The Trouble with the Age Thing

by | July 26, 2019 | General | 2 comments

In this era of #MeToo, the list of powerful men who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse keeps unrolling like a scroll of the damned held by a demon in a horror movie. A few of them have lost jobs and have faced legal charges. Many haven’t. Jeffrey Epstein managed to dodge serious consequences several years ago, but now it seems as if his time is up.

Then there is the revolving door in which R. Kelly keeps getting arrested, but which hasn’t yet ended his career in the music biz.

Surely it’s a good thing that individual men are being “outed” as sexual predators. It’s a better thing if “rape culture” itself is now under scrutiny, and if sex education in schools now includes discussions about the need for common-sense respect, as well as consent before sex can take place.

Basic respect for other human beings would preclude the kind of casual groping (an arm around a shoulder or a waist, a pat on the bum, ruffling of the hair) that men routinely practiced on “girls” when I was in my teens and twenties (1960s and 70s), even in very public places. “Girls” who tried to free themselves from a man’s hands were usually told they were overreacting, or misinterpreting the man’s intentions. “Girls” who didn’t complain were likely to get bad reputations, which were as easy to acquire as black fingertips from carbon paper inserted into typewriters to make copies.

One well-established way to deflect criticism of sexual abuse is to claim that some very specific group of men is responsible, and they are always different from oneself.

To give examples, men in the U.S. who are caught causing sexual harm to girls or women are often labelled as either Democrats or Republications, right-wing dinosaurs or left-wing radicals. (“You can’t trust those people.”) Men of African descent, like Clarence Thomas in the 1990s, are either defined in racist terms as horny gorillas, or they are defended on grounds that everyone they victimized must be racist and paranoid, including women of their own race. Jewish male predators can be attacked and defended in similar terms. Any Muslim man caught abusing women these days would definitely be defined by his religion.

In the late nineteenth century, especially on the west coast of both the U.S. and Canada, immigrant Chinese men were suspected of having sinister plans for white women, which involved the illegal trading of opium and female flesh. White, English-speaking, native-born men could consider themselves innocent by contrast.

By this time, it should be clear that rape culture exists wherever male dominance is upheld, and this includes most cultures on earth. Male dominion over the earth and everything in it, including  female humans, is explicitly defended by “holy books” as interpreted by the leadership of three related major religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Anti-racists can usually see the logic of a non-partisan approach to sexual abuse. However, many of the morally righteous make a big distinction between adult victims and “children,” which includes anyone under the legal age of consent in a particular jurisdiction.

I would like to propose a radical revision to certain current clichés. In real life, it’s not necessary to decide whether someone is “still a child” or a mature, independent adult who thinks rationally all the time. (By this standard, adults might not exist at all.)

Growing up is a process, as every parent on earth has observed. A two-year-old is much more capable than a newborn baby.  Children who have reached “school age” are presumed to have the intelligence to learn basic literacy in their own language, as well as basic math skills, basic table manners, and basic politeness. Girls usually go through puberty at age thirteen, more or less, when their bodies change shape and they begin having menstrual periods. Boys go through growth spurts that last longer (e.g. my two stepsons eventually outgrew the suits and shoes they wore to their high-school graduations), but teenage boys are visibly and audibly different from children.

The ages when young people are legally allowed to drive cars, drink, get married, and sign other contracts are always arbitrary and up for debate. Is a sixteen-year-old really old enough to have consensual sex? Were you? If not, is eighteen a better age for that? How about twenty-one? Would a forty-year-old virgin be mature enough to handle an intimate relationship if he or she had never dated before? If not, should sex outside of marriage be outlawed altogether, as it still is in some countries? (Then the awkwardness and potential for trauma exists within a binding relationship, for what that’s worth.)

Donna George Storey has posted some fascinating historical material on this site, including the development of the legal concept of “age of consent.” Before the mid-nineteenth century, this concept didn’t really exist. Working-class girls, in particular, were vulnerable to sexual abuse by a wide range of men, from family members to  bosses.  Making it illegal for young people, especially girls, to have sex before they had reached a presumed age of maturity must have seemed like a form of protection when these laws were first passed.

As many of the #metoo stories have made clear, girls under the “age of consent” are still vulnerable, and so are boys. Adult men who are charged with sexually abusing the young usually have appallingly long track records when they are finally held responsible. If age of consent laws are meant to protect the young from exploitation, these laws aren’t working.

Confusing predators who go after vulnerable populations with actual pedophiles is a mistake, IMO. A pedophile, strictly speaking, is someone who is sexually aroused by children, and I assume this means little people with fairly androgynous bodies who have not yet reached puberty. Judging from a recent documentary about the late Michael Jackson, I suspect that he was a real pedophile who preferred the intimate company of children to that of adults. Certain priests seem to have the same taste, or sexual orientation.

If all the men on earth were secretly given a truth serum, and then asked to describe their ideal sex partner, how many do you think would confess to fantasizing about four-year-olds, or even eight-year-olds?  My guess is that these men would turn out to be a small fraction of the general male population. “Children” with young, firm breasts and hips are a different case, and so are “children” with deepening voices, biceps, and facial hair.

I’m not recommending that parents of high-school girls should just relax when their daughters are pursued by men in their thirties, forties, and beyond.  These men are clearly not looking for relationships with their peers, and if they are in positions of authority over teenagers, the adults are in a conflict of interest if they try to broaden the relationship to include sex. However, the potential for harm is not ONLY based on the age of the victims.

I’ll admit that the abuse of the young is especially disturbing because it is likely to be an initiating experience, an introduction to sex or to “love.” This doesn’t mean that adults can’t be harassed, abused, or exploited, or that sexual abuse has no effect on non-virgins. In fact, some forms of harm have a cumulative effect.

Predators tend to look for potential victims who are unable to protect themselves, and who are unlikely to be believed if they tell anyone what happened. In male-dominated cultures, women of all ages are more-or-less vulnerable. In racist cultures, women of colour are generally more vulnerable than white women. In class-based cultures, the poor are vulnerable because they aren’t guaranteed to get the physical necessities of life unless they consent to do things that are not in their interests. The sex trade and casual minimum-wage work exist on a spectrum of economic exploitation, and they’re not mutually-exclusive.

I cringe when I hear the words “real” or “really” in any discussion of sexual abuse. In my youth, every guy I met claimed to be completely opposed to “real rape” – as distinct from what? The acceptable use of force against girls who don’t want to be fondled or fucked? A gentle insistence that “girls” of any age really have no right to decide what happens to their own bodies?

Claims that a victim of sexual abuse deserved better because she is “really just a child” give me the same reaction. Every human being deserves better, and until the impunity that goes with power-over is revoked, the system will keep creating victims.

Jean Roberta

Jean Roberta once promised her parents not to use their unusual family name for her queer and erotic writing, and thus was born her thin-disguise pen name. She teaches English and Creative Writing in a university on the Canadian prairies, where the vastness of land and sky encourage daydreaming. Jean immigrated to Canada from the United States as a teenager with her family. In her last year of high school, she won a major award in a national student writing contest. In 1988, a one-woman publisher in Montreal published a book of Jean’s lesbian stories, Secrets of the Invisible World. When the publisher went out of business, the book went out of print. In the same year, Jean attended the Third International Feminist Book Fair in Montreal, where she read a call-for-submissions for erotic lesbian stories. She wrote three, sent them off, and got a letter saying that all three were accepted. Then the publisher went out of business. In 1998, Jean and her partner acquired their first computer. Jean looked for writers’ groups and found the Erotic Readers & Writers Association, which was then two years old! She began writing erotica in every flavor she could think of (f/f, m/f, m/m, f/f/m, etc) and in various genres (realistic contemporary, fantasy, historical). Her stories have appeared in anthology series such as Best Lesbian Erotica (2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, Volume 1 in new series, 2016), Best Lesbian Romance (2014), and Best Women's Erotica (2000, 2003, 2005, 2006) from Cleis Press, as well as many others. Her single-author books include Obsession (Renaissance, Sizzler Editions), an erotic story collection, The Princess and the Outlaw: Tales of the Torrid Past (Lethe Press), and The Flight of the Black Swan: A Bawdy Novella (Lethe, also in audio). Fantasy stories by Jean include “Lunacy” in Journey to the Center of Desire (erotic stories based on the work of Jules Verne) from Circlet Press 2017, “Green Spectacles and Rosy Cheeks” (steampunk erotica) in Valves & Vixens 3 (House of Erotica, UK, 2016), and “Under the Sign of the Dragon” (story about the conception of King Arthur) in Nights of the Round Table: Arthurian Erotica (Circlet 2015). This story is now available from eXcessica ( Her horror story, “Roots,” first published in Monsters from Torquere Press, is now in the Treasure Gallery of the Erotic Readers and Writers Association. With Lethe Press publisher Steve Berman, she coedited Heiresses of Russ 2015 (Lethe), an annual anthology of the year’s best lesbian speculative fiction. Her realistic erotic novel, Prairie Gothic: A Tale of the Old Millennium, was published by Lethe in September 2021. Jean has written many reviews and blog posts. Her former columns include “Sex Is All Metaphors” (based on a line in a poem by Dylan Thomas) for the Erotic Readers and Writers Association, July 2008-November 2010. The 25 column pieces can still be found in the on-site archives and in an e-book from Coming Together, Jean married her long-term partner, Mirtha Rivera, on October 30, 2010. Links:


  1. Rupert ramsgate

    part of the challenge is that the physical age of puberty keeps dropping due to rapid evolution of human adolescence. I read statistics that in the UK, the age of puberty went down by nearly 4 years in 150 years for women and 3 years for men.
    This has profound visual consequences that I have seen myself. When you open the door to a 12 year old girl and she looks, physically, like a 16 or 17 year old, that can confuse men who have a powerful sex drive (it also operates the same way in reverse for women, see the number of court cases where female teachers have seduced male school students).
    Nevertheless, we have laws on ages of consent for very good reasons.
    The two major challenges for a human relationship are (a) equitability and (b) agency. Both parties need to be able to enter into the relationship freely, consensually and with adequate knowledge, and the relationship needs to be equitable.
    The phenomenon of adults wanting to seduce (if that is the right word) 12 or 13 year olds is that informed consent is not possible from a 12 year old. So allowing this kind of unbalanced interaction, IMHO, is not desirable. The whole policing of it is inconsistent because religious sects who preach predation of under-age girls as part of their value system will close ranks to expel law enforcement, and the rich and well-connected, to use an old cliche, get the best justice that money can buy. Both of those corruptions need to be addressed if we are serious about protecting people who are not intellectually and emotionally capable of informed consent.

  2. Jean Roberta

    I agree that vulnerable populations need to be protected from sexual abuse. However, I can understand why teenagers whose parents keep reminding them that they are “really just children” find adults who seem to understand them better, and this is very easy to do on-line. I wrote a companion piece to this blog post, called “The Set-Up,” and posted it on Facebook. It is about my own father’s efforts to prevent me from “growing up too fast” in the 1960s (and my mother’s efforts to calm him down while telling me he was right) and why this approach to post-pubertal “children” is almost guaranteed to produce a rebellious reaction which sexual predators can encourage. Screaming matches between parents and teenage offspring on talk shows dramatize this problem.

    To sum up, I don’t think teenagers can be protected from sexual abuse in the same ways that younger children can be protected from kidnapping. Getting the co-operation of a teenager in his/her own protection, IMO, involves acknowledging that they are growing up (which they already know — duh, they don’t look the way they did a few years before) , reminding them that their parents love them, and encouraging them to apply their natural skepticism (which most teenagers seem to have) toward on-line acquaintances who become too intimate too quickly.

    I totally agree about the inconsistent policing of sexual abuse and the “traditionalists” who preach the sexual readiness of girls at incredibly young ages. IMO, this is why parents need to be as honest with their teenagers as the teenagers can understand, and work on getting their co-operation in resisting sexual abuse.

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