You can thank the Women’s Christian Temperance Union for the recent firestorm in Torrington involving two former football players on the high school team. Two eighteen year old students have been expelled from school, and face felony charges, for having sex with thirteen year-old girls. Classmates of the young men are outraged. We ought to be listening to that outrage rather than being so quick to condemn it.
In the late nineteenth century, when factory jobs were the siren call drawing young people away from family farms and to the big cities, reformers worried that young girls would be preyed upon far from home. Within a decade the age of consent for sexual relations was increased in virtually every state to 16, or even eighteen, years old. These laws have remained in force since the 1890s.
In colonial America, the age of consent was 10, or sometimes 12, years old. In Delaware, the age of consent was seven until as late as 1885. The states, you see, have not always thought all that clearly about how to patrol our libidinal boundaries.
The young men in Torrington are accused of statutory rape. In other words, they stand to be labeled rapists and felons, made to spend some time in prison, forced onto the nation’s morbid sex offender registry and required to undergo counseling as sexual deviants once they are released from prison and placed on probation. Why? For scratching the ancient itch that is the mother of us all?
Our forebears knew what we refuse to admit: Young people can, and do, consent to sex. When Romeo pined away for Juliet, it create scandal, but not because of his desire for his minor paramour. No hypocritical prudery condemned the young lovers.
We are hypocrites about sex in the United States. We use it to sell virtually everything, from automobiles, to toothpaste, to clothing. And when your equipment begins to falter, we advertise, on prime-time television, medications to make sure you’re ready when the time is right. Sex sells; sex is everywhere.
Why, then, are we so quick to punish those who color outside the libidinal lines?
Historians might some day look back and consider our time to be sexophrenic, of two mind about sex and its consequences. It’s a disease really, a sign of some fundamental inability to be realistic about our desire: we celebrate and criminalize sexuality all at once.
Perhaps the colonists had it right: acknowledge the obvious fact that young people can consent to sexual contact, but keep desire under wraps in society at large. It is ironic, I am sure you will agree, that our forebears maintained a public prudery while recognizing sexual reality. We, on the other hand, bathe ourselves in a licentious barrage of sexual images, and then insist on an unrealistic chastity.
In Connecticut, it is a felony punishable by a mandatory minimum of nine months in prison for a man or woman to have sex with a person under the age of 16 if they are three or more years older than their partner. Consent by the younger person, being mistaken about the younger person’s age, even relying upon the younger person’s representations that they are of age, is not a defense. How many readers were once guilty of this crime? I’ve seen judges blush when asked this very question.
I came of age in Michigan as a “victim,” I suppose. The young woman who deflowered me was nineteen; I was fifteen on that unforgettable summer night. I will never regard her as a criminal. There’s no question in my mind to this very day that I consented. I recall the look of a classmate when I mentioned just what I did on my summer vacation: his look of shock was laced with more than a touch of envy. To this day, I wonder whether my favorite “criminal” was the fourth person of some sacred trinity.
Perhaps that is the real point about the flurry of social media castigating the alleged victims in Torrington, and in Steubenville, Ohio, where a prudish nation watched in tongue-clocking satisfaction, as two young men were found guilty of violating innocence itself in a juvenile court proceeding. Classmates of the new, accused sex criminals in our midst are showing solidarity with the accused. They are attacking the victims. The gods and goddesses of political correctness weep at such an affront to decency.
Amid reports that students in Torrington were rallying to the support of the accused students, and raining scorn upon the 13-year-old paramours, school superintendent, Cheryl Kloczko, was reportedly on the verge of tears. "Sometimes,” she sniffled, “it seems that [the school’s rules of proper conduct] just isn't enough." What rock does Ms. Kloczko live under?
Rather than condemn these kids, we ought to try listening to them. Maybe they’re trying to tell us that a culture that makes icons of victims is less admirable than we pretend: people ought to aspire to more than random acts of chaos transforming them into fifteen-minute celebrities on Oprah and Dr. Phil.
Perhaps these kids know something the rest of us can’t admit: We need neither a license nor a certificate on hygiene to get naked. Whatever else we are – and I’ll leave to theologians the task of parsing how many angels dance on the head of a pin, or, for that matter the head of an altar boy – we are first products, and then tools, of desire.
I hope the kids are aware they are teaching us something else: We are hypocrites. Our sexophrenia comes at a great cost. Labeling a young man a rapist, and consigning him to a virtual penal colony filled with “sex offenders” for his consensual relation with a girl young enough to consent at the time of the founding, but now politically off limits, is simply irrational, twisted, and unworthy of respect.
The real controversy in Torrington is not that young people are coming to the support of their classmates. What shocks is how quick we are condemn, and how unwilling we are to question whether the crime for which these young men are being prosecuted ought really result in their being treated as though they are violent and dangerous felons in our midst. The fact is, these kids are us: they just got caught, and are now themselves victimized by a society and culture that would rather create victims to adore than face hard truths.