Age, consent, position, power, agency, abuse

The New York Times has recently been raising the alarm about sexual predators on the Internet. Back in December they broke a story about Justin Berry, who in turn was helping the FBI to break a ring of child pornography traders, especially those who would pay for boys like Berry (he was underage when he began) to pose and masturbate in front of their web cams. In the past week the Times has published two more articles, here and here, warning about the new ways that child pornographers and consumers of child pornography are getting around the law, organizing groups, and trading advice for luring real children to have sex.

Let me begin by saying, unequivocally, that sexual exploitation and abuse is wrong. Nothing I write below should be construed as challenging that basic principle. ALL exploitation and abuse is wrong.

That said, young people are sexual creatures with varying amounts of agency, self knowledge and with a host of diverse desires.

Is an intergenerational sexual relationship necessarily exploitive and abusive, or is it possible that some can be consensual and healthy?

What determines when a person is old enough to give meaningful consent to sex? And how should we define “sex” for the purposes of understanding when consent can be given? Is kissing sex? Is fondling or mutual masturbation sex? Are cunnilingus and fellatio sex? Is it sex if there is no orgasm? Are kids who are “playing doctor” having sex? Are young teenagers making out and rubbing their bodies together having sex? Can I be 15 and consent to sex with another 15-year-old but not with a 25-year-old?

While some of these are questions that are pretty clearly answered by state laws (or so it seems on paper) they  are much harder to answer in “real life.” In state law there is a clear “age of consent” but in real life things are much more complicated.

And to what should we attribute the seemingly common fantasy of having sex with a minor? And how should we understand the process by which that fantasy sometimes gets turned into reality? The Dateline To Catch a Predator series makes it seem as if nearly every man in the neighborhood wants to have sex with a minor, and as if many of them are willing to go beyond the world of fantasy and try to meet minors for sex.

The line between fantasy and reality should be clear. Is it wrong if I want to dress up as a 15-year-old boy and then be fucked by an older man? Is it wrong if an older man wants to have sex with a woman who is dressed up as a teenage girl in a school uniform and role play being her teacher and keeping her after class? Is it dangerous for me to watch pornography that depicts these same scenarios? In none of these instances is a real child being abused or exploited.

What happens when people are made to feel so ashamed of their fantasies that they never reveal them to their lovers, partners, friends? Would there be less sexual abuse of children if people could act out their fantasies with adults?

Patrick Califia, one of those writers/thinkers/be-ers who I would put in the pantheon of sex-writer deities, has written thoughtfully and provocatively about age-of-consent laws and the panics that periodically arise around child pornography and sex abuse of children. In an essay in his book Speaking Sex to Power he writes about the harm done to kids and adults alike by overly-broad and irrationally-applied child pornography laws, picking up arguments he’d made initially in Public Sex. Again the point is not to allow the victimizing of children, but to prompt a discussion about what constitutes the victimizing of children, what harm is done to them through our attempts at protecting them, and how to tell the difference between fantasy or thought and action.

I wish I could remember where I read this example, but it struck me as a powerful one. Nursing mothers sometimes report sexual arousal accompanying breastfeeding of their children. Is it abusive if a mother has a sexual response to her child’s suckling? What if she decides to continue nursing – and her child wants to continue to nurse – past the age where many other mothers stop? What if she is still allowing her child to nurse at 2 years old or 3 years old or even 5 years old? Would that be abusive? What is it, exactly, that makes a sexual connection between an adult and a child abusive? Perhaps it is the lack of mutuality? In the case of nursing, both mother and child are receiving something valuable, in addition they are bonding as a family. What if, during diaper changes, she noticed that her baby boy got aroused when she rubbed his thighs with ointment? What if she did that each time she changed him because he so clearly enjoyed the sensation of it? Would that be abusive? What if she gets nothing out of it herself but is just doing it because it appears to please the baby? Is that any different than the behavior of an adult who fondles a child because the adult gets pleasure out of doing so without regard for the child?

Yet, kids enjoy physical sensations that we say are bad for them, and that they may later come to regret. What is the cause of the regret? For some, at least, it might be the stigma attached to their activities. For others it might be the lack of information they had when they made their decision. Certainly for those who are coerced, the coercion itself is harmful.

I understand the need to protect children from harm. But I fear that our reflexive denial that they are sexual, and the connected willingness to deny them sexual information that would help them make decisions, develop boundaries, and understand their own desires, does them more harm on a regular basis than they suffer at the hands of abusers. In addition, the focus on protecting them from strangers redirects our attention away from the fact that so many abusers are not strangers to them.

A few years ago, Scarleteen, a sexuality information web site for teenagers, published this article on the need for calm discussion and rational policy around teen sex. The authors link the hysteria around child sex abuse (which is wrong, always) and the denial of accurate comprehensive sex education for kids and teens.

In light of the recent Times coverage of sexual predators on the Internet I think we need to take a deep breath and revisit the arguments made by Heather Corinna and Hanne Blank at Scarleteen, by authors like Patrick Califia (Public Sex and Speaking Sex to Power, Cleis Press), and scholars like Judith Levine (Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex, University of Minnesota Press).

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