September 21, 2015

Talking Shop: Revisiting the Sexualization of Minors

I'd intended to write this week about the suspension of disbelief in erotica, however a major migraine has me down for the evening. So I'll be saving that subject for next week, but in the meantime I'm revisiting an old article I hope you will find interesting. Till next week!

Allow me to get up on a pedestal about one of my favorite books, Proven Guilty, by Jim Butcher.


A little Dresden fan art by yours truly

Here is a portion of a review posted by a reader about this book.

 The last few pages of this book made my skin crawl. Sexualizing an underage character and Harry blatantly lusting after her and beating himself up over it and trying to moralize it is just... awful. But like I said, this isn't Harry. This is some weird thing Jim Butcher has going on in his head. Was he substitute teaching while writing this one? I mean, he talks about her body, and piercings that you 'can't see' and I wondered which one of his friends' daughters he is lusting after in real life.


Here's something that irritates the hell out of me about this assessment. In the final scenes of this book, 17-year-old Molly Carpenter presents herself to Harry Dresden, naked, and admits to him that she has always idolized him, always found him attractive, and wants him to be her first lover.

I should point out that Harry does not take advantage of young Molly. Though not for lack of temptation.

Yes, he admits she's attractive. And he also understands that the nature of their relationship (Teacher/Student) makes any sexual engagement on his part completely inappropriate. Thus, he puts the kibosh on any ideas Molly might have about the two of them hooking up.

"Hot for Teacher" is a common sexual theme in erotic media,

Now, I realize this is one review, and it's a minority opinion anyway, when it comes to Proven Guilty. However, it is not a minority opinion when it comes to talking about sexuality in fiction, in the proximity of characters under the age of 18.

What bothers me about this is the black-and-white generalization. When is it okay to consider a young adult sexually viable? When is it okay to admit a character over the age of 18 might find a character under the age of 18 sexually attractive? Is it ever okay for an "underage" character to be involved in sex? How underage is underage? And is it realistic to expect that writers of fiction cannot cross that stark black-and-white line?


Hard Limits

Let me start by stating what I consider to be the "hard limits" in this argument.

·         There is an age at which a person and/or character is too young to frame in any kind of sexual light. There definitely is. For the sake of this post, I'll be discussing ages 16 and up, no younger.

·         Sexual depictions of minors "as children" do not belong in strict graphic erotica (remember there is a difference between "erotica" and "erotic romance"). Why? Erotica is written with the distinct purpose to arouse. I'm not here to defend the use of underage characters to arouse when characters of-age are perfectly suitable for this. If characters are underage I at least expect there to be a legitimate thematic purpose for making them so, and not just to arouse based on proximity to childhood.

·         I am in no way defending or encouraging the actual, real-life violation of legal age of consent laws.


What is the Age of Consent?

Allow me to start by pointing out that the legal age of consent is not the same in every state.

Another thing the age of consent is not is a hard and fast emotional fencepost for all persons. A young man at the age of 17 years and 364 days does not, overnight, magically evolve into an emotionally mature adult fully capable of handling sexual situations.  A young woman at 17 years and 0 days is not necessarily incapable of understanding sexual situations or deciding what she is or isn't ready for. Some young adults are not emotionally mature enough to handle sexuality in a socially acceptable way even several years after they turn 18.

Here's a controversial opinion for you: age is just a number.

So why do we concern ourselves with keeping an arbitrary number in our minds as the "magical" number at which children become capable of handling adult situations?

Stay with me here, because I know probably a lot of readers are ready to dump my blog altogether on the basis I'm defending pedophilia.  Be assured, I am not.

The age of consent is not truly indicative of any surefire emotional change in all peoples. However, it is necessary as part of our societal contract. The age of consent may not signify a unilateral change in any given person's maturity, but as a society, it allows us to enact legal enforcement against abusive behaviors that do occur.

To put it simply, a line must be drawn somewhere. The purpose of that line is not to define a level of any individual person's emotional 'adulthood', but to protect a vulnerable segment of our society—children—from abuse.  We can dither and dick about over what age exactly is the "appropriate age", and we will get a different answer for every person we ask. Some of those answers will be colored by a cultural mores; some will be colored by personal experience; some will, unfortunately, be colored by a desire to protect predatory behavior. The reason the age of consent has to be drawn at a certain, steadfast, hard line is that we can't scientifically provide a perfect age based on any or all of these factors. So we have to set it at a level we as a society feel is most appropriate.  In most cases, that line is set at 18. In some cases, it is 16.

So in short, the age of consent does not unilaterally equal the age of readiness. It does equal the legal societal standard we must respect.

What does that have to do with fiction, literature, and why I think it's totally okay for Jim Butcher to depict a 17-year-old girl hitting on a fully-grown-adult mentor?

Now that we're done dissecting the legal reality of the age of consent, let's look at the societal reality of it.


When is it Okay to Consider Someone Sexual?


Gender bias plays a major role in the concept of appropriate age for sexuality;
People were far more outraged at Miley Cyrus' sexuality in Wrecking Ball
(released when she was 20 and legally an adult), than by the sexualization of
Taylor Lautner and other teenage boys in the Twilight films.

As a sexually progressive society, we have become more and more defensive of younger and younger adults exercising the rights to sexuality. I'm forced to believe that this shows, as a society, we recognize adolescents are, in fact, sexual creatures. This makes many uncomfortable. But, it is a growing awareness in our culture that teenagers do not exist in a gender-neutral vacuum unaware of sexual interest, activity, or involvement.

Several studies estimate the average age for a male to lose his virginity at about 16. For females, most studies agree on about 17. So, clearly, we accept adolescents are in fact becoming sexually involved before they reach the legal age we've decreed them to be adults. Culturally we are becoming more comfortable with the idea that our young adults are, in fact, boinking.

So let's look back at the scene in Proven Guilty. A 17-year old girl admits she is sexually attracted to and wants to become involved with an adult mentor.

Is it wrong to depict an "underage" character as having sexual desires? Societal trends would indicate no.

Is it wrong to depict an adult admitting he, too, recognizes her sexual attractiveness, and acknowledges his own temptation? Again, no. (hello American Beauty?)

Does this make the older character a pedophile? No.

Does this make the author a pedophile? Hell No.

Would it be wrong for the adult character to engage in sex with the underage character? Society and legal expectations say yes. If an author takes that dive, they'd better be ready to acknowledge their character has broken a societal contract, for good or ill.

Is it wrong to depict this in an erotic manner?

This really depends. Again, let's look at some critically acclaimed fictional examples of the under/over divide managing to convey both the sexuality of the situation and the emotional repercussions and meaning. American Beauty. The Illusionist. How I Live Now.

In The Illusionist, a young woman is seduced
by her father's capricious lover.

None of these titles are erotica. They may be erotic, but they are not written with the purpose to arouse. These aren't "fap-material", kids: there are bigger themes and meanings the writer is exploring through the eroticism and reality of the situation.

Would it be questionable for Kresley Cole or Laurell K. Hamilton to write an erotic scene depicting the Immortals After Dark or Anita Blake knocking boots with an underage lover? Yes, definitely questionable. I won't go so far as to say absolutely wrong and with no value, but I will say, questionable. Why? Because the sex scenes in these series are written for the pure erotic enjoyment of readers. In this case, the writer dances the line on our social contract.


So What's The Point?

My point is that it's easy to throw around labels like creep and pedophile for simple depictions that don't deserve the label. Acknowledging a teen/young adult has a sexual side is not call for labeling a legal adult to be a pedophile or accuse them of having sexual desires towards children.

When dealing with supernatural characters, the lines of age become even more blurry, because at some point, age stops corresponding neatly to maturity. There are a lot of issues with Twilight. Edward is a vampire at 17, and Bella is a young adult of 17. He is not a pedophile. She is not a teleophile. They are many, many other valid reasons their relationship is a mess of severe psychological fuckery... this is not one of them. 

Neither Harry Dresden nor Jim Butcher is a pedophile because Molly Carpenter is a 17-year-old girl crushing like mad on her mentor.

Interestingly, not a lot of criticism over Katniss and Gayle kissing once he was 18, and not a lot of criticism over depictions of her and Peeta sharing a bed. Though the "legal age of consent" is violated in these cases, no one bothers to argue there's anything skeezy is going on.

I'm just saying, we pick and choose what's unacceptable. Perhaps we should examine these things in more shades of gray.

But never read 50 Shades of Gray. Never ever read 50 Shades of Gray.

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