[content warning: discussion of sex with children and teenagers; tentative approval of the latter under some circumstances; brief discussion of rape]
To be clear here: I am talking about whether it is harmful to have sex with and date people below the age of eighteen. I am not talking about the legalities of sex with people below the age of eighteen. The legalities of sex with people below the age of eighteen are hella complicated and I am not qualified to have an opinion on them. Nevertheless, things can be harmful even if it is not a good idea to make them illegal.
Sex with teenagers is, I think, distinct from sex with children, and the two should be considered separately. Prepubescent children sometimes do have sexualities: it is not uncommon for a child to have sexual fantasies (or fantasies that in retrospect were sexual) or to want to kiss another child or see them naked. But children are pretty much always autosexual or interested in other children; it is vanishingly rare for a child to genuinely want to do anything remotely sexual with an adult. Therefore, instances of sexual contact between children and adults can be safely assumed to be sexual assault or rape.
This argument, however, does not apply to postpubescent people. Teenagers often do want to have sex with adults, and are quite determined about getting it; there are many cases– from Vili Fualaau to Lori Mattix— of quite young teenagers who had sex with adults and as adults insist that it was a wonderful experience they were glad to have had. Needless to say, this response is extremely uncommon among people who were raped as eight-year-olds.
But it can still make sense to condemn adults having sex with teenagers. After all, if someone drives drunk and they don’t get in an accident and they save a bunch of money on cab fare, we don’t say “what a useful budget hack!” We say “what the fuck, someone could have died!” In spite of the good outcomes of some cases of sex with teenagers, it can be justified to respond with “what the fuck, you could have seriously hurt them!”
But could it have seriously hurt them?
Much of the evidence about teenagers dating older partners is correlational, due to difficulties in assigning people randomly to date older men or not. It seems to increase risk of unprotected sex and teenage pregnancy, of unwanted sex, of STIs, of unprotected sex again, of STIs again, of teenage pregnancy and STIs again, of unprotected sex and teenage pregnancy yet again, and of unprotected sex and teenage pregnancy still again, and carrying the pregnancy to term instead of having an abortion. Interestingly, that last study also shows that women with significantly older partners are less likely to have unplanned pregnancies; I have no idea what that one’s about. This study claims to establish causality, and finds that adolescents who engage in problem behavior are more likely to get older boyfriends, but that an older boyfriend also increases their chance of engaging in problem behavior.
So I think there are three phenomena going on here. First, our culture stigmatizes the hell out of sex with teenagers; most people tend to view an adult having sex with a teenager as morally wrong. Thus the population “people who are willing to have sex with teenagers” is disproportionately full of people who are willing to do morally wrong things, which includes spreading STIs, getting teenagers pregnant or having their children, and raping them.
Teenagers are generally lacking in life experience, as they are essentially beginning adults. This isn’t necessarily a reason not to date teenagers: one can imagine a society in which teenagers are supposed to date adults, because adults have their shit sorted out and can guide the teenager away from making serious mistakes. But it interacts poorly with a lot of adults who date teenagers being bad people, because teenagers are less skilled at identifying and avoiding bad people, because they don’t have any practice in it. This vulnerability is another reason why unethical people may be disproportionately attracted to dating teenagers.
Second, teenagers are legally unequal to adults to a degree that no adult is to another adult. They are not legally permitted to drink, smoke, consent to medical treatment themselves, work full-time, vote, or (in many cases) drive; they are not allowed to own property in their own name, even if they worked to earn it; if they decide to move out, the police will literally collect them to return them home; various other restrictions may apply to them, such as curfews. I think that this imbalance of power can poison the relationship. In part, this is because of material benefits that teenagers get from the relationship (being driven places, alcohol, getting to use the adult’s really cool video game collection); in part, it is because the imbalance of power winds up making Being An Adult seem really cool and glamorous, and thus perhaps blinding the teenager to flaws they would notice in someone their own age.
Now, you might argue “hey! Ozy! I’m a youth rights supporter! I personally believe that teenagers should be allowed to own property, that emancipation should be significantly easier, that teenagers should be able to consent to medical treatment themselves, and that a teenager should be able to drink and smoke to their heart’s content!” I may or may not agree with you (I think teenagers owning property is a good idea, but am not convinced about making it legal for teenagers to smoke), but regardless the issue is not what you think should exist, but what exists right now.
Third, teenagers are vulnerable. I tend to dislike arguments of the form “teenagers are vulnerable! Their brains aren’t developed yet! An adult who dates teenagers is taking advantage!” I, a crazy person, have a brain that works much less well than the average neurotypical teenager; if they can’t consent to sex with adults, then I can’t consent to sex with non-borderlines. I do not want to be consigned to dating only borderlines for the rest of my life. While I respect people who choose to date borderlines, for me personally one borderline per relationship is enough. But nevertheless it is true that teenagers are in a vulnerable position– both for brain-development reasons and for being-a-training-wheels-adult reasons– and that should be taken into account.
So what’s my conclusion?
First, the younger the teenager, the more likely it seems to me that they are unready to seriously date or engage in sexual intercourse with anyone. Adult relationships are very different from the relationships of thirteen-year-olds; relationships among thirteen-year-olds typically have extraordinarily fast turnover, low levels of commitment, and a strong tendency to involve your parents driving you to movies or making awkward eye contact with each other at malls. Most thirteen-year-olds are simply uninterested in the long-term commitment and non-mall-related dates associated with adult relationships. Similarly, many teenagers are simply not ready for sex. For very young teenagers, a milder form of the sex-with-eight-year-olds-is-almost-certainly-rape objection applies: if they were making an informed and uncoerced judgment, they would probably not want a relationship with adults; given that they do, we can assume that their judgment is uninformed or coerced.
Second, I completely endorse older teenagers choosing not to have sex with or date adults. I think in the current environment the wise choice for teenagers is not to date adults, because adults who want to date teenagers are disproportionately bad people to date. Nevertheless, people are likely to ignore my wise advice. In that case, I believe Dan Savage’s ‘campsite rule‘ applies: when you date a teenager, you have to leave them better than you found them. That means being aware of the vulnerable position of teenagers– both legally and developmentally– and taking steps to reduce the chance that it will cause them harm. That means being very cautious about their boundaries, ensuring that they feel comfortable saying ‘no’, and making it clear that your attention and affection are not conditional on sex or dating. That means modeling good relationship skills– conflict resolution, caring about the other person’s happiness, self-awareness– so that the teenager has a good toolkit they can use in their future relationships.
I do not think that all relationships between adults and teenagers are unethical, but I do think that they are all risky, and that the adult has a responsibility to make sure that there’s a good outcome rather than a bad one.