Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

Dirty Old Women

From left: Diane Demartini-Scully, Age: 34, Age of Boy: 16; Debra LaFave, Age: 24, Age of Boy: 14.  

The most famous older woman is, of course, Mrs. Robinson: sinister as well as smoldering, coolly and mercilessly manipulating Benjamin to get what she wants and keep what he wants out of reach. But the fictional figure who is really more representative of our stereotypes is Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. Tennessee Williams made her a skittering, simpering hysteric. Where Mrs. Robinson unfurls her silk stocking with utter confidence in her own allure and smoky erotic power, Blanche rushes to cover the lightbulb with a paper lantern so nobody will see the years creeping over her face. (For the record, her advanced age was 30.) She is desperate for attention and dependent upon the “kindness of strangers,” and, it is suggested, she hit on her 17-year-old male student because her own maturity was stunted and only a young boy would make an appropriate companion for the young girl still living within her withering skin. By the end of that play, she is raped by Stanley Kowalski, then carted off to the loony bin: a victim.

It’s jarring, however, to think of a teenage boy—say, a 16-year-old—who’s been seduced by a female teacher as a victim. It clashes with our assumptions. A teenage boy who gets to live his fantasy? What can be the harm?

As it happens, that is a very dangerous question. In 1998, Bruce Rind, Philip Tromovitch, and Robert Bauserman (professors at Temple University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Michigan, respectively) published a study that has resounded through the psychological Establishment ever since. The article, published in the American Psychological Association’s Psychological Bulletin, was what’s known as a meta-analysis, an overview of the existing science, in this case on the long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse. The authors concluded that “negative effects were neither pervasive nor typically intense” and that men who’d been abused “reacted much less negatively than women.”

Though Rind and his colleagues bent over backward to emphasize the difference between something’s being wrong and something’s being harmful (it’s wrong, for instance, to shoot a gun at someone, even if you miss), the study was spectacularly demonized. Dr. Laura Schlessinger had three psychologists on her show who declared it “junk science.” One of them compared its authors to Nazi doctors. The Alaska State Legislature passed a resolution condemning the study’s conclusions and methodologies. In May 1999, the Family Research Council along with Tom DeLay held a press conference in Washington demanding the APA retract the Rind study. (Schlessinger was teleconferenced in.)

About a year after the study’s publication, Congress passed a formal resolution condemning Rind in an uncontested vote. The president of the APA initially defended the paper and pointed out that it had been peer-reviewed and determined to be scientifically sound, but as the resolution was being debated, he sent a clarification to DeLay saying that child sexual abuse was always harmful and—though the study has never been scientifically discredited—the organization has been trying to distance itself from Rind ever since.

Although it is tempting to assume that the finding that childhood sexual abuse is not as damaging for boys as for girls confirms various widely held beliefs about gender—that boys are tougher and hornier than girls, that males enjoy sex in any form—the issue is more complicated. For one thing, when men seek out sex with underage girls, they are more likely than their female counterparts to have more than one victim and to utilize methods like coercion and threats to secure complicity and secrecy. Women who seek sex with underage boys are more likely to focus on one person and to proffer love and loyalty and a sense of a particular and profound bond. In many of these cases, the woman has floated the idea of marriage.

Jason doesn’t feel raped. “I just, I don’t know, I feel weird. She was 30 years older than me, so I feel a little bit taken advantage of. If I was a girl, I probably wouldn’t talk to you about it, but a female can’t really rape a guy, you know?”

We (still) like to keep our understanding of masculinity connected to our understanding of maturity. We’d never had a female anchorwoman deliver our news until recently, we don’t often let female columnists explain the news, and we’ve never had a female president to make the news. For many Americans, being a real grown-up requires a penis. And if you’ve got that, even if you’re only 15, you must have the maturity and the manliness to know what you want to do with it—even if that involves intercourse with a 42-year-old. Who among us would say the same thing about a 15-year-old girl?

“For guys, the different issue than for young women is that it’s supposed to be the best thing anybody could want in terms of what society is saying or their friends,” says Lonnie Barbach, a clinical psychologist and the author of The Erotic Edge. “But they don’t necessarily feel okay about it, so then they’re acting against their feelings. I see a lot of guys with sexual problems who’ve had that experience. Problems with erections are pretty common, as is anxiety around sex in general.” But then, she points out, she only sees the ones who have problems.