I have a difficult question for you to consider: Does the age of consent police girls’ bodies? Before you answer it with the most obvious response, “Of course not!” Pause and really think about the dynamics of sex, age, and how girls become women.
It should be an uncomfortable question if you’re a rational, decent person. We create laws and societal expectations that adolescents shouldn’t have sex with adults until a certain age, because we are trying to protect children from psychological, emotional, and physical abuse. It makes sense. Adults have so much potential influence over children, and without these societal expectations and laws, the well-being of children would be at a much higher risk.
Two percent of American teenagers, for example, have had sex by age twelve, while most American teenagers (71%) have had sex by age 19, with the average age being 17. This doesn’t tell us the ages of the people these teenagers are having sex with, however. In a study that took reported data from over 21 states, 95% of victims of statutory rape are females with male offenders, and 60% of the girls were between 14 and 15 years old.
In thinking about the world at large and cultural differences that affect perspective, what constitutes a child, is a culturally specific and context-specific ideology. Certainly, most national and global conventions guarantee that children only become adults at eighteen. In the matter at hand – sex – some nations and cultures make it acceptable in that context for adolescents to engage in sexual acts with any adult from sixteen years of age.
In thinking about childhood though, when does it begin and end? When do we become adults? If we look at it closely, I think we’d find that nations, cultures, subcultures, and individual experiences matter. I think of teenagers or pre-teens that are used as soldiers in parts of the world. I think of 16-year-old first sons or daughters whose parents may have died for whatever reason, and they are now the head of household, working and looking after younger siblings. I think of little girls and boys throughout the world who grow up too fast for one reason or the other. How do we know when someone’s childhood innocence has been taken away?
You are only a child for a brief period of time – I would wager some of us shorter and longer than others. But when you lose your childhood and for whatever reason, there is no return; you become an adult, and with all the privileges and responsibilities it affords. This is reality, even in the midst of our societal laws and conventions. How does this affect our attitudes towards sex, and especially towards young girls having sex?
Thirteen, the semi-autobiographical drama that came out over fifteen years ago now, showcased a world in which teenagers’ lives were filled with awareness and participation of sex, drugs, alcohol, and (petty) crime. CNN came out with a documentary Being Thirteen last year that revealed that current teenagers, especially in the Internet age, are dealing with what many of past generations would refer to as adult questions and problems such as sex, and no longer simply the pressures of trying to fit in and deal with a changing body and mind.
The importance of these texts lead us to question of whether or not we as a society our doing our best to face these new challenges and questions of childhood, adulthood, and consent. Moreover, in the midst of our numerous examples in celebrity culture where adults such as the late David Bowie, to the notorious R. Kelly, are accused of or known as having had sex with younger girls, and consequently faced societal backlash for doing so. Are we asking the right questions about the situations that young people, especially young girls, find themselves in where sex and consent is concerned? Do some of these girls whom we aim to protect, are we instead simply going against their autonomy over their choices of body and mind? Dare I ask, are we policing their bodies?
I know what it’s like to be a young girl. I can admit that I had crushes on people much older than me as preteen and teenager. They of course remained crushes. But that is not true for every woman I know. Some girls went as far as seeking relationships and sometimes of a sexual nature, with adult men. The culture would say that these adult men are responsible for whatever took place between them and the girls. But having known these girls or rather known them as women, some might also say – the girls themselves, that is – they knew exactly what they were doing and they do not regret it. I try to listen without judgment, but oftentimes I had questions that I felt like I had no right to ask.
I would have questions such as maybe these girls were sexually abused when they were young and they didn’t know it, and these were latent consequences in their teenage years. I would have questions about whether they were forthcoming about their age to the adult men. I would have questions such as where were their families in all of this – “were these girls not raised properly?”
In thinking about this difficult topic, I realize that my questions a lot of the time were grounded in my own moralities. Which is fine – we all have principles. But are these the best questions for a societal conversation on consent? Instead, should my question not have been, “Was your decision autonomous?” “Did you feel in any way shape or form, taken advantage of?” “Were you empowered to give consent at that age?”
These would be difficult questions to ask and answer but I believe my original knee-jerk questions are so assuming that these girls were disempowered, and full of childhood innocence. But what if that is not the case? What if consent is less a matter of societal laws and conventions of a specific age, and more a matter of context and individual experiences?
Like many people would probably agree, the idea of allowing freedom of consent at any age, makes me wholly uncomfortable. For the record, when it comes to my personal views on sex, I am, as my friends would say, “old-fashioned.” But I also recognize the importance of observing culture and noting intercultural differences, and asking challenging questions. For example, is a fourteen year-old girl with more freedom and choice over all parts of her life in one part of the world, the same as a fourteen year-old girl who may live in a society that might throw acid in her face were she to go to school? Surely, these are not the same teenagers, and our general conventions should not assume that the same rules should apply to both girls. Both girls might need protection because it is difficult to be a fourteen year-old girl wherever you are in the world. But that protection may need to be relative, not universal.
Ultimately, I think it is of utmost importance to educate young people on sex – something that many societal and families fail to do well or entirely. When we don’t, sex remains both a taboo and an obsession, and there is a potential for undesirable consequences to affect both the individual and society.
I am still uncomfortable with getting rid of the age of consent altogether, especially for the most vulnerable girls in our world and society – poor girls, girls of color, black girls, etc. But while we must always be cautious of the insidiousness of the patriarchy’s side benefit whenever we re-think how to make societal conventions that are set to benefit girls, we must also ensure that in our efforts to protect girls from the world, we are not in fact adding to the burden of policing them too, and because they are girls.