Thursday, July 13, 2006

Old Enough To Itch, Not Old Enough To Scratch

In Victorian times the age of consent for a young girl was as low as thirteen. Yet girls matured much later then than they do nowadays; menarche was around sixteen or seventeen. Marrying girls off before puberty! It shows yet again that the more sexually repressed a culture, the more perverse it actually is.

We do the exact opposite of the Victorians — early maturity and late ages of consent. It’s another example of the infantilization of teenagers. Treating a fifteen-year-old as the equivalent of a six-year-old has no basis in logic but plenty of basis in law. We don’t let teens have any responsibilities, and then complain that they’re irresponsible. We don’t allow them to have mature friends, then complain when they act immature.

Check out this advice column I found:

Dear Prudie, I am a 16-year-old girl in love with a 26-year-old man. This isn't the problem; I love him and he loves me, and he's never abused or coerced me into anything. We haven't had sex, even though I wanted to; he wants to make sure that I'm not doing anything I don't really want to. . . . I am tired of keeping our relationship a secret, but I will if revealing it would get him in trouble. That leads to the other part of my question—if I have to keep it hidden, how do I respond when people ask if I'm involved? I don't want people to think he's a predator, because he isn't.—Not a Victim

Full disclosure: As a teenager I generally preferred the company of older people. And I dated my share of older men, too. Hell, it wasn’t until I hit about twenty-five that I began to enjoy the company of people closer to my own age.

So far as the letter-writer is concerned, I certainly hope she doesn’t want to get engaged to this guy — but that’s just because I think sixteen is far too young to settle down. Of course, I personally am not planning to marry until I’m at least seventy-five, and only if I can figure out a way to commit tax fraud by doing it, so maybe I’m wrong when I say sixteen’s too young for marriage. But I doubt it.

Now here’s the columnist’s response:

If Hamlet is still taught in high school, you've probably heard the phrase, "The lady doth protest too much." When you write about how great your boyfriend is, it's hardly reassuring to hear your protestations that whatever it looks like, he's not a sexual predator. . . . if you agree to have sex with him, he won't get arrested. But I wish the fact that you are worried he could be makes you realize you should run from this relationship. While this guy sounds like he only has half a brain, at least he's using it because it's kept him from taking advantage of you so far.

“The fact that you are worried he could be?” No, it’s “the fact that you are worried your friends and family will think he is.” Perception, not reality, is this girl’s problem. And why, exactly, does everybody make the default assumption that whenever a girl below the age of eighteen has sex she’s being taken advantage of? I was capable of amazingly complex dirty thoughts at sixteen (and I was a late bloomer, too). As a former teenage girl I demand to know: why did the law restrict me to fumbling inexperienced boobs for sex partners? Why should it have been illegal for me to be with a man who knew what the hell he was doing? God knows I didn’t.

Whoops, I’m going off on a tangent. Let’s get back to that advice column, only with a couple of words changed:

Dear Prudie,
I am an American woman in love with an Arab man. This isn’t the problem; I love him and he loves me and he’s never tried to hit me or force me to wear a burka or anything. I don’t want people to think he’s a misogynist, because he isn’t.

You've probably heard the phrase, "The lady doth protest too much." When you write about how great your boyfriend is, it's hardly reassuring to hear your protestations that whatever it looks like, he's not a misogynist. . . . But I wish the fact that you are worried he could be makes you realize you should run from this relationship.

Now I know the many ways the Arab analogy doesn’t hold up. Still: knowing nothing about the girl except what’s in the letter (and misinterpreting a good bit of that), there is no reason to assume this girl would be better off dating an eleventh-grade boy than a young man of twenty-six.

18 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd be willing to place a bet, if I was a gambler, that the 26 yr old is going to end up in the eastern bloc in about 15 years looking for women......Same mentality in action that it is.

7:12 AM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

I don't know, "anonymous." Maybe he's refusing to have sex with her not because he's worried about any legal consequences (I'm sure he knows she's at the age of consent), but because, as the letter-writer says, he actually is concerned that she not do something she doesn't really want to do.

How old does a person have to be before an 8- or 10-year age difference becomes acceptable, rather than a sign of exploitation?

7:23 AM  
Anonymous Jeff said...

Thankfully, there are still Thai Love Houses.

And whatever happened to Bush's plan to end sex tourism?

7:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jennifer-
I can't give you a calculated number. To me, mid 20's with a 10 year separation is old enough (for the younger) to make a rational decision. For the older, the person is old enough to have adult experience and growth.

Mid teens vs mid 20's, both are pretty young, but there's a very large difference there. I guess when the difference is less than 50% of your age if you're over 18 and less than 30% if you're not?

Full disclosure would be that I'm a father of a couple teens, and that might be skewing my viewpoint, but when younger I was dating women in my late teens who were perhaps 3-4 years older and that was to me an appropriate upper band.

I guess I'll really have to get a real identity, won't I?

8:39 AM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

I guess I'll really have to get a real identity, won't I?

Well, I'm not exactly running ID checks here; you can always post under a fake name.

I'll admit my view of this is skewed by the fact that I was (in most ways) mature for my age, or at least more "intellectually minded." I wanted to talk about weird philosophy and science and political stuff, not debate which exact brand of mousse led to the best and biggest hairstyles, or whether Simon le Bon or John Taylor was the cutest member of Duran Duran. But society and the law wanted to keep me in an adolescent ghetto.

Age does matter; that I do not deny. What I deny is that it is the single most important thing. (As an aside, I also oppose age segregation in schools; it is ludicrous to pretend that every ten-year-old is at the same academic level and should be taught only with other ten-year-olds. Ability should matter more than age.)

Also bear in mind that the average girl matures earlier than the average boy. And they say your brain doesn't reach full adult development until you're about 25 or 26, which means the man in this letter only just became a man, mentally speaking. If you're talking about mental rather than physical age, you could think of this as a 19-year-old young woman with a 23-year-old young man.

8:47 AM  
Anonymous Wild Pegasus said...

It was John Taylor.

- Josh, hungry like the wolf

8:51 AM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Another thought: think how you'd feel now if henceforth you were only allowed to read books from your local elementary-school library. Yeah, you could find a couple of not-boring volumes there if you really tried, but think of all you'd be missing!

8:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I'm not exactly running ID checks here; you can always post under a fake name.

Ok, you name me then and I'll use that. This should be fun to see what you come up with. The only reason for my original comment was the quotations around Anonymous.

If you're talking about mental rather than physical age, you could think of this as a 19-year-old young woman with a 23-year-old young man.

Mental capacity and development is not the same as world experience. My daughter, age 13, cleared slightly on the high side of 1100 on the SAT's in 7th grade. She got this letter thing from John's Hopkins (they have a "gifted children" program they targeted her and her older brother) for compliments on beating the average graduating college bound senior.

There's also no way in hell she's aware enough of the ways of the world to be dating a 19 yr old, her "mental equal" with the measuring stick you reference. I don't think my being her father is coloring my perception too much in saying that. I will say there's no way in hades you can push that girl, I've seen her back down people three times her size, intellectually, not physically. I've heard her back down teachers when they were flat out wrong. Meaning, she's not one, even at 13, who's likely to get pushed into something.

It's just that, in the same way that you don't jump in a car for the first time ever and try to take on the DC beltway at rush hour, she needs some time in the driveway getting familiar with the controls first.

9:46 AM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Yes, Josh, it was. Mullet and all.

There's also no way in hell she's aware enough of the ways of the world to be dating a 19 yr old, her "mental equal" with the measuring stick you reference.

But there's also no way in hell you can say "what is true for my daughter must be true for every other girl in the world, so let's use her as a yardstick for what the law should be."

Bear in mind I'm not arguing that parents should have thus-and-so attitude in regards to their daughters' dating; I'm arguing that government should not have the power and force of law to require all others to do thus-and-so. YOU can forbid your daughter from associating with certain people, but the government does not have that right.

I've seen her back down people three times her size, intellectually, not physically.

Without knowing her I can tell I'd like her a lot. I was much the same way. But you know what? When she's ready to start dating, don't be surprised if she finds a man who will stand his ground more attractive than yet another man who backs down. And good luck to her finding such a person as a public school student.

Again, projecting a bit of my (younger) self onto her, I'll bet her three choices for teenage dating will be as follows: don't date at all; date males who are insipid, dull and unchallenging; or date males who will actually challenege her mind and help it to expand.

I'm sure I don't have to tell you which choice I consider best.

10:29 AM  
Anonymous speedwell said...

I'm a voracious reader of Victorian novels myself and it struck me that a 16-year-old girl and a 26-year-old man were once considered a nearly optimal age pairing in the middle and upper-middle classes. The young lady was as educated as she was probably going to be, and the young man had had time to establish himself in a decent position and buy the family home or family farm. I really, really, have a proble seeing anything wrong with a young girl past puberty and a young man with his feet under him socially and financially, if this is indeed the case here.

10:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The young lady was as educated as she was probably going to be, and the young man had had time to establish himself in a decent position and buy the family home or family farm.

And the young lady was young enough that there was no danger of her pursuing any other path as she hadn't been exposed to any. Victorian times had very strict social rules in public, there was some severe transgressions behind the scenes. Not really a good environment for helping people build themselves to their highest potential.


But there's also no way in hell you can say "what is true for my daughter must be true for every other girl in the world, so let's use her as a yardstick for what the law should be."

I agree with that, I use her specifically and only as an example of mental capability vs physical age vs world experience. I'd much prefer to have another example at my fingertips simply so there would be no personal bias, but unfortunately none comes to mind at the moment. That said, I do have a general problem, specific personalities aside, with a 13 year old girl and a 19 year old boy, or a 13 yr old boy and a 19 yr old girl for that matter. As I said, I can't give you a hard and fast number, because people differ, but you asked

How old does a person have to be before an 8- or 10-year age difference becomes acceptable, rather than a sign of exploitation?

and I'm trying to give you some kind of response. Hopefully with some measure of logic involved. You haven't, I don't think, answered with your opinion on the matter. I would assume that an 8 yr old girl with an 18 yr old boy would be out of line for a 10 yr difference (at least I'd hope so), so what's your take on it?

Again, projecting a bit of my (younger) self onto her, I'll bet her three choices for teenage dating will be as follows: don't date at all; date males who are insipid, dull and unchallenging; or date males who will actually challenege her mind and help it to expand.

I don't know, she's kinda prone to do what she is to do. I do know they're going to have to step quick to keep up. At 12 she's walking around with $200 in her purse of her own money she made with her ventures, and started her own mutual fund at 13 when we started talking about financial stuff (techically a UTMA acct in my name, but her money...once again arbitrary govt age restrictions at work). It will be interesting to see what kind of guys show up with her. We did talk about this once, about how she'll scare the hell out of men and how that's not a bad thing as it screens out the rifraff, but that's more appropriate posted for the child thread you had a few days ago.

So what am I to call myself, poor faceless anon that I be? Anonstarter? Anonsequitor? Royal Pain that Doth Clog My Blog? Perhaps just RP, or Arpea? Such things keep me up at night pondering.

11:33 AM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

How about "Anon! A moose!" I say this as a fan of both bad puns and Bullwinkle.

11:43 AM  
Blogger IOZ said...

Neat blog. Found you through Jim Henley.

I and plenty of other homos got our start with older men, in a sort-of-kind-of, neo-Platonic ephebophilic wonderland. I'm relatively unscarred. Hell, I even turned into a "top" after offering the tender side to twentysomethings. Who'd'a thunk it?

My only quibble is the belief that post-26-year-olds are necessarily better lays than their younger counterparts. That is perhaps true for heterosexual couplings, but most gay men, having lifelong access to the relevant buttons and levers, hit the ground running.

12:06 PM  
Anonymous A. Moose said...

A. Moose it is.

12:07 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

My only quibble is the belief that post-26-year-olds are necessarily better lays than their younger counterparts. That is perhaps true for heterosexual couplings, but most gay men, having lifelong access to the relevant buttons and levers, hit the ground running.

Perhaps, but when your lover's body parts are identical to your own, you already know what does and does not feel good. Us heteros have more of a trial-and-error period to deal with.

1:01 PM  
Anonymous speedwell said...

Just to clarify... I know the difference between modern culture and Victorian culture. I didn't intend to imply the rules were the same in both cases.

But if a girl is ready and wants marriage at 16, she had better damn well find a guy who is mature and financially prepared for the both of them. God (so to speak) forbid she pair up with a disaster magnet her own age.

7:27 PM  
Blogger Jadagul said...

I actually have a friend who's dealing with the same sort of problem: she's almost seventeen, rather mature for her age, and tends to hook up with guys who are older than she is. But in Cali, the age of consent is 18, and it's a felony if there's more than a three-year gap. So she periodically runs into problems when she's interested in a guy, and the guy's interested in her, but the guy is 20 or 21 or something and isn't going to touch a 16-year-old girl. Of course, now that I've said this I can't show her this blog entry...but maybe I will anyway. Hey, you only get slowly tortured to death once!

I sort of represent the opposite end, actually (with a nod toward A Moose's point about the difference between age/smarts/maturity and experience). I'm nineteen (and apparently reasonably bright), but I've had only one relationship, which lasted one month. So I don't quite have the experience that my college classmates do. Maybe I should be looking for high school girls to date so they'll match my experience level? O:)

3:50 AM  
Anonymous Timothy said...

I think the main point of this is to level the playing field for fumbling, inexperienced teenagers. How do you think those of us in our early 20s learned what we're doing? Dating equally fumbling, inexperienced girls. Man, if I'd had to compete with 24-year-old me when I was 17-year-old me, well, I'd have ended up in one of those Terminator time-paradoxes.

1:42 PM  

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