Recently a reviewer of one of my novels commented on the age difference between the female and male main characters. In the story, the female is pushing forty and the male is a couple of years shy of thirty. Their first acquaintance, however, had been ten years earlier when she was a high school teacher and he was her student. Their attraction went unmentioned at that time, but now, ten years later, the connection catches fire.
The reviewer became uncomfortable with this dynamic, partly because the story follows a Dominant/submissive relationship. In the early weeks of training this new submissive, the female ‘domme’ uses the term ‘boy’ as a humiliation. This particular word choice added to the reviewer’s unease about the relationship because of the word’s implication about his age. She still gave the book four out of five stars, but her protest troubled me.
Perhaps we as a society have gone too far when even the use of the word ‘boy’ and an attraction that began while the male character was seventeen trigger thoughts of child molestation. I’m all for laws that protect young children from predation. But there’s a difference between a seven year old and a seventeen year old. There’s a difference between taking advantage of a youngster and reciprocating a mutual attraction. Today’s laws fail to note the difference.
Maybe it’s inevitable that initial efforts to address child molestation will necessarily overreach. For too long, children (as well as women and minorities) were used and abused by male adults. Whether beatings, forced labor, or sexual molestation, children were subject to the whims of whichever adult had ‘possession.’ Until the child grew old enough to fight back or escape, the abuse continued.
No one argues that child labor, beatings, and sexual abuse should occur in a compassionate society. Unfortunately, the current state of affairs easily descends into hysteria. Hardly a day passes without notice of an arrest where molestation charges are brought against the older partner in a consensual relationship with an adolescent. How often are these relationships not crimes but healthy interactions in a very long tradition?
Gaining sexual experience has always been a rite of passage for adolescent males who wish to discover the ‘secrets’ of sexual activity and achieve the confidence and self-development that accompanies this milestone. In the past, an older woman often served as a teacher and mentor in such matters. Stories abound of fathers or older brothers bringing the quaking younger male to a bawdy house where a friendly prostitute would instruct him on the finer arts of pleasing a woman. Thus informed, the initiated young man would go forward with greater confidence in all matters.
Is adult-adolescent sex harmful? New York Magazine published an article examining this topic. The author cites a study which remains a spear in the side of the ‘molestation’ argument:
In 1998, Bruce Rind, Philip Tromovitch, and Robert Bauserman (professors at Temple University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Michigan, respectively) published a study that has resounded through the psychological Establishment ever since. The article, published in the American Psychological Association’s Psychological Bulletin, was what’s known as a meta-analysis, an overview of the existing science, in this case on the long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse. The authors concluded that “negative effects were neither pervasive nor typically intense” and that men who’d been abused “reacted much less negatively than women.”[i]
If we subscribe to the idea that a sixteen year old male is not capable of acting in his own interest in deciding whether to engage in sexual activity with an older woman, what does that say about our view of our youth? A hundred years ago—and virtually at all previous times—age sixteen was often seen as the start of manhood. Through the nineteenth century, census takers required a statement of ‘occupation’ for any household member age sixteen or above. Even at age ten, young people were expected to contribute to the family’s welfare by working in the fields or tending livestock, or cooking, sewing, and tending younger siblings as surrogate parents. Especially after the American Civil War with its widespread disruption of families and communities, teenaged males rode off to the West to find their fortunes.
By virtually all accounts, youth today is more worldly wise than any previous generation. With modern media, sex is no longer a secret whispered among adults in Victorian parlors. Both sexes have abundant opportunity to view naked human bodies, read about sexual encounters, and discuss sexual liaisons with sexually-active peers. We can’t assume that sexual activity with an older, caring partner is somehow inherently more damaging than sex with a peer.
Wisdom sufficient to properly conduct one’s affairs does not begin at the age of majority, although this is the age at which most nations allow its citizens to vote, engage in military service, and conduct any and all financial matters. Similarly, understanding and experience sufficient to ensure healthy personal relationships don’t begin at the age of consent. There are long years of effort, arguably a lifetime, required to gain excellence in either arena. Indeed, mastery in relationships and wisdom in conducting one’s financial affairs may never be accomplished. Are we to believe that delaying the onset of one’s involvement in these matters confers any greater skill?
Are adolescents capable of making decisions in his/her own best interest? Does age alone define the ‘power’ position in relationships? Does an adolescent know enough to decide whether a sexual relationship will cause harm? There simply is no hard and fast answer. The individual’s choice becomes part of the fabric of his/her life, for better or worse. A set of laws dictating that only one decision is the right one can only be right part of the time. The rest of the time, such laws cause as much or more harm than no law at all.
American society in the twentieth century moved toward a parental role for government. In the process, we have demanded a longer adolescence of our young people. More schooling, extended virginity, and parental financial support even into the late twenties are key features of this mindset. Meanwhile, biology hasn’t changed. Sexual desire arrives with the hormonal dictates of puberty, and while not all sexual desire should necessarily be satisfied by an older partner, the impulse to criminalize May-December relationships is as misguided as is the belief that young people can or should deny their sexual appetites.
An older caring sex partner can be a far better option for an adolescent than a peer who may or may not pay attention to important concerns such as birth control, protection against STDs, or the thoughtful management of tangled emotions. Perhaps even more importantly, the young male learns how sex is done in a caring exchange instead of relying on pornography and the inflated stories of his peers. Just as we need instruction and training in job skills, we need experienced teachers in personal relationships. There’s an argument to be made that initiation by older lovers could foster healthier long term relationships for young people.
We need to ask ourselves what we’re really afraid of in this rush to label any and all sex with minors as criminal activity. Is there a wish to enforce religious rectitude? Have we so enshrined a ‘youth culture’ that we want to paralyze our young people in an artificially-extended innocent state?
While seeking to protect young people truly incapable of self-defense, we’re harming young people ready to explore. Sexual attraction doesn’t see age. Rather, lovers are drawn to each other through lust, empathy, affection, and an instinctive desire for the spiritual epiphany that sex is uniquely able to bestow. We should welcome these pursuits between consenting partners of any age.
[i] “Dirty Old Women” by Ariel Levy, May 29, 2006