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The Problem With 'Consent'

Voices* At the time they may have felt grown up, but youngsters who had sexual encounters with adults look back with mixed emotions.

June 03, 2002|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Christine thought she had it good.

She was 13, just going into ninth grade, and no boy had ever so much as flirted with her. Then this man walked up to her, smiling, as she hung out with her friends on a Friday night.

He was 23.

He talked with her. He teased. Soon they were kissing. And then doing more than that.

Christine felt proud to have hooked such an experienced boyfriend. Her friends thought it was cool. Moving so fast into sex bothered her a little. But then again, she didn't want to stop. It was fun. Or at least she knew it should be fun. "He taught me just about everything," she said. "I didn't want to know everything. Well, I did. But I didn't really. I don't know. I was 13."

At the time, she would have called the sex consensual. Three years later, she calls it statutory rape.

Christine's voice echoes loud in the debate about child sexuality because it helps illuminate the knotty issue of consent.

Advocates of giving children more sexual freedom insist that most can handle it. They argue that if an adolescent girl says she wants sex, she's expressing a very natural desire--and should be free to act on it. If she chooses to get intimate with an adult, why should society care?

That's the argument Christine would have made at 13.

"I was so self-righteous," she said. "I kept saying that age doesn't make any difference."

Yet she recognizes now--after two years of therapy--that even as she was proclaiming herself in love, she was turning to drugs and alcohol to hide a deepening despair. Consent was starting to feel like coercion.

After four months, she found the courage to break off the relationship. But she still hasn't recovered. "Whenever I look back at the things that happened," she said, "I feel dirty and guilty."

Many others who have lived through such relationships could tell similar stories. They speak of their sexual initiation as a time of inner turmoil, when they thought they knew what they wanted--but, then again, weren't so sure.

Such confusion is often magnified by the messages teens get from friends and the media: Sex is grown-up, it's liberating, it's rebellious. Getting swept away by passion is supposed to be a thrill, every adolescent's fantasy.

"Especially for males, any sexual contact you have, it's considered that you 'got lucky,'" said Scott Abraham, who at 15 was seduced by a flirtatious neighbor twice his age.

Sex with the neighbor "felt horrible," he said, "but I knew it was supposed to feel good." Too proud--or too scared--to consider himself a victim, he went back to her house several times for furtive trysts.

Now 49, studying for a master's in psychology, Abraham realizes the affair tore at his self-esteem and twisted his interactions with women for years. He has no hesitation now calling the seduction abuse. As he put it: "These relationships are predatory."

Perhaps. But are they always harmful? James, another "victim," would say no.

He was 9, proudly pedaling his new bike, when he met Matthew, the 18-year-old mechanic who would become his lover. Matthew complimented James on the bike. He invited him over to look at some motorcycles. A friendship bloomed.

The two spent hours playing Atari, Matthew nuzzling James on the ear. They walked in the park. They tinkered with motorcycles.

"The sexual aspect just happened," James said. "It was a mutual feeling."

James is now 22 and engaged to be married. Recalling his three-year relationship with Matthew, he understands that, while he "felt powerful" at the time, he was not the one in control.

He also recognizes that he did not give the kind of "informed consent" that psychologists say is vital.

Still, he gets angry at the notion that he was used or abused. He says he knew what he was doing with Matthew--and he wanted absolutely to do it.

"I wonder why people can't just accept that I am happy with it," he asks, "and that I am not psychologically scarred?"

Many therapists do accept that some kids who might be considered victims of sexual abuse suffer no lasting harm--and may even look back at the experience with fondness and gratitude.

Even so, they cannot endorse the permissive approach to child sexuality that some emerging scholarship is pushing. For one thing, too many kids do get hurt. Then, there's a basic question of morality.

Some of what we call sexual abuse "is not inevitably damaging," said Dr. Fred Berlin, who runs a clinic for sexual disorders at Johns Hopkins University. Children "may even have enjoyed the experience," he said.

"But to me," Berlin added, voice resolute, "it is always wrong."

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