Teenage “interns” – is there a line between work and socializing, and how do gender and age figure in to knowing when it’s okay to cross it?

This past weekend’s Sunday Styles section of the New York Times contained an article about teenage interns and the 30-somethings they work for. The article described the relationships as mutually beneficial, and as social in addition to work-related. It begins with a story about one 30-something woman, Rose and her 16-year-old “intern/best-friend-forever,” Will, at a sweet sixteen party for one of Will’s friends where someone suggests a game of Spin the Bottle.

Oddly, the article then did not turn into a moral panic piece about how older women are exploiting young men (and young women). Instead, even though at one point the article’s author puts “intern” in quotes, as if writing it with a wink and a nod, there is general approval for these arrangements. Will’s father is even quoted as saying that he’s glad Rose helps him out with all the ordinary chauffeur duty that parents of teens apparently have to do. This despite the fact that, as revealed in the article, Will sometimes sneaks sips of Rose’s alcoholic beverages at lunch.

We also learn that much of the time these interns work for free, that part of their appeal as “interns” is that they give their “employers” insight into youth markets so that those markets can be more thoroughly mined. We learn that for the most part the high schools these teens attend don’t offer credit for these “internships.” We learn that some “interns” are as young as twelve because “cross generational bonding is a natural part of any youth-oriented industry.” (That statement was made by the employer of the 12-year-olds — a firm called Buzz Marketing.)

Now, in an age where we express tremendous concern about online sexual predators (witness the incredibly popular Dateline series “To Catch a Predator”) how is it that this article doesn’t raise any of the same hackles? Mind you, I’m not opposed to age differences in all kinds of relationships. I just found myself wondering:

1. How different would this article have been if it had been profiling high school girls working for 30-something guys and hanging out socially together, playing Spin the Bottle and sharing margaritas? (It is interesting that the article, near the end, does include one story about an “intern” relationship that turned into a dating relationship, and that story involves a 16-year-old girl and a 21-year-old guy.)

2. Why does it seem okay to exploit teens for their labor and their access to markets but not to have sex with them?

3. Also, how does this “obsession with youth” feed the fantasies of older folks wanting to have sexual relationships with teenagers, and

4. How does that contribute to the impression that older folks aren’t attractive themselves?

Just something to think about this morning. No answers. Just questions.

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