1 In Community/ Identity/ Politics

Consent & The Teenage Brain

I just read the odious news that a Montana judge sentenced a teacher to thirty days incarceration for the statutory rape of Cherice Morales, his 14 year old student: a girl who, three years later, committed suicide.

Uncomfortable as it may be to discuss adolescent sexuality, the only way to avoid headlines like this is if we are willing, as a society, to look this issue in the face. Teenagers experience sexuality. Often they choose to explore it by themselves, or with each other. All too frequently, they experience it with an adult. And while, at the time, they may even think that they are “choosing” to have sex, I can’t abide the idea that an adult and a teenager can have a consenting relationship.

Out of the protectiveness I feel for every teenager trying to navigate this vulnerable territory, I want to share a bit of my own story.

I wish I could tell you how old I was when I lost my virginity, but in the chaos of my life as a teenager, I cannot pin down the event to an exact point on my timeline.

Here are a few things I do know about myself during those years:

  • I was a precocious student who probably could have tested out of high school by age 12
  • I left home for good a few weeks shy of my sixteenth birthday
  • In spite of a lack of parental supervision, throughout my teens I usually exhibited better judgment than most of my peers when it came to decisions like drinking, drugs, and other reckless behavior

For all of those reasons, I felt pretty self congratulatory as a teenager about being “older than my years” and “already a responsible adult”. These were not words I chose to describe myself, they were phrases adults used to describe me, which I then integrated into my own self-identity at the time. But now when I reflect back on myself at half my current age, all I can see is a hurting little girl putting on a brave face, looking for the containment and affection every teenager is in need of.

One day, at some point during those years, I was sitting on a park bench reading Anna Karenina. A man about ten years my senior approached me and struck up a conversation, and I was completely guileless about his motivations. “You’re way too young to understand a book like that,” he said. In actual fact, I’d read War & Peace at age eleven, and this was my second pass through Anna Karenina, which I was sure I understood just fine.

Eager to show off my intellect, one of the few things I was accustomed to being praised for, I took the bait when he invited me to get a coffee with him and discuss the book to see just how well I understood it. In the course of our conversation he let me know that he was a classical musician, and invited me back to his apartment so he could play piano for me. I was flattered by his attention, and the invitation felt like a scene from one of my beloved Russian novels.

In almost no time after arriving back to his place, he was pulling off my clothes and pulling me into the bedroom. I was too naïve to see it coming, and too unsure of myself to even know whether his advances were welcomed or not. I didn’t say no, I didn’t push him away, I didn’t do much of anything other than follow along in a somewhat disembodied state as things happened faster than I could make sense of them. He took the virginity I hadn’t made the decision to give him, and then he dropped me off at the same park where we met. I never saw him again.

After that event, I didn’t feel assaulted or raped, I didn’t feel much of anything. I took a long hot shower, cried a bit and went on with my life, until I met another man who must have seen me as an easy target. Also nearly a decade my senior, he made a regular appearance in my life for almost a year. I won’t say we were dating or that he was my boyfriend, because that level of relationship was never something he offered me. He would occasionally take me out to dinner, maybe drag me along with him to a party. Then he would decide to have sex with me, always on his terms, and often forcefully. Sometimes I did say stop, sometimes I told him he was hurting me, to which he would say, “I like it rough” and continue to take from me whatever he wanted.

Was that rape? I spent most of my 20s asking myself that question. It was hard to justify using the “R” word when I know that I acquiesced without much of a fight, when I know that I willingly accepted his invitations to “hang out” with him again and again. Why did I keep “allowing it” to happen? I knew why, even at the time: it was for the attention, the desire to feel like I belonged to someone, and especially for the two or three minutes of psuedo-affection he would give me after raping me. Yes, raping me. Because when a man in his late 20s has sex with a teenager, it doesn’t matter if he beat her into submission or if she dissociated herself from her body while he had his way. In either case it is rape.

When I went off to college a year later, I had no consciousness of myself as a victim of sexual assault. But when an extremely misguided student organization enacted a graphic performance about date rape during freshman orientation, I felt something snap inside me, followed by a panic reaction that nearly caused me to lose consciousness in the auditorium.

I am sure it is no coincidence that over the course of my freshman year I gained more than fifty pounds, that I hid myself under baggy clothes, that I never went on a date, and never even kissed a boy again until I was 24. Nor was it a coincidence, I’m sure, that my college years were fraught with depression and anxiety. Unlike Cherice Morales, I made it out of those years alive. But I am sure that just like Cherice, my maturity and intellectual capacity would have been trotted out by any defense attorney had I pursued the prosecution of either one of my abusers.

So what if the situation were a little different –what if, by all outward appearances, I wasn’t naïvely following a man’s lead, but in fact I was even pursuing him? What if I felt pleasure during the sexual encounter? In that case, would consent between an adult and a teenager be possible?

Absent a moral prohibition against sexuality in general, I can understand why this would look like a gray area at first glance. But to understand why consent between a teenager and an adult is not possible, it’s necessary to take a scientific accounting of the teenager’s brain, which is still in the process of developing.

Not only are teenagers charged with emotions, but impulse control is one of the last abilities to develop. Reasoning, judgment and the ability to link actions with consequences all develop even later than that. In fact, the human brain is not fully matured until age 25 — it seems the car insurance companies understand something about science that even our laws, which consider people adults at age 18, have not fully taken into account.

At the risk of plagiarizing a line from a cheesy 80s movie, when we are teenagers, our underdeveloped brains are writing checks that our bodies, hearts and souls cannot cash. There is an inherent power differential between someone with a fully formed brain and someone without one, a differential that makes consent impossible between the two. It’s the responsibility of every adult with impulse control and a fully intact judgment center to recognize that even when a teenager is walking like a duck and quacking like a duck, she’s not yet a duck.

If, as a society, we can remove the shame and repression around sexuality, and if we can acknowledge that sexuality is not, in itself, a feature of adulthood, we will be better poised to discuss how both adults and teenagers can manage their sexual desire in a way that is healthy and safe for everyone.

If you want to read more about the development of the adolescent brain, this is a good place to start. Update 9/10: Also see this article on British research reported on by NPR.

If, like me, you agree that Montana Judge G. Todd Baugh should be unseated for his terrible decision, you can sign the Care2 petition here.


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1 Comment

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    30 August 2013 at 11:20 PM

    Brilliant! Thank you so much for sharing. As the mom of an 18 year old daughter, this is particularly compelling. I have spent considerable time over the years discussing sexuality with her and working to empower her with confidence and the knowledge that she must be aware of others intentions, know what she wants and treat both herself and others with the respect everyone wants.

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