How Careful Should a Parent Be?

A discussion of some of the issues surrounding the sexual abuse of young women.

Posted Dec 06, 2017

Recently, there has been a spate of reports of men, often in a position of power or authority, sexually abusing women and sometimes assaulting them. Of course, this sort of thing has always happened but these behaviors are more likely to become public now in the wake of such charges against Donald Trump.

Since then, there have been a number of other famous men in show business and politics who have been similarly accused of such acts. Since this behavior is increasingly regarded as inexcusable, there has been an open condemnation of these men and some of them have lost their jobs. And this is a good thing. Across history, women have been regarded more as possessions than as full-fledged human beings. Only in relatively recent times have they been free to own their own property and make their own choices. Even now, they may be sold into childhood marriages in certain parts of the world at the behest of their fathers. Even in Western societies, women are still discriminated against at work and in other settings. The fight for women’s equality is not yet won.

Among the more repugnant incidents described recently has been the report of Roy S. Moore, a candidate for senator from Alabama, fondling a 14-year-old girl. Now, 40 years older, this woman has appeared on television giving a lurid description of what she describes as her “seduction” by Moore. No one knows if this account of pedophilia will cost the Moore the election, but his actions were indefensible. 

I had an odd experience when I was first starting off as a psychiatrist that seems pertinent to this subject. A different heading for this blog post might be “Psychiatrists don’t always know as much as they think they do.”

Among the first patients I saw in my office after returning from service in the army was a middle-aged woman who sat uncomfortably in the chair opposite me. I do not remember exactly what complaints brought her to my office, but I remember talking to her at some length about her concerns about her adopted daughter. She was worried that her daughter might get into sexual trouble. I smiled indulgently and tried to reassure her. “She’s only 12 years old. Don’t you think you have a number of years to go before you need to get worried?” I might have gone further and spoken to her about the baby steps her daughter was likely to take before she needed to be talked to about the various difficult situations she might someday encounter with men. Whatever she had to warn her about would be premature at this time.

The following week, I saw her in my waiting room sitting next to someone who appeared to be a tall, attractive young woman. It was her daughter. I spent the next half-hour apologizing to my patient. “If I had a daughter who looked like that,” I told her, “I’d want to follow her everywhere to protect her.” I knew that strange men in the street would be coming on to her.

The thing to keep in mind is that she was still 12 years old—still a child. She was certainly not ready to cope with the not-so-serious, and often serious, sexual flirtations she was likely to confront. Similarly, a 14-year-old girl is still only a girl. An adult woman might find a man behaving sexually inappropriate as simply annoying, whereas the same behavior would be traumatic for a child. Unfortunately, some men are attracted to girls because they are “innocent,” i.e. less threatening. Laws are in place to protect girls from such men.

I would like to point out some of the complications of these laws if I can do so without seeming to condone the predatory behavior that they are designed to prevent. One problem is that the age of consent is set differently in different states, and it has changed over time. The psychology that drives men to these acts is different in these different circumstances. The age of the man affects the enforcement of these laws: Statutory rape (consensual sex with an underage girl) is prosecuted less severely when the man is himself underage than when the man is an adult.

More generally, the nature of consent is not always clear. A comfortable point of view is expressed in the idea that “No” means no. That is simple to understand. Real life is more complicated. A woman who is intoxicated, for instance, might seem to consent when her judgement is clouded, or when she cannot resist a forceful demand for sex. Also, some women have explained to me that they say “no” to a date to indicate that they are not “that sort of woman,” after which, sometimes only a few minutes later, they say “yes.” Men are alive to the possibility of a woman changing her mind. Most men are not inclined to coax a woman into sex, but some are.

Yet there is a governing principle about sexual encounters that is the same as in other sorts of encounters: Do not do anything that makes another person feel bad. Simple teasing is not okay if the other person feels bad. Therefore, in ordinary social interactions, sexual or otherwise, men and women have to be alert to and considerate of other people’s feelings. Unfortunately, not everyone follows this precept.

(c) Fredric Neuman, Author of "Maneuvers"