In the Mark Foley case, the age of the page hovers at the edge of the debate. Depending on which way they want to spin it, people will either emphasize the youth terms: child, kid, minor, pedophile – or will emphasize that 16 is legally the age of consent, Gary Studds was with a 17-year-old, Reynolds with a 16 year-old, Clinton with a 19 year-old, whatever. I think the whole discussion of age and drawing bright lines is worth a few minutes.
Sixteen-year-olds vary. I don’t simply mean that some are more sophisticated or mature than others, but that individuals change from day-to-day at that age. Their savvy and naivete can be wildly inconsistent not only in sexual matters, but in financial vulnerability, how they relate to bosses, whether they self-disclose or keep secret, or another other complicated adult situation they have to navigate.
Not only are some sixteens as naïve as the average twelve, but all sixteens will act twelve on occasion. Catching any of us by surprize can fluster us and cause us to make bad decisions, and this is especially true of younger people. Some who would take advantage of teenagers use this element of surprize and intimidation, while others take a longer route.
Most sixteen-year-olds can artfully handle an obvious situation. A drunk or socially clumsy person coming on to them sexually, or a new boss losing her temper and making an illegal demand – these things kids can often handle, even if their hearts are racing a bit. It is the more ambiguous things, and the gradual erosions, which are more difficult for them, as it is for all of us. The single 23 year old youth leader who comes on to a 17 year-old – what is she to make of that? The club of usually upstanding individuals, your friends and mentors, which has a traditional once-a-year spree – is this okay?
It’s all very easy to say that moral situations can be complicated and that we can’t draw bright lines. I’ve certainly seen enough situations reverse with more information to know that bright lines can be difficult to apply. I had a developmentally-disabled patient, nineteen years old, who was accused of being a pedophile and might have been looking at some serious limitations on his freedom for many years. The “victim” was a savvy 14 year old boy who already had a history of preying on younger children in his own right, and had current rape charges outstanding in juvenile court. My poor schmoe of a patient was just a big socially clumsy guy who wanted friends.
On the other hand, my patient was now starting to romantically approach other children in the neighborhood, though with nothing sexual implied.
The bright line was in some sense a danger to my patient. But in another sense it is an advantage. It gave us an exact teaching tool. First ask people younger than you how old they are. If it’s less than sixteen, you can’t be their boyfriend. I didn’t choose that example accidentally. We are none of us so far above my DD client that we can’t benefit from bright lines.
We like bright lines for other people, but are very prone to smudging them for ourselves and to a lesser extent, our friends. We make excuses and rationalizations just good enough to convince ourselves. I call it playing chess against yourself; you can always win.