Sunday, September 27, 2009

Coming out in middle school

The feature story of this week’s New York Times Magazine (September 27) is entitled “Coming Out in Middle School.” It is by Benoit Denizet-Lewis, a respected gay journalist who is on the staff of the magazine.

The writer remarks, “[t]hough most adolescents who come out do so in high school, sex researchers and counselors say that middle-school students are increasingly coming out to friends or family or to an adult in school. Just how they’re faring in a world that wasn’t expecting them — and that isn’t so sure a 12-year-old can know if he’s gay — is a complicated question that defies simple geographical explanations. Though gay kids in the South and in rural areas tend to have a harder time than those on the coasts, I met gay youth who were doing well in socially conservative areas like Tulsa and others in progressive cities who were afraid to come out.”

Many young men in this situation find support from their parents, particularly the mothers. Peer groups can also be helpful, especially it seems those made up of young women, many of whom regard themselves as bi. There are also support groups that organize dances and other get-togethers.

This development is particularly notable in view of the widespread bullying that has been rife in these schools. It is almost as if the coming out was a kind of act of defiance. It may be protective as well, because of the support that these young people are getting. They no longer have to face the dangers alone.

“As a response to anti-gay bullying and harassment,” Denizet-Lewis notes, “at least 120 middle schools across the country have formed gay-straight alliance (G.S.A.) groups, where gay and lesbian students — and their straight peers — meet to brainstorm strategies for making their campus safer. Other schools are letting students be part of the national Day of Silence each April (participants take a vow of silence for a day to symbolize the silencing effect of anti-gay harassment), which last year was held in memory of Lawrence King, a 15-year-old gay junior-high student in Oxnard, Calif., who was shot and killed at school by a 14-year-old classmate.”

Denezit-Lewis says the many of the young gay men he interviewed “seemed less burdened with shame and self-loathing than their older gay peers. What had changed? Not only were there increasingly accurate and positive portrayals of gays and lesbians in popular culture, but most teenagers were by then regular Internet users. Going online broke through the isolation that had been a hallmark of being young and gay, and it allowed gay teenagers to find information to refute what their families or churches sometimes still told them — namely, that they would never find happiness and love.”

For understandable reasons, the article shies away from the following question. Are these young--some very young--men having sex or not? It seems that for some individuals it is enough to establish their status (orientation)--to know who they are and let others know. Yet others are apparently engaging in sexual activity. Assuming that there is a positive family and societal response to begin with, few eyebrows seem to be raised if the age of the two partners is close. One individual profiled by Denizet-Lewis who is 13 has a boyfriend who is 14. The connection may have a sexual component or it may not. But in any case, sex or no sex, if the “boyfriend” was 24 instead, there would be universal cries of horror.

Evidently, these coeval relationships fall into what is sometimes called the Romeo-and-Juliet exception. Still, the activity is illegal under current age of consent laws, at least in most states.

It has occurred to me that in the long run this teenage coming-out phenomenon may be the equivalent of medical marijuana. That is, it may serve as a way to acknowledge the undeniable fact that young people--including gay teenagers--are sexual beings, and are likely to act on these feelings. Still, in view of the widespread horror about sex with youngsters in other contexts, the outcome is uncertain, even though the prospects are potentially interesting.

At all events we are confronted with a paradox. The television series “To Catch a Predator” continues to draw large audiences, showing the entrapment procedures deployed against adult males who would have sex with thirteen-year olds. To me, these programs are salacious and disgusting, because the individuals are enticed into committing a crime--which in fact they haven't committed, since once they enter the stake-out house they are humiliated and charged before anything sexual can occur. Where is the ACLU when we need it?

Mine seems to be distinctly a minority view. Apparently most viewers feel satisfaction at the witch-hunt therein depicted. "These monsters of depravity are getting what they deserve." That is one mindset. Yet it seems to coexist uneasily with another, which evidences growing toleration when actual thirteen-year olds openly proclaim their gay orientation and proceed to date other teenagers. There is something here that doesn’t compute.

I am not a boy lover (despite the malicious slanders that occasionally surface about me on the Internet). But it does seem that there is a puzzle here, one that may, just possibly, cause some changes in our view about sex and the age of consent.

I am not legislating such changes. In fact I am fairly agnostic: I have no particular investment in attitudes shifting on these issues. I am just observing.

For some the change would be a real boon; for others, though, maybe not. So, as I say, I am not prescribing--just attempting to peer into a very cloudy crystal ball.

One thing is sure. Attitudes may change, but the law will only follow long after.

UPDATE (Oct. 1). As if on cue, an old case has surfaced in which an adult had nonconsensual sex with a 13-year old girl. The man of course is the film director Roman Polanski, who has been arrested in Switzerland. What Polanski did in Los Angeles was clearly a crime, and he should have been made to do his time. Why did it take so long to catch up to him? This aspect suggests that class differences in the administration of justice played a role. There is one rule for the rich and famous, another for the rest of us.

If anyone doubts that Polanski's charmed life as a fugitive from justice is not an instance of class privilege, just look at those poor slobs on "To Catch a Predator." They haven't even done anything sexual, but they are arrested an prosectuted anyway. What would happen if Harvey Weinstein had showed up at Entrapment Villa? That is just a rhetorical question.

And there is another difference as well. If we heard of a Catholic priest who had forced himself on a 13-year old and then gotten away abroad, where he prospered, even receiving awards from Catholic groups, we would be appalled. But someone who is admired by the politically correct in Hollywood gets different treatment.

Still, the case is hard to understand completely--and this I suppose is emblematic of the whole matter of teenage sex. Consent, we generally agree, is essential. Obviously (I would think) an 8 year old cannot give informed consent. At what age though can one be deemed to do so? Maybe there is a gray area between say 14 and 18 where the matter has to be judged case by case. However, this murky concept just will not do where the law is concerned.

One thing seems certain. Almost anyone who attempts to grapple with these issues will end up with egg on his face--or worse. That includes yours truly.




Blogger Burk said...

Hi, Wayne-

I am puzzled by your puzzlement. Experimentation with one's own age cohort down to very young ages has always been acceptable, if not desired in puritan circles. On the other hand, adult-child sex relationships have always (other than in woefully backward cultures) been decried and denounced, because of the likelihood of exploitation and the violation of presumed innocence, which is by definition not an issue among innocents. This has nothing to do with gay or straight, and everything to do with our vision of childhood, maturity, and power relations. A vision that is becoming stronger, (more protective of innocents), not weaker, at the same time that consenting and age-appropriate gay relationships are being accepted as well.

2:26 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

Sure, such experimentation goes on. I know, because I did it. But acceptable?--I don't think so. For many years I had a terrible hangup because my "seducer," who was all of 11 years old, kept lecturing me about the need for secrecy.

Up to now many educators have hewn to the rationale that the sexual identity of young people is highly malleable. Therefore we shouldn't give them the slightest encouragement to go off the beaten path.

That normative assumption seems to be crumbling now.

Many societies--ancient Greece, medieval Islam, medieval Japan--have accepted, even encouraged intergeneration sex. They do not regard thirteen-year olds as children. Juliet, as I recall, was even younger. How far we have come from Shakespeare's time--not necessarily in a good way.

3:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I completely agree with Burk. As a teen, I fooled around with other teens, but when an adult approached, it was "out of bounds."

Experimentation among the "same or similar aged" is perfectly normal and I hope socially acceptable.

Conversely, laying in wake (or "on chat"), behind the NBC's Predator, in which an "authority" figure thinks s/he can "deflower" the innocent, does not have an adequate gag reflex to stop my vomit.

Children have the RIGHT not to be victims of adult authority, molestation, or rape -- whether it is in the form of Garrido or male pedophilia or Catholic priests. Children's right to experiment does not include Authorities who insist they are Informed and Pregnant with possibilities.

4:57 PM  
Blogger Arsinoe said...

The malleability of youthful sexuality also cuts the other way, with sexual experimentation among early teens not necessarily defining ones later choices (at least for heterosexuals).

If one polls heterosexual adults significant numbers will report that they have had same-sex crushes and/or sexual experimentation in their pre- and early-teenage years. Some of those kids who 'come out' at twelve may remain gay, but others will chose opposite gender partners by the time they are fourteen or fifteen and more social options present themselves. Twelve year olds, regardless of their orientation, are notably lacking in courtship skills.

Somehow this discussion of a new tolerance is also reminding me of that period in the seventies when 'women-identified-women' or 'political lesbians' were in fashion. A few years later the authentic lesbian partners of those women were left in the lurch when the 'political lesbians' found boyfriends, married and had children.

Certainly it is a good thing if parents are more positive about questions of orientation. That said, I have always felt that beyond directing ones children to accurate information, and sharing ones values, it is best that parents stay out of their children's sexuality.

On the other side of it, I am also suspect of children who share too much with their parents. Perhaps one of the measures of whether one is old enough to enter into a sexual relationship is that one feels ready to make the choices without consulting mommy and daddy.

10:38 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

Perhaps I am just a throwback to the seventies, but i hold that just as a 13 year old should be able to accept or reject the sexual advances of a 14 year old, the individual should have the same rights with respect to a 24 year old. If TGS's young peers wished to keep adults out of their sexual activities that is their right. But should that be the same rule for all? If so, why?

Obviously, an 8 year old should not have the same privileges. So the question becomes: what is the proper age of consent? Seventeen, which I think is the rule in New York State, seems too late. Eleven, which was the case in most American states until the 1890s, is too early.

Some say that the matter is individual. Some 13 year olds are mature enough to make the decision; others are not. This does not seem practical, because who is to be the arbiter of the individual's state of maturity?

At all events, it still seems to me that if a particular 13 year old, like the one featured in the article, can decide about relations with a 14 year old, why not with a 24 year old? That is the puzzle about which I originally wrote. Sooner or later this anomaly must be addressed.

4:38 AM  
Blogger Arsinoe said...

Agree with you that the age of consent is too high, and that 13 or 14 year olds should be allowed to have sex with their peers.

The problem with older partners is that it interferes with the child's ability to develop relationships with his/her peers. If the adult really cares about the thirteen year old's well-being, they would be willing to postpone the sexual advances for a few years. For all of the rationalizations, adults who have sex with teenagers are mostly motivated by their own selfish needs rather than those of the child.

8:04 AM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

Yes, from my acquaintance with boy lovers it is clear that their selfish needs are paramount. There are a few exceptions, which are closer to the ancient Greek model, such as a friend of mine who took up with a Thai teenager and sent him to college, where the young man became an accomplished actor. They now run a theater together in Thailand.

These altruistic cases, I am convinced, are rare. Today it is common to ply the boy with drugs and liquor, effectively ruining any positive process of maturation. Pedophile advocates continue to deny this sociological reality. They affect to believe that their arguments are weighty, when they are not. This is a thoroughly marginalized sector of society and, as such, incapable of ever achieving any approval or tolerance.

Still, there may be, using the medical marijuana model, some possibility of evolution. However, this will be achieved despite, not because of the propedophile arguments, which will never have any traction or currency.

8:47 AM  
Blogger Arsinoe said...


No matter the exceptional, laws are put in place to protect the average and the most vulnerable among us. There may be racing-car drivers who can navigate an obstacle course at 110 m.p.h., but we legislate restrictions that limit location, time and circumstance of that activity. We do this to protect the ordinary drivers and pedestrians in our midst.

So with sex, there are 13-year-olds with profound maturity, but even those exceptional youths have not been around the block enough to have encountered many options.

Like your friends in Thailand, the adult lover of a young boy/girl should encourage the object of his/her affections to get more education, and perhaps travel a bit. If the desire is mutual, then the young person will be still be attractive at 16 or 17.

It is difficult to postpone one's sexual wants for three years, but people do it all the time: while a loved one goes off to war, or is put in jail, or is gravely ill. If one can do this under adverse conditions, then it should be a bit easier to wait until the youth advances his/her education and matures among his/her peers.

12:02 PM  

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