In trying to understand our current panic over sex between women in their teens and men in their 20s, I’ve been reading about the satanic ritual abuse panic of the 1980s. I just finished Debbie Nathan’s Satan’s Silence, where she presciently writes:
But given the near universality of law-and-order perspectives when it comes to child sex abusers, we can imagine a scenario in which venues like Ms. magazine and The Nation were to propose hard time for unmarried men in their twenties who make babies with girlfriends in their teens.
We no longer need to imagine: we are there. Progressives and feminists across the board now seem to agree that men in their 20s who have any sort of sexual encounter with a willing post-pubescent teen under the age of consent, or even toy with the idea of such encounters online–men like my husband–are dangerous predators who deserve, at a minimum, harsh sentences and decades on a public registry and, if we were really fair, exile or maybe even execution. (Think I’m kidding? Check out the comments next time a story about a case like this breaks.)
She goes on to say, later, that in wanting to counter the conservative idea that pregnant teens were sluts, progressives might decide to frame them as sex abuse victims.
She wrote her book in 1995, and certainly this is what we’ve seen come to pass.
Who can teen girls be? The story we seem to be feeding them as a culture right now is that they can be sluts or they can be victims. They can even be both, as events like Slutwalk seem to want to show. But, they can’t be anything else. They can’t be something different. They can’t be whole, responsible agents, young people who can choose not to have sex, or who can choose to have sex and maybe look back on it fondly or maybe look back on it with some regret, but who have the power to choose and to live with and after and beyond those choices.
I regret my first sexual experience. I was 17. The guy was, I think, 19 or 20. I didn’t really care. I just wanted to lose my virginity, finally, to see what all of the fuss was about, and hadn’t heard any good reasons not to other than “It’s wrong” or “You shouldn’t.” I was tired of being a good girl, somebody so responsible, the person who, when I showed up for parties, the parents would tell me they were so glad was there, because I’d always stay sober and drive anybody who needed a ride home. I was tired of always making safe choices and staying out of trouble.
Nobody told me that sex was the most vulnerable you could ever be with another person, that you are naked more than just physically, that being that vulnerable and naked with a person you don’t have a relationship of deep trust and commitment with isn’t as fun and empowering and amazing as you’re told it will be. So I decided to lose my virginity, found a friend of a friend who was single, willing, and disease-free, hung out with him once to make sure that he wasn’t a total jerk, and then did the deed. It was painful and awkward and a little pleasurable and kind of funny, and for days afterwards I felt a deep, deep sadness. I wondered what was wrong with me; I briefly wondered, given the climate of the times, if maybe I’d been sexually abused as a child and repressed it, because why else would I feel badly about what I’d done, why else would I feel like there was something wrong about it? I was supposed to feel liberated, not remorseful.
I couldn’t bear to see the guy again. He, it turned out, had been interested in me and thought that maybe it was our second date; I thought we had, basically, a contractual relationship and that the terms were fulfilled. I left my favorite sweater at his house and never got it back, because I couldn’t tell him that, no, really, I just had wanted sex and wasn’t interested in him otherwise.
Would I do it again? No. Was I wrong? Yes. But I was neither a slut nor a victim. I was a person. I was a young woman in a world that sends all kinds of confusing messages about sex, I made a choice based on the information I had been given, and it turned out to be a bad one.
But you know what? Life went on. The darkness I felt after I’d so casually done something so intimate soon lifted, and I moved forward. For a while I felt like I had, now, to be a slut. I wrote dirty poems and talked raunchy with the guys whose girlfriends would blow them but not have sex with them. But that wasn’t me, either. That costume never fit, and before long I shed that one, too.
I wasn’t a good girl or a bad girl. I wasn’t a virgin or a whore. I wasn’t a victim or a slut.
I was just a person living her life and sometimes making mistakes along the way, as we all are, as we need to allow girls to be.
Post-pubescent teen girls are going to make choices about sex, and are capable of making choices about sex. Certainly, in some situations, people will take their choices away, by force or via threats or with drugs or alcohol. That is never, ever okay. But, making choices, even bad ones, is. And we need to give young women that freedom, rather than declaring that they are sexual non-agents who can only be sluts or victims.