Just after I turned sixteen, I met this guy who would end up being my boyfriend for about a year. He was twenty-two. He didn’t think I was that young at first. I never lied to him, mind you. He just didn’t ask me the night we met. I regularly passed for older in clubs, buying cigarettes, whatever. That’s me at sixteen in the pic. I have a bag full of snacks, several packs of cigs, and a jug of rum. (Clearly, my hobbies haven’t changed much. Except I mostly drink vodka now.)
By about a year and a half after that pic was taken I will have been kicked out of school, kicked out of my house, working two jobs, and taking care of myself. Which is to say that I wasn’t a particularly young sixteen. And my boyfriend wasn’t a particularly old twenty-two. He was just coasting, living with his brother, and figuring out what to do since a motorcycle accident ended his army gig.
I was not the only one of my friends who dated guys quite a bit older than them. In fact, I’m having a hard time remembering people any of us dated who weren’t quite a bit older than we were. Some of my friends were passing as 21 when they were 15. If they had dated guys their age, they would have looked like pedophiles.
Not surprisingly, my parents were not pleased with my choice of boyfriend. My father found his phone number one day and called him. To this day I do not know exactly what he said. My boyfriend, ironically, was always trying to get me to repair the relationship with my parents. Whatever my father said to him was something that he thought would have set me off. So I can only assume that my father threatened him. He moved to Chicago soon after.
Now you may be thinking that my parents were just worried for my well-being. They weren’t monsters. I’m sure they were concerned. But I am also sure that they did not think for one minute that I was being taken advantage of. While most kid’s parents were always on the lookout for “the bad influence” (including my parents when it came to my sister), my parents knew that I was too strong-willed for that. The year before they said to me, “We know nobody makes you do anything you don’t want to do.” True then. True now.
So when I read about people being prosecuted for statutory rape, or just vilified for having relationships with people much younger than they are, I take a personal interest. My first reaction is often, “I wonder what the supposed victim has to say about all this.” Lately, I’ve come across a ton of stories that involve people with big age differences.
Let’s start with this guy. A twenty-two year old man was friended on Facebook by someone pretending to be a fourteen-year-old girl in order to get information about the guy’s brother. He arranged to meet the fake fourteen-year-old for sex. The police were waiting for him. He’s going to jail for three years. Now, even though I suspect the guy is probably a cretin, I still don’t think he should be going to jail. I’m not cool with prison, but especially not sending someone to prison for a crime they wanted to commit. And we can’t even judge the maturity of the “victim” since there wasn’t any.
What about this woman? She was a high school teacher. She had sex with one of her soon-to-be-former students on prom night. He was a week away from his eighteenth birthday. She is going to spend five years in prison for that. Are we really saying that the boy had no free will? A week later he would have been eligible to enlist in the military. That is just mindbogglingly outrageous to me.
Then there is this woman. She had sex with three of her daughter’s tween friends and is now facing eighty years behind bars. I think what this woman did was wrong, not least because her daughter is going to need some serious therapy. This woman needs some therapy too. But eighty years behind bars? And when you compare that with say, the police officers who were acquitted of rape charges in New York…
That is not to say I don’t get seriously repulsed by some of the stories I read. Why would a forty-nine-year-old man be getting a thirteen-year-old fucked up so that he could grope her? What kind of fifty-two-year-old would be trying to get with a fourteen-year-old? What about thirty-four and thirteen? And I have no words for this cop who molested an eight-year-old autistic girl.
When exactly does someone cross over from being a child, incapable of consent, to an almost adult with possibly poor judgment but the ability to make decisions for themselves? For me, the pivotal age was fourteen. Everything changed for me that year. For other people it will have been different.
Clearly, a bigger age difference matters. But it matters less and less as people get older. We might raise an eyebrow at the celebrity couples with huge age differences, but we don’t generally assume that they are criminal. We might think they are damaged. We might think they are immature, having a crisis, in denial about their age, or incapable of having a healthy relationship. But I would hope that we wouldn’t come to definitive conclusions based on a picture and a couple birth dates.
I’m thirty-eight and can hardly imagine being attracted to a twenty-year-old, much less a tween. But my inability to comprehend how someone my age would do that hasn’t erased the clear memory of how powerless and angry I was at being dismissed and coerced as a teen. My parents abused their power to force me into not doing something they didn’t want me to do. To me, it is essentially no different than parents who force their teen daughters into marrying someone they don’t want to marry.
What this really comes down to is power and consent. In some situations, there is a power imbalance regardless of age. A teacher has power over a student. A cop has power over pretty much everyone. A boss has power over their employee. A guard has power over their prisoner. As someone who believes that the ideal is for all relationships to be relationships of equals, I think we should be aiming to get rid of power imbalances. Instead, we usually end up restricting relationships in order to preserve positions of power. That seems a little back assward.
But we also have to confront the fact that things like age and physical strength also involve imbalances of power. And imbalances of power make consent a very tricky thing. Sadly, as I’ve written about before, most of us are pretty bad at consent in even the best of situations. Which means there are no easy answers. But people don’t like ambiguity, especially when it comes to sex or young people.
So I guess my question to you all is – How do we prevent abuses of power, both by the kinds of adults who molest children and by the kind of adults who dis-empower and coerce young people?