I recently learned that a male teacher at the school where I used to teach in Chicago was fired for sleeping with one of my former students. No criminal charges were pressed, as the students was 18 at the time of the “relationship.” When I talked to the student, her attitude was, “I’m an adult. I don’t see why it was a problem! I can do what I want.” That worried me but didn’t particularly surprise me. What truly startled me was the response I was hearing from other adults who also know the student in question.
“What was she thinking!?”
“I’m so disappointed in her.”
“He’s clearly in the wrong, but she shares some responsibility.”
“She supposedly came on to him!”
And I find myself saying,
Social power exists in lots of ways and in different contexts, but it usually has to do with the power our society affords certain people because of their identity in respect to the power (or lack thereof) that society affords to others.
Now, I can hear the objections, particularly from dudes, “But age is just a number! And she’s totally of age to consent!”
Well, let’s start by acknowledging just how arbitrary the age of consent actually is. Until the early 1900s, the age of consent in the United States was 9 or 10 years old, as men would often take brides of 9, 10, or 11 years old. It wasn’t until the “strange bedfellows” of feminist reformers and conservative, religious groups worked together that the age was raised to 16 and then to 18. So I ask, whether she’s legally considered capable of giving consent, what exists at the arbitrary age distinction of 18 years old that empowers such a young woman to give consent to her 42 year old teacher that didn’t exist when she was 17?
Power Dynamics? What are those?
Let’s face it. Every sexual relationship involves power dynamics. Sometimes they are subtle: one person is simply playing games in order to get in the other’s pants while the other is interested in a relationship. Other times they are part of a wider system of power, privilege, and oppression.
Differences in Age, Race, Gender, Wealth, Education, and other aspects of identity can create power dynamics in our sexual relationships, often ones that we are not even aware are there. After all, we live in a society that affords certain people privileges that they have not earned and that disadvantages other people by the simple nature of their birth. Those privileges lead to social power, and social power enters just about every relationship we have, especially sexual relationships.
Whenever one person holds power over another person (whether or not they acknowledge it), consent becomes tricky. Some argue that when structural power differences are at play, consent can never be given and sex should not take place. Now, by that logic, inter-racial relationships should never exist, and neither should, well, heterosexual sexual relationships. I definitely do not think that’s the case, but in any sexual relationship, power dynamics should be acknowledged and discussed.
When gendered power dynamics are at play, age is never just a number.
In heterosexual relationships, power is very real. Men have real social power that stems from our position as men in a system of patriarchy that was built by men, for men. That power manifests in everything from our being paid more than women for our work to our ability to walk down the street, dressed however we like, without fear of sexual violence. In sexual relationships, it means that we are taught to be in control, to be dominant, and to refrain from listening. Women, on the other hand, often struggle to express their desires and their boundaries in sexual relationships with men.
Now consider that we’ve always been taught to “respect our elders” and to revere the knowledge, experience, opinions, and directives of those who are older than us. This is even true of those who are a few years older than us! I, for instance, was expected to respect my sisters for, among other reasons, the simple reason that they were older. Age creates social power, whereby those who are older hold a certain amount of power over those who are younger, and this is true in sexual relationships. That power is only exacerbated when gendered power dynamics enter the equation.
Do the math:
Gender Power + Age Difference = Tricky Navigation of Consent
In the case of the young student mentioned above, she is expected to give clear consent despite the power dynamics of her sexual partner being older, male, and her teacher, a person who literally holds her academic future in his hands? And we hold her in any way responsible for the relationship?!?
Here’s the rub.
Sexual consent is tricky. I will ALWAYS be skeptical of relationships when older men (let alone much older men) are in relationships with young women. Hell, I have to be careful to check the power dynamics in my own relationship, as I am in a relationship with a woman who is two years my junior. In much the same way, we should be aware of and talking about the ways that power enters our sexual relationships. In what ways could my identity put pressure on my partner in our sexual relationship? In what ways can my partner’s identity make it hard to give consent clearly and honestly?
Am I saying that a younger woman cannot give consent to an older man? No. Definitely not. But what I am saying is that the power dynamics at play must be considered and talked about if consent is going to be clearly given.
This is why some of the most important sexual violence prevention work is geared toward encouraging healthy communication and teaching ways to communicate in sexual relationships (something that is important in all relationships, heterosexual or not). We must be able to talk openly and honestly about everything in our sexual relationships.
As part of that process, though, we have a responsibility to consider and check our own identity privilege and power in relationships. I want to think that there’s clearly something wrong with the teacher at my former school for a 42 year old man to seduce an 18 year old woman (no matter who came on to whom), but in a society where men are taught that everything in sex is in-bounds to them, I worry that he’s merely acting in exactly the way that we’re socialized to act. I worry that the only thing that keeps this kind of thing from happening more is the fear of the social stigma that comes from a middle-aged man seducing a teenager, but we hear all the time about men leaving their middle aged wives for younger, more “conventionally attractive” women. To them, it’s no different than trading in your car for a newer, sexier model. In a world where women are seen as objects, is there really a difference?