Hell No, Elmo!
Earlier this week, I said that I just don’t care about General David Petraeus’s affair. I’ve since heard political writers explaining that the affair itself may be immaterial; what matters was that Petraeus was compromising intelligence, granting line-crossing levels of access to someone unknown to the CIA. That may be so. But no matter how giddily silly the whole thing has become—what with the threatened good friend and the shirtless anti-Obama FBI agent (why are men “shirtless” and not “topless”?)—I don’t care about the affair itself: consensual adults, and all that.
But the Elmo puppeteer story does bother me. In case you missed it, Kevin Clash is a six-foot-tall African-American man, now 52, who does the voice of the Sesame Street icon. Earlier this week, word came out that a young man, now 23, accused Clash of getting involved with him when the accuser was 16 years old—under the age of consent. Sesame Street put Clash on a leave of absence while it investigated. The accuser has since recanted, saying he was an adult and that the entire relationship was consensual.
But it still makes me queasy. Why is a 45-ish-year-old man having sex with a teenager? If the 18- or 19-year-old were female, I would be appalled at the probable power imbalance, assuming that a creepy middle-aged man was manipulating a youngster’s immaturity to use her sexually, to soak up the admiration of youth, promising (implicitly or explicitly) things that a more mature adult would know were lies. Why should my attitude be different if the youngster is male?
Some middle-aged men make sure they stick to the letter of the age-of-consent laws, refraining from sex with anyone a day short of 18 just to stay out of jail. But a 30-year age difference—at least, when one of the pair is a teenager—still gives the older partner far too much power. We know by now that the brain isn’t fully developed until the mid-twenties. In your teens, you may think you are an adult—but the rest of us, looking back, know we were not. At that age, you’re still finding your place, learning how to navigate relationships and the world. You’re more likely to be vulnerable and emotionally volatile than someone who has some experience in the tilt-a-whirl of heady sexual relationships. If you’re not old enough to drink alcohol, you’re not old enough to get in bed with someone two or three times your age.
When both sexual partners are roughly emotional equals, they have an equal chance at having fun or growing up together. A teenager and a 45-year-old are not emotional equals. We know by now that when a child or teen pursues someone older for sex, it’s likely that child was once sexually abused. The grown-up has a responsibility to know better than to accept. It may be legal, but that doesn’t make it right.
I suppose I must say here that circumstances matter. Some young people are exceptionally mature; they can handle the emotional vagaries of a relationship, repelling exploitation better than others can. A friend tells me that when she was 19, working full time and living with a roommate in a major city, she pursued and landed a woman in her thirties; they were involved for several years. I can entirely see my friend’s cocky pride as she talks about her conquest, even now that she’s in her forties. Maybe that wasn’t abusive, but the older woman’s acceptance sure wasn’t admirable.
I should also say that I wasn’t there. I don’t know either of these people. Up close, they could be well matched. Maybe the two were very kind to one another and brought one another joy. I hope that’s true. Listen, I’m a lesbian. When I came out, my own loves were against the letter of the law. For a long time, I was reflexively on the side of other outsiders; I believed in wide latitude for choice. But with age I’ve learned that sexual relationships can become profound—and as emotionally costly as rewarding—fairly quickly, especially when you don’t have the experience to assess others’ intentions, motives, or more subtle psychological gambits. I’ve passed over from the age of thinking about personal freedom—the age when Harold and Maude seemed cool—to the period of my life when I think like a parent. I worry about the young person. I wonder about the adult’s judgment. I’m not saying the man should lose his job. But I doubt the pairing profoundly.
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