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  Pure As the Driven Slush (Personal Journal)
Rage of Consent (2001)

Over the last hundred years, puberty has steadily begun earlier, yet we have legally and culturally extended the age of childhood later and later. Hyper-sexualized imagery of young adults and teens is increasingly more pervasive and overt, not just in pornography, but in mainstream advertising. Meanwhile, we criminalize and make taboo adult/teen sexual interchanges and relationships more and more. Many think of such relationships as "child sexual abuse," and legally they are considered statutory rape, or at the very least contributing to the delinquency of a minor. We now even criminalize peer relationships and interchanges when one of the teens involved is under the legal age of consent, even when the age disparity is only a year.

These mixed messages create an incredible rift which not only serves to confuse young men and women, but also poignantly illustrates some serious hypocrisy in our culture. Apparently it is acceptable to objectify and sexualize teens for fun and profit on the part of an adult, yet it is NOT acceptable for young men and women to discover their own sexuality, to empower themselves with it, and to make choices regarding relationships and that sexuality.

The fact that we even call a post-pubescent a "child" in some circles is somewhat outrageous, considering that for most of history, these "children" were economically able, had marriages and families they maintained and supported, and some of them led armies, began cultural revolutions, or wrote incredible works of literature and art. Even in our time, most nations would allow, if not encourage, them to fight in wars. We treat them as adults in criminal trials as young as age twelve, and the pro-life movement encourages teen mothers to have their babies (though often offering them no continued support to mother them).

Yet one of the most common criticisms I get for editing and running Scarleteen (a sexuality information clearinghouse for youth which serves thousands of teens daily) is some variation of: "How can you say that a child has the right to be sexual?"

Perhaps the better question to ask is: Who are we to say anyone does or does not have a right to enjoy their bodies, to be intimate with others by their own consent, and to make their own choices sexually, as full beings, when we permit such rights in nearly every other aspect of human life? More importantly, by denying young adults positive sexual experiences, relationships, and information during their formative sexual development - in fact, criminalizing their consensual behavior - what damage might we be doing to our youth? Might some of us be "sexually abusing" them?

This curious extension of childhood, coupled with what was once decent awareness but has now become hysteria about sexual abuse, has created a taboo where there was none before ... one which stands counter to reason and human sexual development. In our species, as well as most others, puberty creates the sexual signals which potential mates recognize, and it does in fact signal fertility and the development of sexuality. It obviously does not create consent in and of itself - but lest we forget, puberty is not merely physical development, and sexuality covers a broader spectrum than mere genital contact.

To state that a person of any age has no right to make choices regarding their own bodies, as is developmentally appropriate for each individual, is alarming. That sentiment in and of itself likely puts them in more danger, and creates a far more negative environment for their sexual and emotional relationships, than a consensual relationship with an adult or a peer could possibly do.

Can we say that teens are children if we try them as adults, and gauge our marketing efforts to capitalize on their income as well as profiting from their sexuality and physical appeal? Can we say someone is a "child" who has begun or completed those physical, hormonal and emotional changes which take them out of childhood by definition? Can we call a relationship detrimental or harmful on the basis of the age of either party for a youth, any more than we might for a legal adult - especially in an environment which adds to any negative aspects that might exist - when there is long-standing evidence which shows us that most of these relationships have been no more harmful overall than peer relationships have been, and are nearly as common?

In a general query of Scarlet Letters' readers, as well as a survey of adults who have had or do have a sexual attraction to legal minors, the average respondent had approximately 60% of their teen sexual relationships with peers, and 40% of them with adults. Of twenty in-depth interviews, only one respondent felt there was anything inherently negative in their consensual relationship with an adult as a teen based solely on age-in-years. One other respondent who was sexually abused as a child also discussed positive sexual or sensual experiences with another adult, keenly noting the differences between abuse and consenting sexual activity.

Beth, 29, who had a relationship with an adult from the age of fifteen to twenty, said, "Prior to that [relationship] I only had one real sexual relationship with a peer. There's no comparison between the two. With the peer was what I would describe as a typical teen relationship; somewhat shallow intellectually and emotionally. The relationship with the adult was much more what I would consider a whole relationship; balanced in terms of emotional, intellectual and sexual intimacy."

Alex, 25, said of his relationship with an adult as a teen, "All in all, it was a positive experience. I had an early taste of adult concerns and responsibilities with the person that I was involved with, but it was also a lot of fun. The sex was fantastic, and she was a really great friend. If more people of any age couldhave that kind of relationship we'd be better off."

Charlotte, 34, stated that, "In general, boys and girls of my own age were more pushy about sexual interaction than adults were. I'm pretty sure this was due to the impatience of young people discovering sex as well as the caution of older people engaging in sexual activity that could land them in jail if discovered. The older people had more of a vested interest in keeping me happy and pleased by the experience.

"There are many things that I am grateful towards my adult partners for. They helped to expand my intellectual horizons, teach me more advanced social interactions and give me a different perspective on things from the point of view of a different generation. The man I dated when I was seventeen and he was thirty-five even helped to set me on my career path, a life choice I definitely do not regret. From older lovers I learned the firsthand history of computers, the firsthand history of the hippie and civil rights movements and many other similar things that I would not have been as likely to pick up had I not spent a great deal of close time with someone twice my age. I'm not saying that sex is the only way to broaden one's horizons like this but it was certainly more often a pleasant way for me than unpleasant."

Miranda, 16, said, "When I have been with adults, I've always felt much more comfortable. I feel like I am relating to them as a peer. Most of my relationships with adults have been purely sexual, which was how I wanted it at the time. I felt less inhibited when I was with a man in his twenties. I've been a very sexual person from a young age and whenever I was with someone my own age they got weirded out by that. Older people appreciated it. The major drawback to being with adults was dealing with my parents. When they found out that their fifteen year old daughter had had sex with a twenty-five year old man, they really freaked out, which is understandable. Of course, they don't really understand that I can give informed consent."

In relationships of this type which have had negative aspects, that negativity often appears to be in part not because of the relationships themselves or the age-disparity, but because of the treatment of that disparity by communities and culture at large.

Paul Okami, Ph.D, is Consulting Editor of The Journal of Sex Research, and author and co-author of numerous sexuality studies such as Childhood exposure to parental nudity, parent-child co-sleeping, and "primal scenes": A review of clinical opinion and empirical evidence (The Journal of Sex Research), Sexual experiences in early childhood: 18-year longitudinal data from the UCLA Family Lifestyles Project (The Journal of Sex Research), Self-reports of "positive" childhood and adolescent sexual contacts with older persons: An exploratory study (Archives of Sexual Behavior), and Sociopolitical biases in the contemporary scientific literature on adult human sexual behavior with children and adolescents (in Pedophilia: Biosocial Dimensions, ed. J. Fiereman).

He states that "Any time you deal with a group of relationships that are illegal and compare them to a group of relationships that are legal, it would be surprising to find that there weren't negative effects associated with the illegal relationships that you don't normally see in the legal ones. This is true if only because there may be added stress in the illegal relationships related to fear of discovery, and all sorts of painful consequences of actual discovery.

"The question of interest is whether there is something fundamentally damaging about an older and younger person involved in a sexual relationship. I think if we're talking about adults and teenagers, it's a silly question. Apart from consequences of prosecution on charges of statutory rape, there is no evidence at all that there is something intrinsic in adult-teen sexual relationships that is damaging to anyone. If that were the case, the majority of marriages throughout history and around the world would have to be characterized as pathological."

From a personal standpoint, when I was in my teens, I had a wide variety of relationships with both same-age peers as well as legal adults. I had been sexually assaulted and molested early in my adolescence, and had no trouble knowing or determining what was or was not abusive. Truly, I cannot toss one group or the other by age alone in the negative pile, because they all differed, not by age groups, but as most relationships differ - based on the dynamic between myself and another person.

However, one of the most pivotal relationships in my life was with a twenty-three year old man when I was fifteen. Certainly he had his own set of problems, and they were plentiful: he had been a molestation victim in several foster homes after landing there because of his father's suicide and his mother's severe psychosis. He, like me at the time, was suicidal and had a drug dependency, though he was the one person who got me over my suicidal behavior (something my therapist would later credit him for). However, this was also by far the most wonderful and intimate relationship of my teen years. He was more respectful of my sexual boundaries than all of my same-age peers. He held me in higher esteem, and treated me with more respect, care and love than others my age. That may be because he was older, that may be because he was who he was - there really is no telling.

But what is telling is that at a certain point, we went through the horrible experience of being threatened with statutory rape charges and various threats due to our age-disparity, and despite my leaving home to escape those threats, he committed suicide shortly thereafter. Matthew had a lot of stresses, and he likely would have done what he did regardless. However, the stress on both of us from the community disdain and the legal threats - in a relationship that was far more respectful of me than any legal one I had had up to that point - was massive, and he left no doubt it contributed highly to his decision to take his life.

Right now, the ages of consent in the United States are the highest of any country worldwide (save for a few nations which have higher ages of consent for male/male sexual activity; the U.S. is at least even-handed in nearly all states on that account). Our rationale as a nation is that it serves to lower teen pregnancy and STD rates, as well as sex crimes, and that it "protects our children." However, that is a fallacy.

We have, in fact, a higher rate of all the above than any other developed nation. Our youth begin sexual activity earlier than youth in nations whose age of consent is far younger (Durex Global Sex Survey, 1999 - 2001). In countries where the age of consent is as low as 12, their rates are far lower in terms of pregnancy, disease and sex crimes than they are here (though teen pregnancy rates have been decreasing in the past decade, they are still higher than in other nations). And sadly, our age of consent laws and our cultural taboos have done nothing to halt widespread sexual abuse.

"There's just as much sexual abuse as there ever was, and to that now we've added grotesque nationwide sexual panic, hysteria, insane judicial policies, and a host of other woes. In my view, as a society, we're not at all interested in helping children in the area of sexuality, but rather, our interest is in punishing adults who respond sexually to children. Children suffer from the hysteria just as much, or more, than everyone else," adds Okami.

Another common rationalization for criminalizing minor/adult relationships, is, of course, that it can help "catch" pedophiles and child molesters - though pedophilia is not a crime, just as sexually fantasizing about sex outside of marriage is not adultery. So, while some might accept some teen/adult relationships, the looming question is always: "But what about the pedophiles?"

Well, what about the pedophiles? Let's first address what a pedophile is: an adult who is sexually attracted to prepubescent children. An adult attracted to teens is NOT a pedophile. When it comes to human sexuality, psychology and sexology - not the ever-shifting cultural climate - an attraction on the part of anyone to a pubescent or post-pubescent person is considered both normal - and is, and has always been, common.

Even if we look beyond the norm and look directly at pedophilia - which is generally uncommon - it is important we understand that pedophilia and child molestation are not one and the same. Someone who molests or rapes a child need not be attracted to that individual to molest them, and often is not sexually or romantically attracted to that individual. In fact, studies have shown that most child molesters are not pedophiles (Okami & Goldberg, 1992).

Rape is sex without consent. Though child molestation is rape, it does not follow that all sex with a minor is rape. Unless we are stating that our young men and women are mentally disabled and thus unable to give consent - thus making all sexual acts performed by a minor into rape by definition, whether with adults or peers - we cannot say that a youth who says "yes" emphatically to any sexual relationship has not given consent, IF we have furnished them with the information they require to do so. And if we do say such, then we need to ask how it is ethical that our culture agrees a teen CAN make a fully capable adult decision to destroy a body, and be tried as an adult for such crimes, but cannot legally enjoy one - even their own.

What about those adults who are attracted solely to young men and women, or to teens as well as adults? We have an idea, as a culture, that having a limited pole of attraction in terms of age must indicate some form of sociopathy, though only when that pole of attraction is below a certain age-in-years. Our idea is that adults who are attracted to legal minors either simply wish to use them for sex, or wish to abuse them in some way, or are incapable of social relationships with adults. And while that may be the case for some - just as it may be the case for any person - that is not the case for all.

While some adults attracted to teens identify as "hebephiles," Paul Okami finds that to be both unnecessary and misleading:

"Hebephilia (also called ephebephilia) is a nonsensical designation. Sexual attraction to adolescents is a species-typical characteristic of adult humans, particularly men. A strong preference for adolescents, while not average, does not warrant a label of disorder unless it is accompanied by strong subjective distress or results in coercive sexual behavior. Unlike pedophilia which is rare, puzzling from an evolutionary perspective and probably does warrant a label, strong attraction to adolescents is more like a sexual preference than a disorder. The only reason they affix a label to it is because of age of consent laws. It's just another example of the confusion of law and psychiatry."

Dissident, 32, who is attracted primarily to teen women, reminds us that, "Minor-attracted adults of every attraction base have existed throughout human history, just like homosexuals and intergendered individuals, and like the latter two, the former were highly regarded in sex-positive and more socially enlightened societies in the past, particularly as mentors and teachers of youths. It was not considered horrible or inappropriate that the great concern for these youths on the part of adults had a sexual element to it in societies that respected youths as intelligent and articulate human beings, who did not see sexuality as a 'negative' thing, for youths or anyone else, and who considered the sexual experiences of youth to be a natural part of their education."

The irony here is that our culture may well have created a potent Catch-22. By disempowering our youth and hampering them from economic and emotional independence, by classifying young adults as children at older and older ages, and by rearing them to view adults as superior beings, we may doom many of these relationships from the start when they might otherwise be beneficial, and create trauma and negativity in them that would not otherwise be there.

Bing, 21, who is attracted to minors and adults, says, "The younger person can enter into this kind of relationship for the wrong reason: for status, for self-worth, or for something that's lacking from another relationship." And in a culture which tells its youth they have no status until they are adults, creates such a level of dependence on parents (and in some cases makes it criminal for parents to empower their youth), and attaches such value to age-in-years, those scenarios may well be of our own design.

When we make something taboo - especially in a culture whose common sexual ethos is often based on desires which arise from feeling as if one has been "naughty" - we do not make something less appealing, but more so. Some minor-attracted adults and teens who participated in these interviews described feeling more inclined to initiate these relationships, and feeling in less control sexually because of the taboo and criminalization of them, than they would were the pressure off.

In some cases, our worry about the age-disparity of such adults in terms of a power imbalance may be a misnomer when we are dealing with adults who are specifically attracted to children or teens. Many adults who are attracted to teens or youths describe themselves as feeling as if their own emotional and sexual development is much less akin to that of their fellow adults than it is to minors. In other words, when we worry about them "rushing" teens into activities or situations, we may be in error because many of them may in fact find the pace a teen sets far more comfortable for them than they would with an adult partner.

"I'm very passive sexually, and by that I mean that is that although pressures may be present I don't initiate anything with anyone, adult or child," Frank, 25, states.

"I feel comfortable around most people, but I do like the company of youths more than adults. They are often better listeners and show a sincere interest in who I am. [I find that] adults are often artificial. I hate having to second-guess people, and I don't trust [easily]. Kids are more real and easier to figure out. Maybe it's because I feel safer with kids and don't have to worry as much about getting hurt by them," says Splash, 30.

Luke, 30, says of his relationship with a young man, "It has at times been easy and difficult for me to be happy with the pace that has been set by my young friend. My pace is and has always been on the side of slow, whereas my current young friend has wanted our relationship to become sexual since early on. We have spent years talking about the reasons why it is and was important to wait for him to understand all he could about it and his choices in regard to taking such a step; what it would or could mean to him, how he might or might not feel about me, himself or others, how he views himself and his sexuality and how that could change, and even what benefits he might enjoy if the relationship had a sexual component. He remained steadfast in his desire to become intimate with me, and never once has he intimated that he regrets or feels used or abused in any way because of his decision. I have been very reluctant to have sex with him until recently, his age has finally made it legally safe for me to do so. I feel he is more well adjusted emotionally and sexually secure than the majority of his same age peers. I believe his attitudes and morals to be very in line with and in tune to the person he is on the inside as well as on the outside, which in my opinion is a very beautiful one. On another note, his grades in school steadily increased since I have known him and helped him and he now has scholarship to a very well respected university. When we first met, he barely understood English and had recently moved to the U.S."

It is also worth noting that young men and women are not without power, despite our culture's attempts to disempower them. In the milieu of adult/minor relationships, they are presently equipped with a great power due to our laws: If the adult behaves in a way the teen doesn't like (including not just genuine issues of non-consent, but also acts which the teen happens to find disagreeable), the teen can then report them to the authorities for statutory rape or molestation. This has happened numerous times when a young adult was consenting to the relationship before something disappointed or upset them. Anyone who states that children and young adults cannot manipulate just as well as fully grown adults has clearly not spent very much time in the company of youth.

Another worry is that an adult who becomes involved with a minor, or who is solely attracted to them, may hurt the minor when and if that attraction fades as the minor grows older, beyond that adult's pole of attraction. Obviously, issues like this, and statements like the above quotes, may make some of us feel uncomfortable if we feel there is a sexual aspect to them, especially if we are concerned that our offspring are not sexually educated or really equipped to make sound choices.

However, the same issues are often just as applicable with any sort of couple. How many people can we think of who are in a pattern of divorcing an elder partner to remarry a younger one? Quite a few. How many of us ourselves have experienced a change in our desire for a partner physically, or a change in the nature of our relationship over time? Most of us. How many of us found ourselves in relationships we had to pull back from because we weren't ready for them? A lot of us. How many of us had peer relationships as teens which developed into lifelong partnerships or which did not alter with time? Not very many. And many of these sorts of issues exist within any romantic or sexual relationship, regardless of our age.

Thomas, 26, who has an attraction to teen women, says, "One might assume my attraction decreases when a girl achieves maturity. In my case, it doesn't. I don't know exactly why I'm attracted to teenage girls more than adult women. I have touched on a few reasons, but some may be found in adult women. I am attracted to a teenage girl's body from her developing breasts and legs to her still childlike face. However, any relationship based on appearances is doomed to failure. We all change, both physically, spiritually and mentally, we can't avoid this. Why should I be allowed to change, but not her? She may no longer be fifteen years old, but she'd still be the woman I love. A person may be attracted to blondes or brunettes, but in the end it's the person within that you love. Why should it be any different for me?"

There are also some adults attracted to legal minors who, for various reasons, feel that it is not best for them to be sexually intimate with a minor in any way. For many presently, that is the case simply because it is illegal and may be detrimental for both parties in our current climate, and they neither want to be in jail themselves, nor put a minor through the sort of trauma a prosecution entails, or the forced secrecy required to have such a relationship at the present time. But some feel - that problem aside - that they do have a greater amount of power than a minor (especially in our society) and thus feel they cannot fairly become involved without dominating the relationship. For others, their religious beliefs do not support premarital sex in any scenario. And some respondants stated in their interviews that a minor can be unable to give informed consent simply because they do not have the information - via comprehensive sexuality education - with which to make a decision, because our culture at large is so negative and uncommunicative about sexuality in general.

"I just don't see how it's possible for an adult to pace a sexual relationship by a minor's wishes and needs in our culture. For it to work, the minor would have to know what he wants and be able to communicate it effectively to the adult without the adult reading something else into it or thinking he knows better than the minor," Splash said.

Tori, a 36-year-old mother who had relationships primarily with adults as a minor said, "I wasn't informed [enough to give consent], no. Let's put it this way - I had the intellectual ability to make informed sexual choices; however, I didn't have the emotional or sexual skills needed to make those choices. I grew up in the Bible Belt, and I was very sexually active and curious, which thus branded me a slut. I wanted to have sex but I did not know how to disentangle my emotional baggage. I had more baggage than a lot of people, and less than some others. In hindsight, I wish I would have held off on the sex. That, or I wish being sexually adventurous would be celebrated - then I wouldn't have felt the need to get married at age 20 and start having children right away.

"In my country, the age of consent is 14, and that's just fine by me as a parent. I wouldn't want the power to force my kids away from someone they thought they loved. I was having sex just to piss off my parents. If I refuse to be pissed off at my kids' sexuality, then that removes a negative motivation for my children, and increases the chances that they will do what makes them happy. I have a fifteen year old daughter, a thirteen year old son, and a seven year old daughter. I have been very upfront with them and with each child it has been easier to teach sexuality is a part of living. I teach them sexual choices just as I teach that there are healthy and less-than-healthy choices with other lifestyle issues. Sex, like food, is necessary and enjoyable, and the more you know about it, what your own likes and dislikes are, the better off you'll be. When they ask me about sex I am the opposite of my own mother and her hushed, angry admonitions."

"If I knew more about sex I'm sure my choices would have been more informed," says Julia, 23. "I found out a lot as I was going along. I wasn't coerced or tricked into anything, though, and I think I made good decisions - for me - with the information I had at the time. It's still pretty confusing."

We would be incorrect and irresponsible if we did not acknowledge that some adult/minor relationships can be negative, and negative for more reasons than simply because of a culturally unacceptable age-disparity. And obviously, abuse exists among peers and adults - in fact, is sadly pervasive, though it occurs the great majority of times in interfamilial settings, and in physically forceful or coercive situations. Some relationships do have serious power imbalances by their nature, and in other situations, sex-negativity in general can have a profoundly negative effect.

"Father/daughter incest, stepfather/stepdaughter sex, and force, violence, and coercion are all associated with greater likelihood of harm," states Paul Okami. "For some people, the more voluntary the experience is, the more problems result because of guilt felt over complicity in a socially despised activity. For some youth, rape or other forms of forced sex - being clearly not their fault - may be accompanied by far less guilt. Guilt can be a terribly punishing emotion. This is why generalizing from group scores can be misleading because different children react idiosyncratically. Another factor is sex (gender). Boys are far less likely than girls to label their experiences abusive and to suffer consequences. They are far more likely to label the experiences voluntary and enjoyable, particularly if they are with women rather than men."

Some respondents attributed a few other negative facets to their relationships, like Julia, who married a man considerably older than she at a young age. "I'm twenty-three, just finding out there's a lot of stuff out there I've never heard of, and I'd really like to try it before I'm fifty. My husband (22 years her elder), however, has tried it all, and doesn't want to go through all that again. And he gets awfully nervous about me trying it."

Needless to say, adults who are attracted to minors in our culture experience a great deal of negativity, even when they are not engaged in any relationship at all. Dissident explains, "It has taken a terrible emotional and spiritual toll on me to have an attraction that is socially stigmatized and criminalized by society; the majority of people around me in THIS society utterly loathe me for my attraction base. Every time I turn on the TV, or read the newspaper, I see how individuals like myself are routinely lied about, misrepresented in the cruelest ways possible. We are told that we are 'sick' and 'evil,' that we are a 'threat' to the age group whom we love. We are subject to unconstitutional entrapment schemes and hunted down like animals in chat rooms by cops and 'child advocate' vigilantes posing as teens, and our privacy is routinely invaded for the slightest sign of 'criminal activity.'

"Our own families are ashamed of us for something that is not only not our fault, but which is not pathological but perfectly natural. That society does not want to understand us but simply to pillory us, and that we are used as political bogeymen to attack the civil rights of everyone, creates a continually difficult and traumatic life for us to bear. Since I am 'out' in real life, I am often subject to snide and cruel remarks behind my back, and my attraction is a large source of ammunition for any person to use against me in any sort of argument as a sure fire means of making their status more 'ethical' then my own (i.e., if I was berating a Neo-Nazi for his racist views, he would likely say to me, 'Well, at least I don't like little girls!'), etc. It's very hard to live like this, and the many emotional problems that we suffer come after the fact, and not as a result of, our attraction base ... and this is why suicide and even substance abuse can be common among our minority group."

What Dissident says is important to bear in mind, not only for the well-being of such adults , but for the youths they may become involved with. If we tell a youth that the person whom they may love is a "pervert" or a sociopath because they love them, we send a crucial negative blow to the self-esteem of that youth by telling them that only an adult who is a pervert could possibly cherish them or find them sexually appealing. Worse still, imagine the youth who may grow to have a limited pole of attraction or an attraction to minors being reared with constant messages that anyone with that attraction base is sick or evil - which thus includes himself or herself in that group.

As with any pervasive and arbitrary moral messages, we would be foolish to think they only effect a limited sphere or populace, especially when it comes to sexuality. Any sort of sex-negativity or oppression of consensual and caring sexuality affects all of us distinctly, and is damaging to all.

Yet in spite of all of these messages, and so much profound negativity towards these relationships, most respondents described relationships that sound just like any relationship: with strengths and weaknesses, joys and hardships, growth and changes.

Antonia, a twenty-two year old from Germany, spoke with insight about her relationship. "Frank was twenty-five when we met, and I was sixteen. I can't really describe what attracted me to him the way it did. Whether it was the fact he looked like Bono did in the late 80s or whether it was partly because Frank was what all that the guys I was going to school with weren't: he was a man. He was an artist, he was well spoken, he rested in himself.

"Later on, I'd realize that he let me be the way I wanted to be. He challenged me. He let me explore things, and I could share my passion for the arts with him. At the same time, he never gave me the feeling that I was below him, which my previous partner had done. I introduced him to new things, too, and we were surprisingly equal in that respect. The first time I saw him again after our first meeting (which had ended with me initiating some kissing and such), he wanted to let things rest the way they were (not get more involved with me), but changed his mind at the end of the evening. He asked me why the hell I was the way I was, how he had never met someone like me before and how he thought I would grow up to become an even more startling woman. I think he really wasn't used to being attracted to a sixteen year old, while I didn't find my attraction to him any different at all. We ended up sitting in front of my friends house until four in the morning, first talking and later doing different things, and our relationship basically started that night.

"It lasted for about a year. It wasn't monogamous, and it was long-distance, and we never told each other what we really wanted from each other. I visited him quite regularly; we would spend time together, when we were away from each other, we'd write letters and talk on the phone often. He traveled quite a lot and would send letters on paintings and envelopes with stories and drawings on them. I left little traces in his life during these months, which always moved me. I pushed the issue of intercourse, because that's what I wanted with him. He was worried about what the people around him would think about him being with me. I'm sure he got weird comments because he was so obviously having sex and a relationship with 'that sixteen year old.'

"What we lacked, though, were communication and negotiation skills. We would talk about everything - but not about our relationship. I always felt that I loved him more than he loved me. I felt small and young compared to the women around him; I felt like I couldn't keep up. I ended up backing out of the relationship because I couldn't handle it anymore; I couldn't handle the sex I had pushed so much, and because I feared I'd get emotionally hurt. It all simply ended - there was no big bang at the end. When I saw him again about a year after we had last met, we talked about us for the first time, really. He was in a steady, monogamous relationship, and I was single and love/hating it and jumping from fling to fling. I don't know why that made it easier for us to talk about us, but it did. He told me he hadn't understood how we had faded away, and said that he always wanted to make things more serious with me but thought I wouldn't want that, because if I had I would have said as much. So in all, it ended in a very sad kind of misunderstanding and a serious case of mis-guessing and not telling the truth about our emotions.

"I surely learned from this relationship that no matter what kind of relationship it is, honesty and directness are a must. I look back at it with fondness. I still understand very well why I fell in love and lust with him. And it was good the way it was, even though it took me a while to understand that. And the 'promise of things that might have been' isn't as threatening and scary as it was with other relationships."

As a culture-at-large, we endlessly complain about the lack of responsibility and accountability in our youth. Yet the reason we do not see it, and the reason our youth may appear to be becoming less and less responsible, may well be because we do not allow them the opportunity. Not only economically, or in terms of their education and familial responsibilities, but in terms of the relationships which they seek out on their own - and which are often pivotal for their growth and development, both sexually and socially.

It is not invalid to feel that our youth are not capable of decision-making and responsible sexual choices, IF we have not equipped them with the support and information to do so - if we have in fact created a climate in which they cannot do so. However, if so, then the deficiency is not on the part of our youth! If our rationale for criminalizing adult/youth relationships, or youth sexuality in general, is that youth are "led only by their hormones," or unable to be responsible due to their age, why then would we encourage them to become engaged with same-age-peers who are likely to be the same way? If our rationale is this, how then can we hold them responsible as adults for crimes they commit, yet claim they cannot make the same choices in regard to their sexuality?

If we were to rear our children in environments which empowered and supported their sexuality and self-esteem, and were supported as parents and mentors in doing so ... if we made sure they received lifelong and comprehensive sex education, and we treated them like young adults, placing the responsibility and accountability for their actions on them ... that old rug, the "moral protection of the feeble innocents," would be pulled right out from under us. A young adult can say yes or no, and when they have the pertinent information, support, and a healthy self-image, they can make informed choices capably.

We hear again and again that we ought to tell children that "no means no." But if we tell them that their "no" has weight and meaning, we cannot tell them that their "yes" has none. And if we give their consent no value or worth, than their non-consent becomes worthless as well, and it should be unsurprising when it then gets ignored.

The hard truth of the matter is that in criminalizing these relationships - or any aspect of responsible, consensual youth sexuality - we are not protecting our youth efficiently. If we were, we would also be making sure we didn't turn their relationships negative with our own judgment, or send them mixed messages about sexuality by refusing them sex education while featuring them half-clad on a billboard. We are, in part, likely looking to protect ourselves and our culture from sexuality, which many find terrifying, powerful and threatening. We may also be looking to create our own power imbalances by keeping our youth from being capable and independent. But while any parent knows that that letting go can be incredibly hard and painful, in order for a youth to become a capable, healthy adult, it is necessary.

We allow our children to cross a busy street when we have given them all the guidance we can to show them how to do so as safely as possible. We know when we let them cross alone - as hard as it is - that there is a chance that even with all we have given them, something may go wrong, and they may be harmed. That is simply something we cannot control, and that is the risk we take because we know how important it is that we give them that independence. And sexuality is truly no different.

We have no evidence that relationships among peers are innately any more positive than those between youths and adults (and plenty of evidence to show how pervasive abuse like date-rape is among peers). In addition, we have no evidence to show that adult/minor relationships are inherently negative in an environment which does not vilify them, or vilify sexuality in general. We also have considerable evidence to show - in biology, psychology and sociology - that puberty is a process of sexual, physical and emotional development, and once it begins, it is natural for one in puberty to explore their sexuality with themselves and others, and for others to approach that individual sexually or romantically. And if we insist that someone who does so is perverse or ill, the loudest message we may be sending is not only that sexuality itself is perverse, but that a developing youth is a lesser being than an adult, and that their development should not be acknowledged or admired, but shameful, unless it is from a distance, retouched and picture-perfect to sell a pair of blue jeans.

The real conflict is that in order to empower our youth to make sound choices for themselves, to have beneficial relationships, and to be sexually responsible, we not only have to trust them, we have to trust the sexuality that is a part of them and their management of it. And perhaps most of all, we have to trust that we reared them as best we could, and furnished them with the information and the tools they need: and in an age when we teach and guide less - when we act as parents less often, as less cultural support is given for the task - and thus need more external control to keep our youth "ours," the harsh truth may be that we do not trust what we have done because we fear what we have done is substandard. And all the controls in the world cannot make up for that lack.

Only we and our youth can, and the light at the end of the tunnel is that we usually manage just fine, even with all the mistakes that we make as parents or teens.

Ironically, in the instances in which adult/minor relationships are negative - in and of themselves - they are, as Paul Okami states, usually negative because of a lack of empathy on the part of the adult, or a lack of respect and recognition of what is developmentally appropriate for any given individual. And those are the nearly identical circumstances we find ourselves in when we, as a culture, as parents or mentors, refuse to acknowledge a youth's sexual and emotional development, their worth and weight of their choices, and their necessary independence and growth.

If we are concerned about protecting our youths from adults, it might serve us well to be sure and look in the mirror before we look beyond our window. It would certainly serve us well to take a good, long look at our youth, see how much they have grown, and acknowledge, applaud and nurture that growth so that we've little to no doubt they can soundly make their own informed choices responsibly and as best suit them - and feel comfortable asking for our help and guidance WHEN they want or need it. It would also serve us -- and them -- best to be sure that the protective measures we do have, either by law or by guideline -- are actually protective, not oppressive, and don't cause damage or dangers in and of themselves, which is what our current laws, attitudes and the cultural climate surrounding them are doing to both adults and youths.

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