Essay:The Truth Behind The Age Of Consent Laws
This essay is a response to many questions I have been asked by people in the Minor Attracted Adult [MAA] community, as well as those outside who support us (and yes, such people do exist!), in regards to the age of consent [AoC] laws.
Since much scientific evidence has emerged to make it clear that younger people do not receive severe emotional damage following sexual contact with a significantly older adult if mutual consent was a factor, and no fully objective, scientifically validated evidence to the contrary has ever been gathered by any of the mainstream naysayers out there, what is the real reasons that contemporary society supports the continued existence of the AoC laws? Why does society generally feel equally dedicated to enforcing AoC laws in regards to adolescents in addition to children when it's empirically obvious that the former are actually young adults? What is the reason for all the negative stereotypes and assumptions directed at both adults who engage in relationships with much younger people as well as the young people who may reciprocate the interest? This essay will seek to answer those questions by explicating my thoughts and observations on this subject based upon my many years as a hebephile activist on the pro-choice side of the coin, and my many more years as a youth liberationist (the latter going back to my own early adolescence).
Please note that this particular essay will not describe the specific circumstances that led to the creation of the AoC laws as we know them today back during the 1880s in England. That will perhaps be the subject of a future essay, and the circumstances in question are well documented in a scholarly manner in Judith Walkowitz's excellent tome about sexual dangers and hysterias running rampant in late Victorian London, The City of Dreadful Delight. Instead, this essay will focus upon the modern rationale behind the continued enforcement of these laws and the societal attitudes that back up these laws in the minds of the great majority of the general public in the present era, while still keeping the historical perspectives in mind.
The first reason for the widespread modern societal support for these laws and accompanying attitudes is a very simple one: intergenerational sexual activity is currently offensive to the emotional sensibilities of many people raised under the present day cultural milieu, much as homosexual acts are considered aesthetically repulsive to many of a certain ideological stripe (e.g., fundamentalist Christians and other homophobes). The advantage that mainstream gay activists had over the youth community of today, however, is that the heart of the movement was composed of legal adults who had their full civil rights, whereas people under 18--during the heyday of the modern civil rights movement as well as now--do not. Those whom the government legally designate as "minors" today are essentially the glorified property of their parents and helpless to resist the "protection racket" mentality of the State.
Underage people in contemporary society also represent a strongly ingrained paradigm that people, influenced by the many lingering remnants of the Victorian mindset, consider to be sacred to them. This is the idea that enforced ignorance about the world (our culture uses the word "innocence" as a feel-good euphemism to sugarcoat this form of ignorance) is somehow blissful and beautiful, and that the supposedly carefree nature of childhood and early adolescence that comes along with this blissful and beautiful ignorance implies a degree of inner purity that adults are believed to lose once they learn about the world and all of the “horrible” and emotionally “complicated” things that exist within it outside of the confined safety of a child’s world. As such, our culture perceives such ignorance as immensely precious, regardless of how all of the younger people who are currently forced to conform to that paradigm may or may not feel about it.
Due to prevailing negative attitudes about sex, sexuality is therefore considered "dirty" and the introduction of it to minors is perceived as somehow tainting that blissful ignorance. Our culture therefore considers this perceived besmirching of "innocence" to be a heinous act (e.g., "stealing someone's childhood" or "violating their innocence"). Thus, the introduction of sexuality into a minor's life is viewed by most in our society to cause these kids to "grow up too fast," thus undermining that perceived wondrous state of bliss and purity of spirit that our culture believes childhood to personify in a material sense. Of course, in actuality, the presence of sexual knowledge and the full freedom to practice it in a mutually consensual manner is correctly recognized as a liberating experience for adults that is important to their emotional health, which one may think to cause many open-minded people to feel bemused over why we feel the exact opposite is true when it comes to sexual knowledge and experience being given to someone who has yet to reach the vaunted Magic Age. But the recognized liberating effects of sexual knowledge and experience is the very crux of the matter here, because the vast majority of people in our contemporary culture do not want kids to be liberated; they want them to remain legally, economically, and socially dependent on legal adults, and to stay within the parameters of the wonderful state of socially constructed "childhood"--and thus firmly under adult control--for as long as possible. Society rationalizes the artificial extension of childhood for teens under 18 as being beneficial to their spirit because of the ideological glorification of our present day paradigm of childhood. After all, the defenders of our society will say, childhood is so wonderful, blissful, and carefree, why wouldn’t someone want to be a child for as long as possible, and enjoy the beauty of this existence until society legally forces them to suddenly “grow up” once they reach their 18th birthday?
If an adult has consensual sex with someone who is underage (i.e., legally a child regardless of their individual level of biological or emotional development), he may not be harming a person in a demonstrable or objective sense but he is nevertheless harming a very sacrosanct idea in the eyes of modern Western culture, and thus demeaning what our society believes to be a idyllic and beautiful state of being that children (i.e., anyone who is legally a child, of course) represents to our ideological mindset. As such, people raised in this society take huge offense to such an act, with many actually finding this act to be literally worse than murdering a child.
Also thrown into the mix to rationalize such attitudes are the beliefs that young people under 18 are inherently incompetent and prone to bad decision-making. In other words, they are stereotyped, and their supposed lack of competency to make such "emotionally complex" decisions are assumed on the arbitrary basis of chronological age rather than judged according to individual merit. The justification to have this same attitude towards teens as towards actual children is bolstered by common societal myths that teens have inherent neurological malfunctions that render them very prone to making "bone-headed" decisions. An earlier biological myth described how teens were supposedly subject to hormonal swings that caused their behavior and decision-making abilities to be erratic, but more recently we have seen the development of the belief that the teen brain is inherently "defective," which therefore allegedly causes them to have a great propensity for making incompetent decisions. These all-too common discriminatory beliefs have been challenged quite well over the past decade in scientific studies conducted by clinical psychologist Dr. Robert Epstein in several of his articles, beginning with "The Myth of the Teen Brain" [available online] and in his excellent book, The Case Against Adolescence from 2007 and its 2010 update, Teen 2.0. As a result of this thinking, teens--like children--are seen to be in a perpetual state of "not knowing any better"...until they reach their 18th birthday, of course, where they officially become legal adults and are then assumed to be competent to make their own decisions regardless of individual merits. Legal adults have their full civil rights, so they must be given the benefit of the doubt and allowed to take emotional risks regardless of their perceived or actual individual merits, and this is the way it's supposed to be in a democracy. But people under 18 do not have these civil rights because they are not recognized as "adults" (according to current legal definitions), and thus the very important democratic right to take risks and grow as a person at their own pace--and to judge the rapidity of that pace for themselves--is not recognized.
Also add this to the mix: people in general are often reluctant to give up any power that they have over others. Why should either the majority of parents or the State willingly give up control over an entire class of people? Both see the civil liberation of individuals under 18 as a threat to their ability to mold young people to fit whatever paradigm our culture wants them to fit during their formative years, and many belonging to either of these two institutions therefore consider it to be very important to leave younger people in no legal or political position to resist such molding. That tactic is the basis for the famous maxim, "Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man." Now imagine how much truer that saying is if you give both parents and the State near-full control over the child for the first 18 years of their lives. This is why youth liberationists continually stress that it's vitally important to grant people their full civil liberties during their formative years, and why it's ridiculous for opponents of youth liberation to claim that kids cannot be considered a true oppressed minority group simply because they will be automatically awarded their full citizenship once they reach their 18th birthday (well, almost; they still retain a few limits on their full rights until they reach their 21st birthday). The various powers-that-be in our society seem to feel that 18 years of pre-citizenship is a long enough time for the "molding" or indoctrination effect to have a maximum chance of "sticking" (and most often, it does).
The reason many mainstream liberals (or, as some of my activist friends may prefer, "libruls") believe that it's okay for teens to have mutually consensual sex with each other but not with adults is because some people take a stab at being "open-minded" and "sex positive" in their own eyes by grudgingly accepting the fact that teens, including young teens, are sexual beings and that attempting to deny this completely is not only futile, but also counterproductive to their well-being (which is true, of course).
However, having been raised in the same culture as the rest of us, they will only allow their open-mindedness to go forward to a limited extent, i.e., to a level that is considered politically "safe" to hold among "reasonable" people on the Left of the political spectrum, who fear being called names by their opponents on the Right if they do otherwise. Hence, though they do not believe that consensual sexual activity between two teens of the same general age group is automatically going to have emotionally negative effects on the participants, they are still repulsed from an aesthetic standpoint by the idea of an adult engaging in sexual activity with someone that young regardless of the issue of consent. Simply put, such age disparate pairings are "icky" to them. So they justify this attitude by the stated belief that adults automatically have "too much worldly experience" for teens under the Magic Age, and this is believed to enable the adult in question to easily control the teen and manipulate them into doing something that these "libruls" do not want to believe any teen would willingly do unless they were manipulated into doing it, and therefore may have only thought they wanted to do it, or that they found it a positive and enjoyable experience.
Of course, this was the exact same rationale used by Southern white bigots in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to lynch black men who had sex with white women. Such men of color were always accused of "rape" regardless of whether or not the woman consented because the white men of this era and locale were so offended by the idea of interracial sex--bolstered by then still prevailing beliefs that women were easily led astray by "selfish" and logically superior men (an attitude that has since been aimed at people according to age rather than gender)--that they rationalized their lynchings with a firm belief that no self-respecting white woman could possibly have desired to have "icky" sex with a black man of her own volition. Because of their disdain for sex between black men and white women, these white bigots concluded that if the women weren't forced into sex with these black men then they must have been manipulated into it by the suave nature that reputedly gave all men an advantage over and above the inherent naivety and easily led astray female psyche. This enabled them to justify such harsh and unnecessary acts of retribution that were in actuality done solely out of hatred for blacks and revulsion over interracial relations between black men and white women, the latter of whom white men felt they were supposed to be "protective" of in the sense that these white women belonged to them alone (sound familiar?).
This exact same dynamic is played out today, though not in regards to race but rather in regards to age. Blacks have since earned enough civil rights that it's no longer possible for the legal system--or for too many even mildly open-minded white people--to justify miscegenation laws. And women have earned much more respect in regards to their perceived level of competence during that same time as a result of their own movement for emancipation, so they are no longer automatically assumed to have been manipulated when they have a consensual relationship with a black man (they are simply said to have "jungle fever," and left at that). But the important thing to consider about teens under 18 is that, like children, and like blacks and women in the past, they currently lack the civil rights and legally recognized autonomy to escape from these stereotypes, and thus lack any substantial opportunities to prove their competence. They are also forcibly kept from obtaining certain "age inappropriate" information that would enhance their knowledge and ability to make competent decisions, which causes them to appear to "naturally" fit the stereotype of "ignorant" young people that is actually culturally imposed upon them--which is obviously a major case of political dirty pool played upon them by a combination of parents and the State. Those minors who obviously do not fit the stereotypes and rise above their legally and culturally imposed disadvantages are dismissed as "exceptions to the rule" or sometimes as prodigies, and not enough reasonable opportunities exist for sizable numbers of young people to prove their individual levels of competence at the present time. But people in our culture are indoctrinated into believing that this is the "natural" state of being for young people, while encouraged to ignore all of the historical and anthropological evidence that strongly suggests otherwise [recommended reading: Centuries of Childhood by Phillipe Aries, which traces the very gradual socio-cultural construction of the "child" as we know it today].
Another thing to consider is that teens, like children, are expected to conform to a certain cultural hierarchy. In our gerontocentric culture, older individuals are believed to be due respect by underage people simply by reaching the Magic Age and becoming a legal adult. This is seen to automatically confer legal adults with a level of authority over those who have not achieved the automatic esteem our culture feels one is due simply for reaching their 18th birthday. Thus, all adults are arbitrarily considered to be authority figures over people under 18, regardless of whether or not the adult in question has any real degree of power over the life of any given young person, such as that possessed by a parent, teacher, coach, etc. This authority is seen as inherent in the role one is expected to take on as an "adult," and as such, our society instantly perceives anyone who is granted full citizenship that comes with the legally recognized age of adulthood to have a power advantage over people under 18.
As a result of what I described above, intergenerational relationships are perceived as having an inherent power imbalance in favor of the legal adult regardless of any of the many other factors that could be present to effect that aspect of the relationship, and assuming how likely it is for any two people of any age group to form a relationship that is entirely equitable in every conceivable manner. As a result, according to our cultural mindset, if people see an intergenerational relationship--no matter how nice and egalitarian-minded the adult in the relationship may be--they nevertheless believe that they can never be "quite sure" that the girl doesn't actually want the relationship, but is merely acceding to her older lover's "authority" and doing everything he wants her to do simply because he commands it rather than because she wants to do it--so the law must intervene "just in case." No evidence needed or required, because the basis of the AoC laws are very arbitrary and are based on overriding assumptions that do not need to be backed up by evidence, a situation is supposed to the be the very antitheses of American law. The AoC laws are among the very few laws under American jurisprudence where assumptions without evidence are accepted in court, because it's believed that if there is even a remote chance that the adult in question is guilty of manipulating the girl into a relationship in which she doesn't consciously realize that she actually doesn't want to participate in, then no "good" and "responsible" court can possibly take the chance of granting him and the relationship clemency no matter how much the evidence may support doing so--and regardless of what the individual merits of the girl in question happen to be. This is because she is not yet a legal adult, and therefore not a full citizen whose right to take emotional risks, and whose competency is given the benefit of the doubt sans any compelling evidence to suggest otherwise, have to be taken into consideration.
While many people in our culture may still consider a relationship between a 45-year-old man and a 19-year-old woman to be "icky" and morally and ideologically objectionable due to all of the stereotypes and assumptions I mentioned above, a 19-year-old woman is nevertheless a full citizen legally, so her right to take such risks is grudgingly recognized despite all the stereotypical assumptions thrown at the two of them by polite society (e.g., he must be a control freak who is looking for a partner that is "easy" to manipulate, and she must see him as a surrogate "father figure" rather than as an actual relationship partner and has "issues" that she needs to work out, etc., et al.).
Then there is this other important factor to consider, based on what I explained in the last paragraph. Because adults are supposed to be authority figures to anyone under the legal designation of "minor," a romantic relationship between two people on the opposite ends of the Magic Age divide is seen (correctly) as necessitating that the adult treat their younger lover more or less as an equal. This is viewed as "inappropriate" by our society because it undermines the nature of the hierarchy of authority that our cultural attitudes believe to be so important in order to maintain social cohesion and the present day order of things. If large numbers of adults are treating teens and children as equals, then the latter will end up having a voice in society by proxy that many parents and government officials do not want them to have. This is similar to the political reasons why the Roman Catholic Church long ago insisted that priests do not marry and have no romantic relationships at all. While the official ideological justification was that having a sex life and a romantic connection tainted the purity of their soul due to the inherent "ickiness" factor of sex, and that being in love with a woman would detract from the love the priests were supposed to hold for the Lord alone, what much of the upper echelons of the clergy truly feared was that priests who were married may be influenced in their clerical decisions by their wives. This, the holy big wigs feared, would result in many women acquiring a voice in the church by proxy, and at that time it was strongly believed that women shouldn't have a say in how society was run because they would be prone to making "bad" decisions for the church and society in general (such as pro-woman decisions, of course).
The same attitude persists today, albeit now directed towards people according to age rather than gender. If too many adults treated people under 18 as equals, it may grant a potentially high degree of empowerment to these underagers, and our culture believes that young people should be kept in “their proper place." And if these youngsters were given too many opportunities to prove they are capable of much more than the common contemporary attitudes claim they are, this may gradually erode the justification for the law enforcing their disadvantaged status as "pre-citizens." In other words, mutually consensual intergenerational relationships pose an inherent threat not to young people, but to the existing power structure in society. The government considers itself to be a protector of the prevailing status quo first and foremost, and people are raised and indoctrinated with a belief that the present status quo is basically good for everyone, and that it's the job of every decent citizen to work to preserve it, thus further explaining the uncritical, widespread acceptance of so many draconian laws and negative cultural attitudes used to suppress such relationships, and youth rights in general.
All of the above factors combine to explain why people are so willing to swallow the many obvious contradictions related to the AoC laws, and support all of the silly rationalizations and stereotypes that we are indoctrinated into accepting as reasonable justification for them. They also explain why the government enforces and promotes these attitudes and beliefs while outright condemning any valid scientific study or empirical observations that disprove any of the rationales—a prime example of this occurred when the entire U.S. Congress voted unanimously to condemn the Rind Report after it was published in 1998 despite the fact that it was fully peer-reviewed and used perfectly credible methodology to exact its results (and proved fully replicable by another group of researchers in 2005). This made it quite clear that truth is far less important to the government than preserving custom and the belief systems that rationalize the defense and retention of the present status quo. The fact that this status quo, and the laws and cultural mores designed to preserve it, may be based on a series of lies isn’t important as long as these fallacies best enable the powers-that-be to maintain the present gerontocentric cultural hierarchy, civil rights be damned.