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Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Overblown Harms of Underaged Sex

"University of Georgia social work professor Allie Kilpatrick.. In 1992... published the results of a study based on a thirty-three page questionnaire about childhood sexual experiences, administered to 501 women from a variety of class, racial, and educational backgrounds. Instead of employing the morally and emotionally freighted phrase sexual abuse, she asked specific questions: How old were you, how often, with whom did you have sex? Did you initiate or did the other person? What acts did you engage in ("kiss and hug," "you show genitals," "oral sex by you," etc.)? Was it pleasurable, voluntary, coerced? How did you feel later?

Kilpatrick found that 55 percent of her respondents had had some kind of sex as children (between birth and age fourteen) and 83 percent as adolescents (age fifteen to seventeen), the vast majority of it with boys and men who were not related to them. Of these, 17 percent felt the sex was abusive, and 28 percent said it was harmful. But "the majority of young people who experience some kind of sexual behavior find it pleasurable. They initiated it and didn't feel much guilt or any harmful consequences," she told me. What about age? "My research showed that difference in age made no difference" in the women's memories of feelings during their childhood sexual experiences or in their lasting effects.

Teens often seek out sex with older people, and they do so for understandable reasons: an older person makes them feel sexy and grown up, protected and special; often the sex is better than it would be with a peer who has as little skill as they do. For some teens, a romance with an older person can feel more like salvation than victimization. Wrote Ryan, a teenager who had run away from home to live in a Minnesota commune with his adult lover, "John was the first person in my life who would let me be who I wanted to be. . . . Without John I would have been dead because I would have killed myself." Indeed, it is not uncommon for the child "victim" to consider his or her "abuser" a best friend, a fact that has led to some dicey diagnostic and criminal locutions. William Prendergast, a former prison psychologist and current frequent-flyer "expert" on child abuse, for instance, talks about "consensual rape" and young people's "pseudo-positive" sexual experiences with adults.

Of course, there are gender differences in the experiences of early sex. The law did not invent these. Boys are used to thinking of themselves as desirers and initiators of sex and resilient players who can dust themselves off from a hard knock at love. So among boys, "self-reported negative effects" of sex in childhood are "uncommon," according to psychologists Bruce Rind and Philip Tromovitch's metanalysis of national samples of people who have had such experiences. Girls and women, on the other hand, are far more often the victims of incest and rape than boys are, and gender compounds whatever age-related power imbalances an intergenerational liaison may contain. Phillips found that girls spoke of entering such partnerships willingly and often rationally and of satisfaction with the adult status they borrowed there. Yet they also often "let their guard down with older guys," agreeing not to use a condom, to drop out of school, or cut off ties with friends and families who could have helped them after the relationship was over. Her older informants offered another vantage point from which to view such relationships, often speaking disparagingly of their past older lovers and regretfully of their choices. Phillips pointed out that such bad behavior and twenty-twenty hindsight aren't exclusive to older-younger relationships. A younger lover might have been just as unfaithful and just as likely to leave a young woman with a baby and no help.

The subjects of Sharon Thompson's Going All the Way represented such love affairs in far more positive ways. Just over 10 percent of the four hundred teenage girls she interviewed through the 1980s "told about actively choosing sexual experiences with men or women five or more years older than they." These girls "had no doubt that they could differentiate between abuse, coercion, and consent." They represented themselves as the aggressors, persisters, and abandoners in these relationships, adept at flipping between adult sophistication and childlike flightiness to suit their moods or romantic goals.

Which story is true—freely chosen love or sweet-talked dupery? Both, said Thompson wisely when I asked her. Phillips seemed to agree. "Rather than presuming that adult-teen relationships are really a form of victimization or that they really represent unproblematic, consensual partnerships—rather than maintaining either that willingness means consent or that an age difference means an inherent inability to consent—we need to step back and probe the nuances of adult-teen relationships from the perspectives of young women who participate in them," Phillips wrote. If we are going to educate young women to avoid potentially exploitative relationships, "those strategies must speak to [their] lived realities and the cultural and personal values that they, their families, and their communities hold regarding this issue." Phillips admitted to ambivalence about age-of-consent laws."

--- Harmful to Minors - The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex / Judith Levine
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