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Sunday Reflections: Why Talking About the Age of Consent Matters

I didn’t have to even stop and think about it that day.  I was sitting on the Reference Desk when a woman came in and said she was concerned because she had seen what she thought was a pretty young girl kissing a grown man outside the library. I walked over and saw them walking away through the window, and I knew who they both were. The girl was no older than 14 and the man was most definitely a grown up. So I turned around, picked up the phone and called the police. I told them that a patron had said they were kissing and that the left together. The police came immediately and took our statements. It was determined that a crime was in progress and the police got the man’s name and tracked them down.  I called for one reason and one reason only, if I read in the paper the next day that that girl was found raped and murdered I knew 100% that I would have been in a position to stop it and I didn’t. So I did.  I didn’t know for sure what was happening, but I knew enough to be scared and called the police and let them deal with it.  They did come back and tell us that they were found together and the man was arrested. I know nothing beyond that.

But here’s the thing: She was 14-years old and he was an adult. Not kind of an adult, but a man in his 20s adult.

I remember being 14. I remember having feelings I didn’t quite know yet what to do with them. I remember thinking my Latin teacher was cute. I remember thinking that various movie and music stars were “hot”. I remember wondering and questioning and trying to figure out in my head what it all meant. But the difference was that there was not a grown up in my life using my confusion and naivete to his advantage. And that’s why the age of consent matters.

I just finished reading POINTE by Brandy Colbert and this book is an excellent example of what is known as grooming.  Grooming is “the process by which an offender draws a victim into a sexual relationship and maintains that relationship in secrecy. The shrouding of the relationship is an essential feature of grooming” (Source: http://www.oprah.com/oprahshow/Child-Sexual-Abuse-6-Stages-of-Grooming).

According to Dr. Michael Welner, there are 6 stages of grooming:

1. Targeting
2. Gaining trust
3. Filling a need
4. Isolating the child
5. Sexualizing the relationship
6. Maintaining control

These are expanded on here: http://www.oprah.com/oprahshow/Child-Sexual-Abuse-6-Stages-of-Grooming. But like sharks, these men (and yes, sometimes women) are predators looking for easy prey.

In Pointe, Theo is an amazing, dedicated ballet dancer. When we meet her, she is 17.  Her best friend Donovan has been missing for 4 years and then he suddenly returns. Except he’s not talking about what happened. But when Theo sees a picture of who he has been with the past 4 years, she’s not sure what to believe.  Soon she will be called to testified, and she is trying to figure out what the truth is and what she should say up there on the stand.

Grooming. It sounds so textbook . . . It’s hard for me to think of him as a perdator . . .” – Pointe, by Brandy Colbert (p. 127)

She is confused, and this is expertly depicted.  And in all of this, someone actually uses the word grooming. In fact, this book, in flashbacks, does a great job of helping readers understand what grooming is and the complex and conflicting emotions that it can cause. The Gospel of Winter by Brendan Kiely also does a great job of this. I highly recommend both of these titles. And I think it is important that we talk to teens about grooming in the same way that we need to talk to them about understanding commercials and how they are designed to sell a product. Information is power, and giving teens the information to see what may be happening is so very important to help stop it.

But what it also does is remind us all why the age of consent matters. It doesn’t matter if it looks on the outside if a child or young teen is consenting, because we have to understand that there are powerful dynamics at work here.  Dynamics that include an imbalance of power. Dynamics that include manipulation and isolation. Dynamics that play on the naivete and inexperience of these young people.

That is why we can’t have articles written that suggest that Chris Brown was quite the stud back when he was 8 and had sex with his babysitter. No, his babysitter raped him. This has been written about multiple times, include here. Part of the reason this narrative plays out is because we view male and female sexuality very differently. Teenage guys who get action are studs while the girls are sluts. But part of this is also because we still don’t acknowledge the extent of male rape, which does happen and it is just as horrific as when it happens to a female.

But part of it is also because we get all confused about the issue of underage consent. Consent isn’t just about age, it is also about the difference in age, which is why many state laws have the age of consent at 16 and there can not be a more than 3 year age difference. Because as that age gap widens, so does ones knowledge, experience and the power imbalance, making younger teens much easier to manipulate or deceive.  I remember being 16 and thinking I was so close to an adult, but 25 year old Karen realized in hindsight that 16 year old Karen really didn’t know squat.

When I was 15, I dated a boy who was “in a band”. Briefly. He was an adult, in college. And I mentioned that he was “in a band”, right? One night we went to go play miniature golf but he drove right past the course and took me to his an apartment.  He gave me this hand stitched pillow, which he said he made for me.  I knew there was no way he had made that pillow for me. None. So I asked him to take me home and I was lucky because he did. But a younger Karen would have been flattered, craving that attention. There are so many ways that day could have gone differently for me. And for many teens, it does.

Recently I was working with a teen volunteer who thought I was the “cool librarian”. So she told me she was grounded because she had been spending time with a 24-year-old man and her parents didn’t want him near her. She was 14. She assured me they were just friends and asked if she was my daughter would I let them be friends. This is what I said: “I can think of no good reason for a 24-year-old man to start up a friendship with a 14-year-old girl out of the blue. If this happened with my daughter, I would take away her phone, monitor her e-mail, and do everything I could to keep her safe. I can’t speak for your parents, but I think that any parent who saw this happening with their child would be rightfully suspicious and cautious.”

I could see it in her eyes, the way she was flattered by the attention of this older, cooler man. Because that too is the imbalance of power.  As Emily so eloquently states: “They were grooming me, but to that chubby, attention-starved teenage girl, their attentions felt a lot like love.” (Read the entire post The Myth of the Teenage Temptress, or Why a Young Girl Can Not Consent to Sex with an Adult Man)

Mama Bear has a good post for parents on protecting your children from pedophiles

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