in general. We also
have considerable evidence to show - in biology, psychology and
sociology - that puberty is a process of sexual, physical and
emotional development, and once it begins, it is natural for one
in puberty to explore their sexuality with themselves and others,
and for others to approach that individual sexually or romantically.
And if we insist that someone who does so is perverse or ill,
the loudest message we may be sending is not only that sexuality
itself is perverse, but that a developing youth is a lesser being
than an adult, and that their development should not be acknowledged
or admired, but shameful, unless it is from a distance, retouched
and picture-perfect to sell a pair of blue jeans.
The real conflict is that in order to empower our youth to make
sound choices for themselves, to have beneficial relationships,
and to be sexually responsible, we not only have to trust them,
we have to trust the sexuality that is a part of them and their
management of it. And perhaps most of all, we have to trust that
we reared them as best we could, and furnished them with the information
and the tools they need: and in an age when we teach and guide
less - when we act as parents less often, as less cultural support
is given for the task - and thus need more external control to
keep our youth "ours," the harsh truth may be that we do not trust
what we have done because we fear what we have done is substandard.
And all the controls in the world cannot make up for that lack.
Only we and our youth can, and the light at the end of the tunnel
is that we usually manage just fine, even with all the mistakes
that we make as parents or teens.
Ironically, in the instances in which adult/minor relationships
are negative - in and of themselves - they are, as Paul Okami
states, usually negative because of a lack of empathy on the part
of the adult, or a lack of respect and recognition of what is
developmentally appropriate for any given individual. And those
are the nearly identical circumstances we find ourselves in when
we, as a culture, as parents or mentors, refuse to acknowledge
a youth's sexual and emotional development, their worth and weight
of their choices, and their necessary independence and growth.
If we are concerned about protecting our youths from adults, it
might serve us well to be sure and look in the mirror before we
look beyond our window. It would certainly serve us well to take
a good, long look at our youth, see how much they have grown,
and acknowledge, applaud and nurture that growth so that we've
little to no doubt they can soundly make their own informed choices
responsibly and as best suit them - and feel comfortable asking
for our help and guidance WHEN they want or need it. It would
also serve us -- and them -- best to be sure that the protective
measures we do have, either by law or by guideline -- are actually
protective, not oppressive, and don't cause damage or dangers
in and of themselves, which is what our current laws, attitudes
and the cultural climate surrounding them are doing to both adults