Insisting All Teenagers Look 'Like Children' Will Not Protect Them From Predators
I've noticed a trend over the last year or so. A lot of feminists have been sort of doing this thing where, when talking about the sexualization of teenagers, they talk about how "real" teenagers still look like children. Some of these people have been friends of mine, people I normally agree with on things, but this is one area where we part ways.
I get it. I totally get it. I get the reasoning behind it. The goal is to pathologize sexual attraction to teenagers — something long encouraged by our society and culture — as just as appalling as attraction to children. If we agree that being attracted to a 16-year-old is no different from being attracted to an eight-year-old, 16-year-olds will be safer and less likely to be targeted by adults. This is probably why, in a recent tweet promoting an article on her Substack, feminist Jessica Valenti wrote that "Real teens look *young*—awkward and pimply, gangly and baby-faced," adding that "Having beautiful, fully-grown, post-puberty grownup actors play teenagers not only can lead to body image issues in actual teens—it makes it easier for adults to sexualize them."
Real teens look *young*\u2014awkward and pimply, gangly and baby-faced. \n\nHaving beautiful, fully-grown, post-puberty grownup actors play teenagers not only can lead to body image issues in actual teens\u2014it makes it easier for adults to sexualize them.— Jessica Valenti (@Jessica Valenti) 1645817675
It makes total sense, logically, except that it's not true and it actually harms some of the teenagers at high risk of being targeted by adults. As if we've never heard anyone say "Well she looked over 18" before. I understand why people feel this is a good point to make, but it also necessitates throwing a whole lot of girls under the bus in order to make it.
Because, let me assure you, there's not just one way to have "body image issues."
Using Valenti's description, I was never a teenager. I barely had a baby face as an actual baby, I never had pimples or acne, and as for gangly, I honestly don't know that I've ever been the kind of skinny required to qualify as "gangly." I do, however, know that I had to wear a bra by sixth grade and was head-and-shoulders taller than most of the guys in my grade by middle school. I looked 25 by the time I was 17, and despite my most valiant efforts, had a voice like Kathleen Turner.
It wasn't great. As street smart as I was, as much of a feminist as I was, as weirdly self-assured as I was, as much as I cognitively understood that the development of secondary sex characteristics had no bearing on my character or intelligence, I internalized a whole lot of bullshit.
My situation was not that unusual. It's certainly something I've commiserated about with other women. One thing we can usually agree on is that the people who were the worst about our situation (in terms of outright cruelty) were other girls, which is why so much of this feels like a bad flashback. But yes, there was also the problem of older men thinking it was acceptable to treat me as though I were an adult woman even though I wasn't, and, frankly, the problem of adults in general just automatically treating me as more of an adult in completely non-sexual situations. When I read things like "it's bad to sleep with teenagers because they look like children," there is a part of me that hears that as "So you're saying it's okay if they don't look like children?" Even though that's not precisely what they mean, it still kind of hurts to hear that. It actually infuriates me, because I can't help but think of what it would feel like to hear that as a teenager.
This, to me, feels like a reframing of the virgin/whore dichotomy that I thought we all (including Valenti) decided a long time ago was grossly sexist and misogynistic.
The fact is, the problem with adults preying on teenagers has absolutely nothing to do with what they look like, physically, and everything to do with where they are likely to be at mentally, in terms of their ability to give informed consent. None of this is an exact science, because people do everything at different rates, but we go with 18 because it's more likely that someone is going to be reasonably mentally and emotionally developed at that point than at 15.
Valenti argues that one way to prevent teenagers from being sexualized on television, and thus in real life, is to have teenagers playing teenagers. But there are problems with that as well, especially when you throw into the equation the fact that #notallteenagers are "pimply, gangly and baby-faced." It seems like it's one thing to have kids on a show like "Full House," it's another when it's supposed to be something that deals with problems that are more serious than "Uh oh! Uncle Jesse has an evil identical cousin!" Also I'm not a big fan of child labor and kind of think it's best to avoid it whenever possible.
It's natural to want things to be more clear, so that everyone knows where the line is, not just legally, but morally. Personally I happen to think it is very unhelpful that the age of consent, as it concerns statutory rape, is not the same in every state. It is hard to imagine this is the kind of thing where geography would matter. But I think this is one area where we kind of just need to be okay with "you don't do this because it is against the law, period, end of discussion." You don't do it if the she looks 12 or she looks 25, you don't do it if she's obviously emotionally and mentally immature, and you don't do it if she's reading Dostoevsky and going to the club every weekend (some of us were multifaceted, okay?). You don't do it if you are manipulating her and you don't do it if she actually is smarter than you are and you feel like she's "manipulating" you. Because you know what? It doesn't matter.
We don't need for all teenagers to look or act the same way for sleeping with them to be wrong and illegal. The onus for this is not on them, it is on adults. Period, end of discussion.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse