Tag Archives: New York

On Adolescent Sexual Exploitation: Room for Nuance, Not for Compromise

I should be more nuanced on the nettlesome issue of adolescent sexuality, I’m told. It’s not cut and dry, and my tone is often unyielding. Perhaps.

I limit myself to 700 words in this space out of respect for my readership and in acknowledgement of the hundreds of other demands on their time and opportunities to spend it. If I had more space, I’d be more circumspect and more exploratory of opposing points of view, at least where I thought arguments had merit. No one comes close to possessing all the answers on human sexuality, what is objectively abusive, and what should be considered punishable by law. I’m no exception.

In fairness, the issue of adolescent and adult sexual contact is particularly difficult to categorize uniformly. I sat on a Huffington Post Live panel last month where I discussed the issue with three well-known psychologists, all of whom agreed (as do I) that the “age of consent” to sexual intercourse in US jurisdictions has less to do with inherent rightness and more to do with an arbitrary cut-off for various cultural, historical and political reasons. I’ve known 15 year-old kids who could make thoughtful, informed and logical choices about sexual contact, and 25 year-old developmentally normal adults who absolutely could not. The age of consent in most of the US hovers around the age of majority, another number we’ve picked to differentiate the comparatively protected world of a child from the colder and more unforgiving one navigated by adults.

When it comes to sexual contact between even older minors and adults, though, there are at least a few key points that, for me, make these “relationships” exploitive and toxic far more often than my detractors who see Americans in particular as “hysterical,” “Victorian”, etc. In no particular order:

1. The issue is usually less about age and more about power, control, and authority. I would not likely advocate for sex-offender registration or a felony conviction for an adult within a few years age of his or her minor sexual partner- assuming a relationship based on more or less equal footing. Stacey Rambold, the Montana teacher whose paltry sentence recently sparked outrage, was  [slightly] less culpable in my mind for being 35 years the senior of his victim than he was for being her educator. Teachers have power over students both in terms of what they can practically affect in their lives and superior insights about navigating adult life. We properly condemn and criminalize crossing this line. It’s not wrong because it’s illegal. It’s illegal because it’s wrong.

2. The still organically forming adolescent brain should at least be a factor in how we view a minor’s ability to engage equally with an especially far older adult. Nothing magical happens within the brain to end adolescence at 18. But the fact is, teenagers are more impulsive, more brash and less self-controlled and than adults. Adults should know better and act thusly. 18 is still arbitrary. But it’s not baseless.

3. What we have traditionally viewed as basically “harmless” where adult-child sexual contact is concerned is continually being challenged and rightfully so. The elite Horace Mann school in New York City, like countless institutions the world over, was apparently rife with sexual abuse by teachers on minor students for literally decades. To the extent people knew of it, I’m sure some considered it a quirk of the place, the price paid for such a dynamic and interesting faculty, a simple right of passage, or any number of things. Far too many of the victims of this “quirk” think differently, and are now responding in droves, decades after being seriously harmed with impunity.

There is room for nuance, particularly with regard to the application of the criminal law. I was never a mindless hammer in a court of law and I have welcomed the insight of the psychological community when trying to do justice in this regard. Increasingly, I believe my still-active colleagues are doing the same thing.

But I won’t yield so quickly to counter-arguments on the “harmlessness” of “fuzzier” sexual boundaries between adults and children. For one, I know better. For another, I know the motives of a dangerous few who are making them. See NAMBLA for a reference.




Night Train

Here I’m going
Walkin’ with my baby in my arms
‘Cuz I am in the wrong end of the eight ball black
And the devil, see, he’s right behind us
And this worker said she’s gonna take my little baby
My little angel back

But they won’t getcha,
‘Cuz I’m right here witcha
On the Night Train

Swing low, Saint Cadillac
Tearin’ down the alley
And I’m reachin’ so high for ya
Don’t let ’em take me back
Broken like valiums and chumps in the rain
That cry and quiver

When a blue horizon is sleeping in the station
With a ticket for a train
Surely mine will deliver me there
Here she comes …
I’m safe here with you
On the Night Train

Oh mamma, mamma,
Concrete is wheeling by
Down at the end of a lullaby
On the Night Train.

—Rickie Lee Jones
. From the eponymous 1979 album. The song is “Night Train.” It is beautiful and haunting.

I first heard it when I was probably 16, maybe four years after the album was released. Even then it spoke to me. A desperate woman. A helpless baby she’s responsible for, completely now that ‘dad’ is long gone, assuming he was ever there for anything but the requisite chemical reaction in the first place. And if he stuck around for a while, it was probably just to do more damage.

“And this worker says she’s gonna take my baby, my angel.”

In many years of this work, I’ve yet to meet the mother or the child who welcomed the intervention of Child Protective Services (or ACS, Administration for Children’s Services, as we called it in NYC). Few jobs are more difficult than that of a CPS worker, pulling a screaming and terrified child from her mother, sometimes in the middle of the night, for reasons the child can’t possibly fathom. Anyone who believes that a hungry, dirty, abused or neglected kid will welcome the strangers who arrive to remove her from the only reality she’s ever known is sorely misled. It really doesn’t matter what the child is dealing with, and how miserable and inappropriate it seems to the well-intentioned interlopers. To the child, the barren cabinets, the rotten smell in the fridge, the rodent droppings and the paint chips in the hallway are just what she knows. And it’s all she’s ever known. Given a choice between what’s awful and what’s unknown, most adults- let alone children- will grasp the former.

So word gets around, and sometimes, the mothers run. They do whatever they can to stay a step ahead of those who purport to know better, whether it’s the right thing to do or not. Running is open-ended, like an impulsive visit to a casino. It’s a one-way ticket to something better, maybe. Or maybe not. In any event, it’s an uncertain path. On that path, they trust no one. And frankly, I don’t blame them.

“But they won’t getcha, ‘Cuz I’m right here witcha. On the Night Train.”

I’ve worked with women who had been victimized by life- and every male in it- up until the thing that put them on the other side of my desk. Sometimes it was the biological father of the child in a sex case; a lot of people are surprised at how often biological fathers sexually abuse their own children. Sometimes it was a boyfriend, or a second husband, or whomever else looked at the time like something stable and basically good. Until, of course, that illusion disintegrated in a principal’s office, or a hospital, or a police station. Until it fell through like wet paper with the details of what he’d done to her daughter or son behind her back. While she was at work. While she was with friends. While she was out clubbing, or at a 12 step meeting, or wherever else the daily routine took her. The details ring in her ears while she clutches her purse and fights back tears. And wonders what the hell she’ll do now.

So the gears of the system turn, and eventually she arrives in my office.

At that point it’s crucial to remember, if I’m going to be effective in any way, shape or form, that to her I’m simply the next man in the line. I’m further trouble, just not the kind that will leave a bruise. The tie I wear glows as malevolently as a nightstick. The desk I sit behind is the perfect barrier between everything that I am and everything that I’m entitled to, and everything that she is, and will never have. It’s that simple.

And so I come out from behind the desk, and sometimes I lose the tie. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

“When a blue horizon is sleeping in the station, with a ticket for a train, surely mine will deliver me there. Here she comes. I’m safe here with you. On the Night Train.”

The train image might be a little antiquated. The urge to run isn’t.

“Concrete is wheeling by. Down at the end of a lullaby.”

The end of a lullaby. That’s where I work, which is say, live. I’ve never wanted to be anywhere else.