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.