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Twilight in the Kingdom of Pariahs and Predators

(CN: Will thought this might need a content note if Maribou wanted to write one. Maribou, who of all readers usually needs a content note for anything to do with underage people and sex, doesn’t really think this essay needs one though? Um.  Serious age imbalances in the context of relationships, some of which were illegal, but nothing graphic. Honest discussion of being a 17-year-old on the internet. Quite possibly the comments may stray into bleaker or cruder territory than the essay does. That’ll do.)

When I was 17, I knew this girl. She had come out of nowhere into my life and was suddenly central to a lot of the most important parts. My friends became her friends to the point that by the time we actually made our acquaintance, we already had a lot of people and things to talk about. That never happens to me. And talk we did, often late into the night. One night, she was supposed to come over. It felt like that was the night something was going to start. She was going to visit a friend on my side of town, and then come over. And my life was going to change.

It did, but she never showed.

What happened instead was that she met this friend. They went to the park. They talked for hours and hours into the night. She lost her virginity to him there. They used no protection. She spent the balance of her cycle terrified that she was pregnant. He spent the balance of the month avoiding her and explaining everything that their night together did not mean. She was 16. He was 24.

One thing I left out of the story is that she and I had never met. She and the other guy had never met until that night either. Everything that had happened, happened either on the phone or more frequently on the computer. The Internet wasn’t really the Internet yet, but we had something else. We all called in to local BBSes and there we had chat rooms, message boards, games, and it seemed just about everything you’d need to live in a culture parallel to the one that our peers at school were living in. Because we were all dialing in, however, we were constrained to our local call area, which meant that almost everybody there lived within an hour’s drive.

So it wasn’t just a cyber-community, it was a community. The more you logged in, the more that community became your primary community.

Normal people had very little use for such things. They had schools or churches. They had neighbors. They didn’t need to reach across the city to make friends, have drinking parties, or go and do things. To be the kind of person who needed that, you were likely to be different. And you met other people who were different. It was wonderful, amazing, and at times quite dangerous. Outside of the traditional networks was the traditional supervision. Also, the more traditional norms. Screw those norms.

One of those norms involves the story above. When people don’t have a lot of dating options – and most of the people there didn’t – you have to reach further sometimes than people at your school. That might mean race, distance, or experimenting with members of the same sex. For a lot of people, it was age. For a lot of people, the thing that stops someone old from dating someone young is social disapproval. Date the wrong person and your friends will laugh at you. This might be tragic in cases where they would say “But she’s fat, dude!” but it’s actually good if they would say “Man, she’s just a kid.” The whole situation lacked the guardrails of social norms, and the things that happened reflected that. This is the social environment in which I came of age, and my own perspective on these issues reflects that.

Untethered by conventions, the couplings I saw were of many shapes and sizes. One guy I know was twenty-three when we met and was getting over his ex-girlfriend who was 38. A couple years later he was dating a seventeen year old who was one year older than the first one’s daughter. There was a mother of a twelve year old encouraging her to date a sixteen year old (though she believed – correctly – that there wouldn’t be sex). There were couplings of nineteen and fourteen where it wasn’t at all clear who was steering the ship. Where other people are horrified, I needed more details to know whether I should have been horrified or not. Still do, though to a lesser extent. There were limits, but they were a lot wider than anywhere else I knew. We all knew the relationship that opened this post was illegal, but it was only on the border of being wrong from an age perspective. The focal point of that was how he had used and discarded her, and he was impressively able to talk his way out of that and into everybody’s (including her’s and my own) good graces. I take something of a different view now, but in that time and place we wouldn’t have thought much differently of him if he had been 16 and done the same things.

One thing about rejects is that they attract predators, and the BBS environment was no different. There were a lot of contortions one could go through to give some of those age differences a pass, but there were some for which no pass was possible. There were people whose sole reason for being there was to find and pick up underage girls. They were identified pretty quickly and banned or called out, but it was all a bit of a game of whack-a-mole. Given the givens, it’s surprising that there wasn’t more of it than there was. There were also people that it was known what they were doing, but they weren’t actually doing it on the BBS. Those are the ones that still bother me.

One of the lessons I learned, though, is that it simply isn’t the case that relationships fall into categories of predatory and permissible. The law likes to draw bright lines. This behavior is okay, that behavior is a felony. This will land somebody in prison for a time and on a list for the rest of their lives, and that will result in nothing but a pregnancy test somewhere down the line. If your birthday is off one day in this way or that way, it makes all the difference in the world. It’s hard for the law to do anything else, I suppose, but I’ve seen real life stubbornly refuse to work that way. I’ve seen predatory relationships that are legally in-bounds and decent ones that weren’t.

Within expanded parameters, the things that raised red flags for us were not usually ages or even maturity levels. Two people across a divide might hit it off, or be curious, or any number of things. It was, for better or worse, a freewheeling environment in that regard. They might couple up, grow, and then fall apart one step ahead of where they were. The ones that created problems tended to be the ones that would habitually target people younger (or older) than them. Sometimes that was simply due to an unusually low or high maturity or experience level for their age. But usually, people that pushed against that boundary had other things going on. It was almost never their only thing. If they weren’t predators of some sort, they were often in a very destructive place personally or emotionally.

Among the reasons that the pattern was so indicative is that for the most part, it turns out social rules (including the informal ones) exist for a reason. This one has reasons beyond fear of coercion. Some of those relationships were fine, others were terrible. They were rarely good. I can name a couple success stories – including one of the above stories – but not many. The better ones were where you got burned and learned a lesson. Which I guess is true of most adolescent relationships, but especially true of these. And sometimes it was the older one who did the learning. But if you keep doing the same thing, you keep failing, and you keep not learning, then it becomes apparent that age is the thing. And when age was the thing, that was usually a pretty bad sign.

I mention “there were limits” above. It wasn’t so much that there was a rulebook, it was just that across some age gulfs the only people who wanted to tread were the habituals and those that leaned more on the predatory side of the spectrum.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last week or so, you’ve heard that Roy Moore kept doing the same thing. And of the success stories I can point out, including the ones where there was growth and there were lessons learned, none involved anybody over thirty with anyone under twenty. Almost everybody who was in that game was habitual, and often to the exclusion of anything else. Age was the thing, and it usually represented a hole in their self where something else (maturity, morality, whatever) needed to be, or worse, the existence of something malignant.


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Will Truman is a former professional gearhead who is presently a stay-at-home father in the Mountain East. He has moved around frequently, having lived in six places since 2003, ranging from rural outposts to major metropolitan areas. He also writes fiction, when he finds the time. ...more →

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56 thoughts on “Twilight in the Kingdom of Pariahs and Predators

  1. It took me a while to digest this, and I suspect I’m not yet done do so – so well done.

    As you note applying bight lines is pretty much what the law seeks to do – “It’s hard for the law to do anything else”. We can only hope that prosecutorial discretion provides some relief from the bright lines.

    The issue is partially one of how to understand intent and consent. There are all kinds of problems with the concepts themselves, but we, and by extension, the law have no real alternative to acting as if they were things that can be clearly defined in all cases. Even as neuroscience advances and undermines the validity of these folk concepts, I suspect we will remain just as dependent on them for lack of workable alternatives. Perhaps though they can point the way to a more nuanced codification of human desire and predation both.

    On a tech note – back in the 60’s the was a phone phenomenon called various things “jam lines”, “loop lines”. One called a number, your own, radio station in the midst of “be the x caller, or some random number that just did this, and between the busy signals, one could shout and carry on enough of a conversation to get some sense of another person and set up a meeting. I only got that far a couple of times and was stood up. But I suspect others were more successful.

    And I guess in the 1800’s telegraph operators used the medium for personal romantic ends.

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      • @atomic-geography FWIW, one legal difference in Canada is that there is something called “closeness-in-age” which gives two different exemptions. From Wiki:

        “There exist two close-in-age exemptions, depending on the age of the younger partner. A youth of twelve or thirteen can consent to sexual activity with an individual less than two years older than they. A fourteen- or fifteen-year-old can consent to sexual activity with a partner who is less than five years older than they.”

        It’s still bright lines and therefore still a blunt instrument, but these laws match fairly closely with what the cultural expectations-though-there-are-exceptions I grew up around were. (Not the awful and frustrating stuff I discussed elsewhere, but what my peers and I thought, in high school and thereafter, was reasonably allowable if sometimes rather dubious.)

        I don’t know as much about the laws in US states, but most of them (30) do also have some form of age gap law. Which still involves the birthday problem, but also I think indicates that culturally many people are aware that it’s not a bright line.

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        • We have this in the United States, or at least we have them in some states, but we call them more romantically Romeo and Juliet Statutes. Its designed for when yes, the age of consent is sixteen but a seventeen or eighteen year old sleeps with a fifteen or fourteen year old.

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    • There is apparently at least one novel about 1800s telegraphs operators using the medium for personal romantic ends that was published during the 19th century. Slate had an article about it. The Canadian television series the Murdoch Mysteries also had an early episode about a psedo-chat room among telegraph operators.

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    • Its an incredibly messy and complicated situation. Sometimes big age differences between partners means nothing. Its just a normal romantic relationship but for that difference. Other times, extreme age differences can be a sign that something rather questionable and potentially immoral is happening. The law generally seeks to protect children and creates bright lines to do so.

      What seems to be happening now is that even among adults, big age differences are falling into ideological disfavor with certain groups. There was an editorial in the NYT angry about middle aged men dating women in their early to mid-twenties. Big age differences seem inequitable and a sign of authoritarian hierarchy to many liberals. A true loving and equitable couple should be matching in age.

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      • It’s messy and complicated but I think it always has been. mentions the inherent arbitrariness of the law but I actually think that’s a good thing as long as we as a society can maintain perspective about what the law can really accomplish. My view is that when it comes to sexual (mis)conduct the law really needs to represent an outer boundary, and a very narrowly defined and easy to understand set of rules.

        What we’re witnessing now in the culture at large (or parts of it) has an underlying ideology. It posits that we can control for the pecularities of every circumstance and vulnerability, and most dangerously, that the subtleties and nuances of every interaction impacts (maybe eliminates) an individual’s agency. This is no good thing for a free society nor is it consistent with sexuality and human experience.

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          • I can only hope that the purveyors of these rape manuals have been banished by the editors to the deepest pits of internet hell, where their backsides will be non-consensually poked by pitchfork wielding mailer-daemons for all eternity.

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            • InMD,
              No, of course that hasn’t happened! That would be rational, and humans ain’t that.
              It is, however, hilarious to read the Q&A of “reasonably decent guys” who can’t understand that they’re being taught how to hack consent.

              “Why should I not ask her if she wants to sleep with me?”

              In a better world, we’d just burn their houses to the ground and be done with it. In this world, they make a profit.

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        • I’m in agreement that its a good thing that the law is inherently arbitrary and sets bright lines in this case and theoretically sexual misconduct in general even if actual practice leaves a lot to be desired. A blurry law will allow many bad faith actors to get away with things that they really shouldn’t be allowed to get away with.

          Your second paragraph, I’m not entirely sure on though. My brother Saul would note that a lot of anger has been bubbling inside different people on different issues for years or even decades now and its just all getting released. A big part of why its getting released now is that the Internet amplifies everybody’s broadcast power and allows for quick spreading of idea. There was a big release of freedom with the original Sexual Revolution but powerful people lost all previous restraints and acted with even more impunity. What is happening now is a final attempt to prosecute powerful men.

          I have many conflicted feelings over this but I’m largely powerless to stop it and don’t want to get run over for saying something.

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          • There’s powerful people being held accountable (good) and there’s also mob justice, witch-hunts, and authoritarians given license (bad). The only way to filter out the bad is with dispassion and reason. I’m not always convinced that there’s an appreciation of the distinctions between opposing the Ancien Regime and joining the Jacobins.

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            • An appreciation of the distinctions between opposing the Ancien Regime and joining the Jacobins is not keeping with the spirit of these times. There are lots of very angry people out there and they are out for blood. They don’t want moderate change. They want to bloody destruction of the entire edifice and its replacement with something new and shiny. I think that many of their goals are mutually inconsistent and incompatible with actual human behavior but your never going to convince them of that.

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            • I think the issue is that a lot of the boorish to criminal behavior has been going on for decades and hidden for decades. Weinstein’s actions seem to go back for his entire career along with what seem to be unstoppable rage/domineering issues.* I don’t know what causes the New Yorker and Ronan Farrow to publish the Weinstein story (which unleashed the floodgates) but it seems to me that lots of people got away with bad behavior for years and now there is a demand and airing of pent-up frustration and rage.

              I’ve noticed the damn breaking for years. Almost every woman I know has a story of at least being flashed in public by a vulgarian. Many of them have much worse. This behavior seems deeply embedded in the reptilian brain even if only a minority act upon it frequently or at all.

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              • Right there though you’re making a number of distinctions. Boorish is not (and I’d argue can’t be) treated the same way as criminal behavior, nor do I think its sensible to remove everything from historical and social context. Exposing oneself to another in public is the kind of conduct that can and should be prohibited. Its easy to define and enforce. What is and isn’t boorish on the other hand is always going to be in flux and vary down to the individual level.

                I have not been following the Weinstein stuff closely but I freely concede he sounds like a creep, and maybe even a criminal. The latter is obviously up to a jury of his peers to decide. However, I also think about how the would be enforcers of our new norms would think about all kinds of mundane relationships
                even in living memory.

                The example that resonates most for me is my own grandparents. My grandfather was 32 and my grandmother 17 when they had my mom. They met each other in post war Europe where he was stationed serving in the army and she a local of a recently liberated country. No one was suspicious of this arrangement at the time or the following decades. Nevertheless I can think of numerous ways their relationship could be seen as #Problematic in our brave new world, despite the fact that the supposed victim in these circumstances (and we know thats the woman, it almost always is*) would find such notions absurd.**

                Maybe there is a dam breaking but much if it to me looks like moral panic, not a reckoning for people who have gotten away with things for too long. I’m not a betting man but I think we will look back on a lot of this and the stuff on college campuses the way we look back on McCarthyism or Satanic Ritual Abuse. No doubt itll catch some assholes and crooks, but that doesnt mean its rational or good.

                *There’s a very patronizing aspect of this that denies the agency and sexuality of women that I also think is sexist. My grandmother may well have used what she had to get herself out of a devastated environment. The movement seeks to impose prudish Victorian tropes on all sexual and romantic activity and become the sex police. I think it’s weird, kinda creepy, and very hypocritical.

                **For the record I can see why a relationship like theirs might not be what we would want people doing now but that doesn’t mean we can’t understand that the world was a different place.

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                • Its both a damn breaking and a moral panic at the same time. People trying to do large scale social movements often have to engage in moral panics and a lot of desperate tactics to get people to go along. There is a faction that decided that sexual assault and violence against women are big problems and that extraordinary remedies are necessary to get rid of these things.

                  That being said, your right that it denies female sexual agency. Thats the biggest problem I have with the enthusiastic consent faction. The idea is that all women would respond to verbal questions about whether they want sex or not well and with a verbal advice. I’m definitely sure that many women like to respond with body language and don’t take kindly to men who can’t read their signs and body language.

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                  • I’m noticing that too, the moral panic, in response to the decades of dismissal.

                    What I would like to see more of is a nuanced approach of offering an olive branch of forgiveness to those who admit wrongdoing, as a way of leading them back to societies good graces.

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                    • People aren’t out for forgiveness, they are out for blood. I’m somewhat sympathetic but the entire political moment is conflicting with many personal issues and I sort of feel like I could be a natural target for the receiving end at this moment.

                      Many of the thins that the outraged want seem mutually inconsistent to me. Women quite naturally want the end of harassment and assault but they want the traditional men pursue to be still in place to. I’m pretty sure that this is a situation where there is going to have to be some change on the women’s part. No harassment is kind of incompatible in a system based on the reading of ambiguous body language for yes but clear verbal no’s for no.

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                      • Really? No harassment and assault isn’t compatible with traditional men pursue? I know a lot of traditional men who would be plenty pissed off at you for that claim. Suggesting that women are going to have to change in ways that will make things easier for men, in order for harassment and assault to stop is… wow.

                        I’m sorry you are having trouble with personal stuff conflicting with political stuff – I know how that can go – but given that my own experience is that
                        1) MOST women are out for safety, not for forgiveness or for blood, and would be pretty happy with a world where confusing bad sex or someone accidentally being too aggressive is the worst thing they have to put up with in life
                        2) Plenty of the women speaking up either have forgiven the people they’re accusing OR could care less what happens to the people they’re accusing, they are just sick of harming themselves to protect said people
                        3) The most recent such situation I’m aware of is where Franken apologized (about 100 times more effectively, if not perfectly, than the rest of the people under scrutiny) and the woman in question *accepted his apology*

                        I am having a lot of trouble reading your comment charitably.

                        At best I can agree that a significant chunk of people (not just women, and a small percentage of the total) reacting to the situation are overly outraged and that some of those people wield too much power in local contexts (and have for some time, btw, not just in the wake of #metoo).

                        And I can read an essay like Masha Gessen’s and agree that yes, sex panics generally harm people who don’t deserve the harm.

                        But seriously, consider what you’re saying here. Really? Your response to a perceived sex panic is to admonish a whole gender that if they want change (described by you in absolutist terms), they’ll have to change first? How is that a pragmatic or effective response?

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                        • Maribou,
                          Capture marriages are thinly veiled ritualized rape.
                          The whole trope of “swept off her feet” is another courtship ritual that trends really, really close to rape. (The difference, often, between the two being how reproductively fit the man is.)

                          … so, um, yeah.

                          Everyone should have the right to not get assaulted. That’s just a basic thing, right?

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                        • My observations: it seems like a lot of lonely men (mostly men), who have little experience with mutual attraction, build up this broken understanding of how courtship dynamics work. Much of this comes from frustration and bitterness. A lot comes from echo chambers of other lonely men — along with the “redpill” guys, which, do you really believe their fish stories?

                          In any case, when mutual attraction exists, this stuff becomes pretty easy. You want it. They want it. It’s just a little dance around the awkwardness. It gets easier over time.

                          Regarding the reluctance/seduction thing, it’s a game. Some people like to play it. Others do not. Myself, I can take it or leave it. In any case, communication is key.

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                  • Lee,
                    I think we can distinguish things a bit.
                    1) If you’re in a relationship, you can set the rules. This isn’t a first date thing, and it may not be the tenth date thing, but you and your partner get used to each other, and can discuss consent.
                    …also, there’s really nothing stopping people from having a “safe gesture” instead of a safeword. Discussing things beforehand is the best way to keep things safe and fun in the heat of the moment.

                    Humans really do, in general, expect guys to hack women’s consent. Sometimes this is REALLY blatant, like in capture marriages (which are essentially barely ritualized rape, regardless of whether or not the particular woman wants it). Other times it is “but she didn’t say no!” (I’m sorry, but if a guy’s modus operandi is, as a 30 year old, finding the hot 16 year old, and leaving her crying at the end of the night? That’s probably not nearly as consensual as he thinks it is. And yes, we do have videotape.)

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  2. Overall I love this essay and I think you do an amazing job of articulating some things that are fundamental to my approach and worldview as well. I really appreciate your willingness to express things, as well as your skill in doing so, because I get really frustrated when say, people equate the loving and beautiful FWB relationship I had at 18 with a 36-year-old (who never tried to control or push me into anything) with predation. There was nothing of the kind.

    But I do think there are some bright cultural lines to be drawn around sex and consent. (I don’t necessarily think you disagree with me on these, I just want to be really clear about my own position, that it’s not just a matter of useful norming for some stuff.)

    Any adult having sex with someone pre-pubescent is committing a grave moral wrong.

    Any adult having sex with a child or teenager *in their care* (ie they are the parent, guardian, babysitter, aunt, whatever like that) is committing a grave moral wrong, the stronger the responsibility the worse the wrong.

    To take it out of the realm of the extreme cases:
    Any person with official power over someone else (professor, boss, etc.) is committing a moral wrong if they involve themselves sexually with the person they exert that power over without addressing and mitigating the power differential. Not necessarily a grave one – I’ve seen people pass through that situation and eventually have strong, healthy relationships *overall* – but the person with more power is committing a wrong. Also, anecdotally, if they don’t address it, it will leave scars / cause continuing problems even in a reasonable relationship. (McGill treats all such cases as conflict of interest, with similar rules, and I think that’s a good cultural approach also.)

    Again, really good essay. Thank you.

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    • PS I would note that my 36 year old was the opposite of habitual. The youngest person he seriously dated was 29. (We were all openly poly, although there was a… six-month? stretch where he attempted monogamy, and he and I ditched the benefits – I spent time with her and she was lovely and aware of our past history, and the benefits did not resume until some time after they’d split up.) As far as I know the youngest person he ever hooked up with other than me was in her late 20s. Most of his friends, with whom he was open about me and my role in his life, were in their 30s and 40s, he was still close with both of his ex-wives who were his own age…. I never felt any expectation from him that I was a fitting romantic relationship possibility / life partner (nor did I want that). I have trouble wrapping my head around folks having positive, serious, romantic relationships over a huge age difference if the younger partner is under 25 or so, but I have seen it happen.

      And the comparison of it to actual abuse of actual children, which I have heard made casually / jokingly many times as part of the ‘norming’ process, is odious. There may not be a specific place to put the line, but when I see people compare consensual dating of 18 year olds by people of any older age to what happened to me as a very little kid (pre-school and elementary), I kinda want to beat them up.

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    • Your formulation “grave moral wrong” illustrates my undeveloped point about neuroscience, and by extension a reasonably scientific approach (ie psychology) to these things. I completely agree with the “grave” and “wrong” parts of the formulation. On a individual level I agree with the “moral” part, but on a public policy and legal level things get more difficult.

      On one hand, the moral must inform and underpin the legal. OTOH morality is notoriously difficult to define operationally.

      The issue of sexual abuse of children illustrates this. Most child sexual abusers were themselves sexually abused as children. We may reasonably guess that such victims were also victims of a range of abuses severe enough to compromise their neurological development.

      Given what we know now about this, it is plausible to think that future brain imaging techniques will reveal anomalies in their brains sufficient to question their ability to form criminal intent.

      The “my brain made me do it” defense could be a wrecking ball to the legal system. It will be a steep challenge to reconcile such scientific findings with a coherent legal system built on notions such as intention, agency and consent.

      This is speculation now, but I think we need to start bringing these issues into this type of discussion.

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      • Atom,
        I’m pretty sure most pedophiles are pretty aware that behavior such as that is criminalized.

        If you want to talk about people that don’t know they’re rapists, we can by all means go there. But write your own post first, and bring pictures.

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      • The problem with the defense is that many many people (most people) who are sexually abused as children do not go on to abuse others, and there’s no set of excuses, environmental, genetic, etc etc etc., that erases that difference.

        Respectfully, as someone with that set of experiences from a very young age, who would NEVER be an adult who sexually abuses children and has never even wanted to – if anything those experiences drove me to be far more protective and social-justice-y about the issue, which is actually the more common effect on those who are sexual abused – the “but many abusers were abused as children” thing is offensive. I’m not offended by you, per se, I realize that’s not what you’re getting at. And I do think you are right that the issues are part of the discussion and deserve to be brought in – certainly at the legal level – but the *expectation* that the abused will abuse is one of a handful of central reasons why victims stay silent about having been abused. I was literally convinced (and had been told by my abuser) that if I told anyone what had happened to me, they would all shun me and never trust me around a child again.

        Turns out THAT’S untrue, but the expectation exists in society generally, despite my friends having more sense than that. Converse errors are very very sticky in human brains, it appears.

        Also, assuming materialism, “my brain made me do it.” probably on some level – at least as plausible as the “almost all child abusers experienced abuse” level – explains EVERY crime-of-harming-others ever – no super-balanced mentally “normal” person commits criminal damage to other people – and as such, it basically neutralizes itself, IMO. (IMO as someone with a degree in biology and a deep interest in neuroscience, only, not as an expert in current neuroscience, of course.) If it broke the legal system, it would be replaced by some sort of “we feel badly for you but we are having to take steps to protect ourselves from you” system, which could actually be good since it would focus on *preventing harm*, not on punishment. In the example of child sexual abuse, I suspect the public policy level would take people out of the shadows and start treating them as “potential abusers” – ie *as people who need extra help and support from the system* – right from childhood. Which would probably cut down on the amount that happens. Overall, I think this could turn out really well OR be a hellish dystopia even worse than what we have now, but, you know, that’s not much different from public policy around other crimes.

        Anyway, as may be evident from my comments, I’m not all that interested in the legal aspects – I wasn’t addressing them in my comment above – and far more interested in the individual and communal aspects. I feel like progress on those is what will drive legal progress at this point, although that has been different at other points in history, for sure.

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        • “no super-balanced mentally “normal” person commits criminal damage to other people”

          I disagree with this, for what it’s worth. In enough places, use of force is the only way disputes get ended.
          Now, you can settle the dispute in a “decent and not out-of-line” fashion that still results in someone getting killed. I think that’s generally considered “sending a message” — and it can even be done by murdering an innocent.

          It is possible, though not the likeliest scenario, that murder can actually be explained as a utilitarian good (though I’d far rather explain assassination).

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        • Your paragraph starting “Also, assuming materialism…” is sums up a lot of what was in the background of my comment but regrettably unarticulated. Thanks for putting some more flesh on the bones.

          I regret my comments were too close for comfort to suggesting that suffering abuse leads one to become an abuser. I should have taken more care to be clear about it being a factor and not determinative.

          I do differ though on your proposed separation of the moral realm from the legal. The legal realm should be an expression of society’s consensus of the moral. When there is little or no consensus there it leads to legal incoherence and a revictimization of people harmed by others.

          As you point out, bringing people out of the shadows has great potential and great danger. I hope we can help future victims by encouraging the positive aspects of the legal system adjustment to these issues.

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          • I don’t think our positions are that different? I don’t want to separate moral from legal – I agree that it should reflect a moral consensus. It’s just that right now we don’t *have* moral consensus, we have a lot of murky grimdark and a lot of people who want to draw many more bright lines than I’m proposing… and laws that are doing a good job in theory but probably a pretty crappy one in practice.

            I don’t see how the law can express something that doesn’t exist.

            So, for me *personally*, I’m not interested in trying to fix the laws any more than they are fixed now, right now, I want to fix how we think about the issues so that we can *then* look at the laws and either actually enforce them as written, or change them to be both more humane and more effective (those two things may sometimes be in contradiction, other times not). I realize it’s a bit of a cycle, in reality, but that’s where I think we are right now.

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    • This may be tl;dr, but I’ll try to be brief. Three anecdotes reflecting on how tough it is to draw “bright lines” in this area.

      1. I had a completely inappropriate sexual affair with my boss/immediate supervisor (who was also a few years older than me). We’ve now been together for 35 years of great times and true love. Totally wrong at the start, but it really worked out.

      2. At my first job (senior in high school) I worked with a middle-aged lady (picture a short woman, almost as wide as tall, no education, but savvy and wise and no-nonsense) who got her own apartment at 11 years old (!), married at 14, telling her husband she was 18, and never told him different. Had five children, all of whom got college degrees and with whom she was close. Obviously I couldn’t see into her heart, but she sure seemed happy and satisfied.

      3. At the age of 20, I returned from Southeast Asia (USMC 69-70) and took up with my first meaningful relationship (total loser in high school) that had all begun when the lovely friend of a friend and I became “pen pals” and fell in love through the mail. We wouldn’t have recognized each other on the street, but we fell deeply. We were about the same age, but I had worked both hospital ERs and done that Marine Corps thing (had a pretty good “been there, done that” quotient), and she was (to my vast surprise) an actual virgin. Sophomore in college in 1970 and a virgin. Yikes! I felt as if I were 20 years older than her. But here’s the kicker — she taught me almost everything I know about how to be a decent person. We were together for 12 years and I never stopped learning from her.

      The tough part about all this is that the lines should be drawn, and even enforced — but damn…it is hard to see into the human heart and understand/accept what you might find.

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  3. I also am trying to still digest this. A lot of your story resonates with me. I was definitely an outsider in high school though I actually had a wide and varied social circle. I have scoliosis and freshman to Junior year wore a neck to hip back brace. Great timing right? add to that my identical twin did not have to wear a brace and I was always on the outside of social interactions granted a lot of that was my own doing. I dated the uncle of a classmate starting when I was 16 till I turned 18. We all worked together, were transplants from Boston to Oklahoma. He wanted to get married when I turned 18 thank god I was smart enough to say I love you but…no, I’m no where near ready for that. I have fond memories of that relationship. He was 29 when we started dating. Looking back now I question his choices in dating someone that young and abstractly think he crossed a line however I still believe the relationship was a positive in my life.

    However, sexual abuse by a family friend, and two bosses at work from the ages of 12 to 15 probably means I was not your normal teenage girl (although since it also happened to my sister and my best friend perhaps I was normal). Did I seek out someone older because of my past? because I found boys my age dipsh*ts? because he was genuinely a nice guy if a little messed up himself? 45 years later and I still really can’t tell you.

    The earlier men absolutely were monsters. My boyfriend I think was not… others will see it differently.

    I guess I share all this to echo its not always so clear even for those of us intimately involved in the situations. I’ve been actively resisting the #metoo movement because though important it is not the way I want to share my story. Many of you here I consider my friends even though I don’t know any of you in “real life” With the discussion on post and here I felt I had something to contribute.

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  4. One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot since I read this essay is how being someone who identified as a young woman (and had a lot of gender secrets and some experience passing) affected my experiences in my own early internet communities (which also passed back and forth between online and RL).

    There was, overall, a lot of pressure to be sexual, far more than my male-identified (or male-passing in part to specifically avoid this pressure) friends seemed to feel, but something I heard about from other women back then too. This was something I was used to in RL, had in fact literally been trained to both be and have deep guilt about, so nothing new there. However, in the circles I moved in, there was a lot of *counter-pressure* that I didn’t have to be sexual, that I deserved space, and that the explorations I did consent to didn’t require further consents. I could flirt or more online, even on the phone and not be expected to continue being sexy to stay friends with people. I could meet up with people just to meet up, without expectations.

    I felt *less* sexual pressure from my online friends, overall, than I did in my day-to-day life (even leaving my abusive father out of it). In my high school, even among most of my friends, if you didn’t want to be slut-ified by certain parties, it was crucial to act a certain way, dress a certain way, only admit to certain things, etc etc. To the point where things I wouldn’t even notice now were acts of social rebellion back then. It was also incredibly unsafe to come out in high school, and none of us ever did so – whereas online I could assert who I was and be taken at face value and/or with room to grow. (My boyfriend at the time was amazing, someone I met in high school, and also devoid of pressure… but he was a quirky British eccentric 50-year-old in the body of a Canadian teenager, so I experienced him as a one-off, not as indicative of society in general.)

    In all the time that various online communities were my primary communities, I ran into exactly three situations that I found deeply wrong and bad (there are some I question now, as an adult, but not for safety reasons):
    1) Some people from NAMBLA came across me at one point (usenet I think), decided I was a teenage boy a few years younger than I was, and started trying to recruit me / sway me. I think I was trying on some level to understand my abuser, and they were distant enough from him to be somehow “safer.” However they were also super awful, creepy, gross, and at the time I would have called them monstrous. (I still think they are just as awful, probably more so, but I try very hard to not call people monsters, lately (which is not to say that anyone else shouldn’t!).) I was very grateful I’d never interacted with them using real names, and only used one pseud I didn’t need to keep, and ghosted them totally once I’d understood what I could of their mindset. What an awful awful set of people they were. *shudders*
    2) In my travels to visit Jaybird, I met up with a lot of people I otherwise only knew online. Many of those people are my dear friends to this day, and I go stay with them, write them, keep up with their lives, etc. almost like family (close or extended, depending). Some of them eventually disappeared and I think of them on occasion with a smile and some wistfulness. But there was one guy – up until that point just one of many people I chatted with, funny charming and bright, no reason to be wary of him at all – that I met up with in a bus station (I was traveling across the country by bus, is why) …. and the second I met him I needed to flee. He wasn’t just “off”, he was pretty much WRONG WRONG WRONG even though he wasn’t doing anything wrong or even unusual. So I made an excuse and got out of there fast. I followed up with the next friend I met (in Chicago) and her response was “OH LORD WE SHOULD HAVE WARNED YOU I DIDN’T KNOW YOU EVEN KNEW HIM”. Yeah. He’d done a lot of majorly creepy, perhaps criminal, things. He was also more than twice my age and habitually did those things to women much much younger than he was. So I can definitely relate to the idea that such people got driven out of communities, but by the time the Internet was my Internet, it had gotten big enough that the filtering was far from perfect. That said, the encounter definitely reinforced the idea (new to me at the time) that my instincts about danger were far more important than the social conventions were.
    3) was totally personal, totally toxic on all sides, and we won’t get into it here.

    And nothing actually *happened* to me, except arguably in the case of 3, and that was really complicated and not at all clear. Everyone involved was to blame and no one was. Very different from the other two things.

    Point being, my experience of online communities, sexually fraught though it occasionally was, was actually much LESS fraught than either my home situation or just being any teenage girl in the time and place where I grew up. I wonder a lot about whether that was the case for other women, girls, genderqueer folks, even more-feminine-than-average men who were early Internet adopters, and I wondered about the women in your story as you were telling it.

    More evidence of excellent work on your part I suppose :).

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  5. At various times in my life, I have known women who dated older men when they were in high school and/or college. There was a woman in high school who took her 35-year old boyfriend to the prom, she was 18 and there was officially nothing the school could do about it but I don’t think they were very happy about it either.

    Almost every woman I’ve known who dated older guys while in high school has claimed that they were not traumatized or hurt by the situation in anyway, shape, or form. They also talk about how mature they were compared to high school boys. This is not a winnable debate to prove otherwise.

    Age differences can change a relationship greatly. A 28 year old dating a 24 year old is not a big deal. A 19 year dating a 15 year old can be a very big deal even a 21 year old dating a 17 year old even though 21 and 19 are young ages themselves.

    For whatever reason, I always had a hard time hanging around with the older guys female acquaintances in college dated. My reaction was always “You are 30 or 40-something, why are you hanging around with a bunch of college students?”

    But there are relationships which look like they offend proper power dynamics on paper but end up working out for a long term. This can be a lawyer marrying his secretary/paralegal (a cliché that still happens a lot), it can be professors or TAs marrying students. As you note, law and institutions need bright-line rules but there are always exceptions and those exceptions (or even people who think they are exceptions but not) get offended when you bring up the hazards.

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    • I used think similarly but like I pointed out bellow, the partner dance scene involves people of wide age ranges hanging out together and socializing. If you share an interest that your really into, its not really that awkward to be around much older or much younger people.

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    • I know a man, it turns out, that I think was sexually used/abused by an older woman in his early teens. He doesn’t think anything was wrong about it at all. He thinks he was a “really lucky guy”. However, he carries certain damage and harmful attitudes that, at a guess, are due to that experience. And no, you can’t win that argument.

      In contrast, there was a guy who went by Figleaf who did some very interesting blogging a few years back. On one of his final posts he wrote that now, in his 50’s, he’s starting realize that what had happened to him when he was young, was, in fact, sexual abuse.

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      • Its easier for society to recognize older men/younger women abuse than older women/younger men abuse for a variety of reasons ranging from for a long time society couldn’t imagine older women/younger men type situations with some rare exceptions to the idea that getting initiated into romance/sex by was presented as a real big fantasy in the media. Even in the not very enlightened past, older men going after teen girls was seen as questionable and dirty.

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        • There are … biological reasons for this.
          Unless you pretty much hold a knife at a guy’s throat (and yes, someone’s done this), it’s difficult for a woman to get a guy to have sex if he doesn’t want to.

          … it is quite a lot easier to get a nonconsenting girl to have sex with you. (also, there’s progeny to think about. Older women were generally married).

          I’m not sure guys even understand that Stranger Things had ooodles of fanservice this season.

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      • I think Lee is right below. There have been a good number of stories in the past few years about women (usually but not always teachers) arrested for sexual relationships with their younger male students. There have even been stories where the couple stayed together post arrest!!

        But whenever these stories break, there are always lots of comments (almost always from men) who think that the 14-year old guy was fulfilling every guy’s fantasy and that this happened was awesome. You can’t stop these comments either.*

        And there has probably been a lot more romanticization of the 20-something woman and teenage guy brief romance in popular culture as well. Stuff like Summer of 42.

        *To the extent this is true, I think it is safe to assume that a lot of adolescent boys to fantasize about sex with older women but it is a fantasy and they are adolescent scatter-brains and not thinking of the consequences. Apparently a lot of guys still think the fantasy. Also a lot of guys probably get treated as a bit of pet by a somewhat older woman when they are young adolescents and they develop crushes on these women. I know when I was 14-15, there were some women in their late teens or early 20s that essentially treated me nicely and like a pet kid brother and I had huge crushes on them.

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      • You want to be very wary of armchair psychodiagnosis.

        With that said, one need not be a subject matter expert to surmise that given a young person, who has a sexualized experience with an authority figure, will likely find later later in life that this has molded their personality.

        Man or woman. Straight, gay, bi, anything else.

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  6. And of the success stories I can point out, including the ones where there was growth and there were lessons learned, none involved anybody over thirty with anyone under twenty.

    Just as a data point, I had a relationship with a nineteen year old when I was (to say the least) over thirty. It was messy. The age difference definitely mattered. That said, I consider it a positive experience on the whole, as does she. We’re still very close, although no longer romantic or sexual.

    I understood from the beginning that power dynamics would be a problem. I did a lot to try to mitigate that. Actually, I maybe did too much, basically ceding all power to her early on — which turns out to be rather dysfunctional. Speaking of which, this is probably why such relationships should be frowned upon in general. It’s such a tenuous dynamic, like balancing a needle on its head. Any wrong move has magnified consequences.

    Early in the relationship her mother attempted suicide — for reasons completely unrelated to our relationship. However, after that it was pretty clear that she was focusing some of her needs for maternal support on me, her romantic partner. On the surface this sounds like a terrible thing, but I think it was good. For us it worked in a strange way. We both figured out pretty quickly what was happening, so we talked about it. I was good in that role. I still am. Actually, in our very-close-but-not-romantic relationship we still have this dynamic.

    Am I “habitual”? Nah. I usually date people younger than me, but not that young. I don’t think I’d do it again. All the normal relationship challenges run on difficult mode.

    Did I learn something? Oh yeah I did. I learned tons.

    Ultimately she broke up with me, mostly because of poly stuff. She made a lot of deep realizations of what she wanted, what I could provide, what the queer-kinky-poly scene was like, and the kind of life she wanted. She let me go.

    I admire her so much for this. It hurt like fuck. Actually, it spun me hard — so many lifeplans came crumbling down — but it was right.

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    • Dan Savage has some major issues, but when I was a teenager, his promotion of the campsite rule (Leave much younger people better off than you found them.) had a major effect on me, and really helped me to understand my own ethical expectations about these sorts of situations. It sounds like you did that.

      Thanks for telling us about your experience, the good and the bad. It’s important.

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  7. The partner dance scene has some pretty big age ranges in it because of the limited number of people doing partner dancing. You can dance with somebody old enough to be a parent or grand parent and young enough to get you into some real big legal trouble in other contexts at an event or competition. Considering how dancing and sex have a close and complicated relationship, I’m sure that things have gotten out of hand sometimes.

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