The Pathologicizing of Adolescent Sex
When I travel I listen to audio books on Audible. Last week I had finished the Wheel of Time series and was looking for something new. I saw a podcast that I could listen to for free since I was an Audible member; it looked interesting so I put it on. It is called The Butterfly Effect and it was an exploration of how the current world of unlimited porn became freely available on the web and how that has had such huge and sometimes unexpected consequences. It isn’t an anti-sex podcast, but rather the author was looking into the reach of free porn.
One of the things the author found was that virtually all teens and many pre-teens watch a LOT of sex on the computer. He seems to have come to the same conclusion that I have, it is not watching people have sex that causes problems; but the adults response (or lack of it). Porn Hub (and the many sites it owns) has become the defacto sex-education system for American kids. So while they do learn the mechanics of sex, it is very often (usually) in contexts that teach kids false messages about sexuality and human interaction. When the kids think they are just doing what adults do, they get into serious trouble.
For instance, sending selfie nudes to peers continues to get adolescents put on the sex offender registry for child pornography. Beyond making the sex-offender list useless for actually identifying rapists, kids are being taught that their sexuality is so dangerous that a photo of themselves in the nude warrants an effective life sentence of exclusion from society. How are they to learn to appropriately judge risks when the adults do not do so? The adults blame adolescent sexuality when the real fault is their own sexual issues.
Even more common is that adolescents have a false expectation of what constitutes “good sex” and how to do the “mating dance.” In porn it is mostly “Hi. Do you want to fuck?” or something like that. Very few depictions of actual real (unsimulated) sex that teens see is preceded by the building of relationships. It need not be “love” but it would be good to show kids that sex is what friends do, rather than just expecting the person who turns you on wants to get it on. When a fifteen year old boy or girl assumes that their arousal means the other person wants to have sex it can and does lead to harm.
So yes, most commercial porn does teach false lessons, but so does virtually all television and movies. The difference is kids are taught the social skills to tell reality from the fantasies they see on TV/movies; but they are not taught the skills to tell realistic depictions of people having sex from false ones. Then the teenagers are blamed and punished for not having that knowledge. The real problem is the pathologicizing of adolescent sexuality. All teen sexuality is treated as bad and destructive. There is no…ZERO… scientific evidence that kids and teens are harmed by seeing images of positive adult sex. Yet, the adults act as if seeing (or even reading about) a couple having great sex on their computer will warp them for life.
At one point in The Butterfly Effect the author interviews a female student at a conservative Christian College. Though she was ostensibly making the point that the “sin” of watching porn (and masturbating) was no more shameful than any other sin; she made it clear that the reason it was not right to watch porn was Baptists believed it was sinful, not that it was harmful. She described how she had grown up as a latchkey kid, coming home to an empty house after school. She said she discovered on-line porn when she was ten and from then on most days she would watch some porn after school. Again she did not say it directly, but it was clear she meant that she watched porn and masturbated daily from before she was a teenager till she went to her Baptist college. It was only at the college it seems that she really came to believe porn was bad. Not only did she not say that it harmed her to watch porn (and get off) from age ten to eighteen, but she seemed to say that in doing so she found comfort and a way to cope with being alone in the house so much. Not once did she say or even imply she regretted what she had done.
Her story makes sense. Orgasms release soothing hormones and it would make sense that she found that was how to cope with coming home to an empty house every day. Far from being harmful, she made a strong case for the therapeutic benefit of not just teen sexuality, but pre-teen. Of course if she told this to most counselors or social workers they would have a hissy fit and treat her as if she were a victim until she believed she was.
Sadly most adults believe that an early discovery of sexuality is pathological. This conclusion is made not from systematic study, but by only looking at those young people who have been harmed by sexual predators and extrapolating that to all sexuality for everyone under the magic age of 18.
Last year I listened to an extended interview with the author and director of a new film that deals with this very issue and thought it was time to put in my two cents worth.
The film is called "The Tale." It was to be on HBO and it is already expected to win several Emmy nominations. From the woman who wrote it, here is the story. When the author/director was 14, she began an affair with an adult man and woman. The man was the coach at her track club and the woman was her horseback riding instructor. Evidently they were lovers before she got involved. For school in 8th grade she actually wrote a story called "The Tale" telling about the affair in glowing terms, but it was set as a fantasy. That was in the 70's and the teacher never imagined it was all true, but she kept the girl's story for some reason. After about a year, when she was 15, she broke off the relationship. For the next twenty-five years the woman only had fond memories of her first love affair, and from what she said, she suffered no negative effects
Then at a class reunion, that same teacher, now long retired presented her with the story and asked if it were true. The woman said it was, but she didn't have any problem with the adults with whom she'd had her affair. The old teacher then worked to convince her she should and in time caused the author to reframe the story in her mind from the happy memory to one of abuse and trauma. She acknowledged that memory is tricky and that in recasting the story she changed it from what she wrote at the time and how she had long remembered it.
My question, the question I've been asking for over a decade, is "Why is it helpful to convince people to turn a happy sexual memory into something evil and traumatic?"
This is related to a larger question that challenges the current mantra that all early sexual experiences are abuse and naturally traumatize the "victim." I worked for decades in what some call the "child abuse industry." As a counselor and social worker I dealt with many, many cases involving sex and minors. There is no doubt in my mind that virtually all of my colleagues were good people trying to help; but it is also equally clear that in many cases the clients were left worse off than they had been when they first spoke to a professional about what had happened.
Why is that?
When I taught graduate students at Clemson, the course I taught most was one on Program Evaluation. One of the key components was to analyze a company or program to see if the incentives they had created for their employees actually advanced the corporate mission. All too often organizations inadvertently set up short term incentives that ultimately undermine the organizational mission. This is as true in banking as it is in education as it is in counseling/social work.
I first saw this clearly when I was working in a facility for adolescent sex offenders. There I saw that the counselors were incentivized to get the teens to disclose more names of people they had sexually assaulted, and to provide more lurid descriptions of what happened. This led to the teens to be incentivized to tell more, even if they had to make it up from whole cloth. They also were incentivized to name people who had abused them, again there was no real reason for them not to make stuff up. Doing so made their counselor happy and got them praise and attention. In most cases, there wasn't the slightest effort to vet what the clients said, IF, the discloser made the counselor look like they were doing a good job. Yes, I've heard well meaning activist say that kids don't make up sexual stories. I'm sorry, but that simply is not true. Kids lie all the time if they get something they want out of it.
All this was at a non-profit program where there is not overarching profit motive. But when we look at for-profit centers the employees are overtly pressured to get more stories to provide more billing. My mother was a psychiatric nurse at a large and well known private residential hospital in the 1980's. There the staff were under intense pressure to make sure the patients were continually getting better, but never enough to discharge (until insurance ran out).
All this to say that there is a perverse incentive for professionals to pathologicize clients past. This is even more true when working with young impressionable children and adolescents.
Does this mean that many children and young teens are not traumatized by sexual experiences? Absolutely not! DO NOT take this essay to mean that it is OK for adults to prey on kids. What I am saying is that young people should be given the autonomy to decide for themselves what makes them feel good. It is abusive to work to convince a child that something makes them feel comforted and happy is actually evil and should make them feel bad and even broken. Creating psychological trauma where there was none before is just plain wrong.
Yes, all too many young lives are torn apart when sexuality is weaponized. It is a hard truth that sexuality is used against females and males, young and old to gratify the predator's sexual needs, or to sate the predator's need to show power over someone weaker. These people who have been traumatized by abuse are the very people that sexual abuse counselors and social workers spend their days with. People who have been damaged by someone's selfish sexual actions deserve support and help. That is why people like me work in the field.
But, I can tell you with certainty that doing that work day in and day out comes with a price. The professionals involved, in time, find it very hard not to see even the most benign things as evil. Consequently, there is a tendency to see trauma when it is not there, or to even manufacture it in the "victim's" life.
As I said above, in the mid 90's I worked three years in an excellent facility for male adolescent sex offenders. Kids between the age of 13 and 17 came to the facility from foster care or juvenile jail after they molested or raped other kids in that facility. We had particularly good success with the younger kids in helping them embrace age appropriate sexual desires, rather than focusing on those younger or more vulnerable.
At the time my kids were pre-school. One day I was at the mall with my daughter who was four. An older man saw us standing and commented how cute she was. Sadly my instant reaction was to pull her out of the sight of the purvy man. I had no reason to suspect him of being a perv, but that was how I'd come to see people who talk to children. I expected to see a predator, so that is what I saw.
In the last few years I have seen story after story about kids being accused of "molesting" their sister, brother or cousin when the evidence did not support anything other than normal childhood/adolescent curiosity about sexual body parts and function. Given the fact that porn is so ubiquitous now, kids routinely see images of people having oral and vaginal sex at a very young age. To suggest that a child who "tries it out" with a younger family member is an evil monster is not just harmful to the older child, but to the younger one as well. If we look back to the famous McMartin Preschool case we saw a well meaning group of therapists convince a group of children that they had been abused in a Satanic cult, and even watched their peers killed. While it was long ago proven none of this happened, the children were utterly convinced it had. Now as adults, many still believe it happened, or at least might have happened. Nearly all the kids involved in that case suffered lifelong damage.
Here is the problem. There simply are no studies that look into what percentage of adolescents who have sexual contact with people older than them are actually damaged. It is just asserted that it must be 100%. One would think this is an important question given how we label an 18 year old boy who has consensual sex with his 15 year old girlfriend as a child molester that should be imprisoned for years then put on a sex-offender registry for the rest of his life.
When you read of young lovers in literature before the Victorian era, it usually referred to girls from 14-16 years old. Sometimes the girl's lover was just a year or two older, but in many cases the girl's lover would have been a guy in his 20's. Was Romeo a predator that should have been jailed? Until the Victorian era, it was just assumed that once the secondary sex characteristics were fully developed, that acting on those sexual desires was normal. What is more, in Europe today the age of consent is 16 and lower. In France it is 15 and in Italy and Germany it is 14. Are young people really different here in the US than in Europe? I think not. But here authorities want to tell us that these behaviors are not only a crime but a sick perversion.
Let me provide two cases in which I have close connection. One is my wife. When she was about ten (in the late 60's) her sister was in high school. They lived in a rural community, so her sister's peers were mostly her cousins. Mandy (pseudonym) was socially awkward, in contrast to her cousins who were not only outgoing, but the girls were downright beautiful. One was even second runner-up Miss South Carolina in 1967.
Now this was the heyday of the free love era and Mandy's, cousins were very openly sexually active and vocal about it. Mandy though wasn't, but she wanted to find out what sex was like. She had slept in the same bed with her sister since they were little. That was common in the poor rural South. When she was sixteen, she found her solution in her little sister. Paula's memory of the process by which this all came about is hazy. But she clearly remembers she began giving her big sister oral sex several nights a week all the way up till Mandy went off to college. She says she really liked spending the time with her sister and it made her feel good to be able to do that for her big sis. The only thing she did not like was sometimes it didn't taste good, but she found a remedy by putting sugar on her sister's labial lips.
The only apparent effect of this was that Paula wanted to find out what it felt like and her sister wouldn't do it to her. So she learned to masturbate at ten years old by wrapping her legs around the bed posts and rubbing up and down till she climaxed. She did that for several years until she was caught and made to stop. Oh, and not surprisingly, her next sexual experience was with a neighbor girl and to this day she loves sex and enjoys going down on women.
Now imagine if this was going on today and she told a friend who told a teacher. Not only would her sister's life been destroyed by being locked up and branded a child molester. If she was already seventeen, she would be treated as an adult sex offender and her face would have been all over the local news called a "sick pervert" and other such names in the demand to make an example out of her. Paula not only would have had her family destroyed, but she would have been sent to a therapist to convince her how wrong her sister was and that she is the victim of abuse. There is simply no question this is what would happen today. Can anyone say that that is better than what actually happened?
My second example was a client of mine. We will call her Mary. She became my client as the school social worker because though she was very bright, she was significantly underachieving. When I started working with her she was 18, but still listed as a sophomore despite the fact her PSAT score suggested she was one of the brightest kids in the school. What I found as I studied her records was that she had been difficult for a teacher to handle when she was in 4th grade, so the school district shipped her off to first a self-contained special ed classroom, then to the "alternative school" for problem children. It was clear the school system had utterly failed this child. She had few friends and was convinced she was a loser.
Mary came from a very low income home. Her mother had physical problems, so she grew up very close to her father. I never thought it necessary to press her on all the details, but from what I pieced together, she had walked in on her father masturbating when she was about twelve. She asked him what he was doing and why. He said it relieved his stress. It was a little vague at this point, but she made it very clear that she asked if she could try doing it for him. Now, he should have said "No. I appreciate you asking, but if you want to try it when you are a little older with boys your own age that would be fine." That likely would have been the end of it. But he let her, and soon it became almost a nightly ritual that she would "relieve his stress." She was very clear that her father never touched her sexually and they absolutely did not have sex. Her father was even polygraphed on this, and passed. She made it very clear to me that she very much enjoyed something that her father enjoyed. She never felt pressured or put upon. She chose to do it and to this day she believes the state had no reason to get involved.
She eventually did tell someone who told the school. From there the police and child protective services were brought in. The family became under intense scrutiny and the father was arrested and even on bail he was not allowed to see the kids for over two years. In the end, before trial Mary lied by recanting her story so her dad could come home rather than prison. She became my client shortly after this. Despite years of being told she should feel victimized, she did not. The obvious approach should have been to talk to the family and explain that it is not appropriate for her to do that with her father and provide support for the family. That is not what happened, and in my years of social work, I can tell you that is rarely what happens.
There is no question that the state in trying to help, further reduced Mary's chances of success. I was able to help her envision a brighter future and stay in school, but the next year I was not at that high school. She had an ongoing feud with a vice principal and dropped out half way through the next year. This young woman, now in her late 20's was failed by "the system" on so many levels. We are still in contact and I asked what she had to add about this. Her word was she was pressured to "crack" and say whatever the authorities wanted to hear even if that meant sending her dad to prison and leaving the family destitute. She said what had been needed was for them to help their family "make amends" rather than effectively working to destroy them all.
In the program I ran I was a mandated reporter and routinely had to make the call about what is and isn't child abuse. There is great latitude to professionals as to what constitutes something that needed to be reported. Sadly the system is such that most reporting is not done by experts, but by laymen (like teachers) who don't know the difference between unusual parenting styles and abuse. I recall we had a case where our client was a low functioning, low income woman. One day her two pre-school age girls were laughing about how funny Mommy looks when she is "humping guys." Had they told that to their Head Start teacher, it would have been reported as abuse. But in our case, the staff focused our attention not on the fact that the girls thought Mom acted funny when she had sex, but on the fact that the men were, in-fact, John's rather than boyfriends. Our concern was that she was bringing men who wanted to pay for sex from a low functioning woman into a home with two little girls. Additionally had the housing authorities found out she would have been evicted from her government housing. So, yes we were concerned and intervened, but we knew what was important and what was not.
I'm writing all this not to minimize the harm of abusing children, but to point out that our governmental systems often have a difficult time discerning what is actually harmful as opposed to what simply is out of fashion in our current society. In the past couple of decades there has been a concerted effort to call virtually all sexual behavior by people under eighteen as bad.
So, back to the HBO movie. The story's author was convinced her relationship was abuse decades after the fact. She openly said that she never felt harmed until she had been told that such things were inherently harmful. Had they been in Germany, the whole issue would have seemed silly. I'm not suggesting that her coach was right, but I'm saying we should not create harm when none exists in the first place.