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.