THE BODY POLITIC May 1978, No. 43 Chris Bearchell
A feminist looks at the place of female child-adult relations in the politics of the lesbian movement
Donna lives in a small town in staunch Presbyterian Ontario where everyone knows everyone else, and were "it's difficult to be unconventional and almost impossible to be lesbian." Sharon was a teacher at her public school. "She first taught me sixth grade. I guess I was attracted to her then though I didn't think of it in sexual terms. But then I didn't think of anything in sexual terms at the time." Sharon was a married woman her husband was also a teacher and she had two children. At the time, she was more than twice Donna's age.
The first woman Donna was actually involved with, however, was Jean. "I worked away from home the summer I was fourteen. I met Jean and was really impressed by her. But it's hard to imagine going to bed with a school friend's mother. It was the next summer before I actually had the nerve to do it. I was fifteen she was forty-three. She was a beautiful woman, but our relationship was fraught with contradictions. I wanted it and initiated it, but I also felt guilty and fearful; I knew Jean's life as a forty-three-year-old wife and mother of seven children was complicated enough without the added burden of a lesbian relationship with fifteen-year-old kid."
Meanwhile, Donna had maintained a regular correspondence with Sharon. "It seems quite strange, looking back on it, the way we cultivated our friendship. Real child-adult friendships are probably quite rare. We wrote letters even though we only lived a few miles apart; that made it seem a bit furtive, too. I guess we had to be content with melodrama when we had so few opportunities to see each other and when there were no acceptable forms for expressing what we felt for each other. That is, until I came out for the first time."
By the following summer, Sharon and Donna had been able to contrive some way of spending time together. "I had just turned sixteen when I told her about Jean and me. In retrospect, my 'big confession' seems sort of unreal. We had been out canoeing and had gone ashore on a small island. It sounds very romantic, doesn't it? Only it didn't turn out exactly the way I'd planned. I was more or less saying to Sharon, 'All right, if you feel the same way about me as I feel about you, don't be afraid. You aren't leading me astray. You aren't taking me anywhere I haven't already been.' Her reaction seemed mostly to be shock. I guess I wasn't the most tactful sixteen-year-old."
But Donna's "coming out" about her relationship with Jean eventually did have the desired effect. "Sharon later told me that she felt strongly, almost magnetically drawn to me for those few minutes on the island and that her own responses were what really shocked her. Ours was her first lesbian relationship and seemed, for her, to carry all the significance of a first exploration of her sexual identity.
"But again, I felt guilty. Partly because of society's condemnation, should the nature of our relationship ever become known. But more because, although Sharon's sexual orientation is to other women, she has chosen to live a heterosexual lifestyle. And I was a threat to her family her security. Again, I wondered if maybe I wasn't taking more from her in emotional support and understanding than I could return."
While relationships between young lesbians and women much older than themselves are not uncommon, the extent to which Donna and her lovers survived perhaps is. Donna told me about another woman, Kelly, from the same small town, who was not so lucky. "When she was twenty-one, Kelly was involved with a young woman of fourteen. The pressures brought to bear on their relationship moved them to foolhardy action: they ran away together. The young woman's family had them caught and returned. Life became even less bearable for them under the increased scrutiny, so they tried and failed again. For her second attempt at 'abduction' Kelly was threatened with prosecution. Her last desperate escape attempt was suicide. It proved more successful than the others." Donna has no doubt that there are more casualties than we will ever know.
Donna's feelings and experiences are not unique. But there are many lesbians who choose to overlook them, who tend to view such relationships with the same hostility that the straight world applies to all lesbian and gay relationships. Some of us are tempted to view child-adult interactions as "a problem," the way the psychiatric professions traditionally view homosexuality. Some of us use them as "an issue" with which to score political points against men.
Laws such as the "age of consent" and "statutory rape" provisions of the Criminal Code, which attempt to regulate the sexual behaviour of youth and children under the pretence of protecting them, may have disastrous consequences for non-coercive adults such as Kelly, or even Sharon and Jean. But their most frequent victims are the children themselves, and especially female children. Just as rape laws historically view a woman not as a human being in her own right, but as the potentially "violated" property of a man (husband or father), so children are viewed as their parents' possessions. Children, especially young women, who explore their sexuality are deviating from the pre-ordained path of their socialization, which allows for sexual activity only after the age of eighteen and even then, ideally, only within the bounds of "holy matrimony." They are forming meaningful relationships outside the confines of biological definitions and are stepping outside the bounds of parental authority. If a young woman rejects not only parental authority and anti-sexual attitudes but compulsory heterosexuality as well, she may be thrice condemned.
For any and all of these "crimes" many a young lesbian has seen the insides of reformatories and other "correctional" institutions. The most common use of age of consent and statutory rape laws is thus to assert control over "uncontrollable" and "incorrigible" "girls." No one protects these women from the cops, the courts, the Children's Aid Society, the parole officers or their parents. Above all, their parents; less than a year ago this column contained an account of a high school lesbian whose parents (both teachers, one a guidance counsellor) threatened her with aversion therapy if she refused to break off with her lover.
It is certainly true that children are subjected to the power of adults: daughters to their fathers' sexual advances; both sons and daughters to the physical and economic power of either parent; and all children to the social cultural, and legal power of institutions like schools and courts. Yes, an older lover might exercise some of those powers too, though perhaps with less intent, and surely with less social authorization. The point is that the laws as they stand do not, and were never intended to, protect children. They were and are a means of control that backs up the more insidious, less formal controls of the family structure and socialization.
One possible consequence of statements by some participants in the child-adult relationships discussion is a backing away from support for the gay movement's demand for abolition of age of consent laws. Those who argue only in favour of uniform age of consent laws (straight relationships are now legal at 18; gay people have to wait until 21) would be, in many instances, upholding the illegality of Donna's or Kelly's relationships. I can remember after leaving home years before it was legally permissible in Alberta seeking out the advice of a radical lawyer only to have my worst fears confirmed: even as a certified coherent, self-educated, gainfully employed human being I was almost entirely without rights, especially in matters sexual. I couldn't get into bed with a lover without hearing heavy boots on the stairs.
There may be feminists and lesbians who, because of their experiences with male power, suspect that child-adult relationships have more serious consequences for male children. As a feminist I have to remind any woman with those hesitations that male children, unlike their sisters, are the inheritors of male privilege. They will outgrow the oppression they experience as children. Most of us do not have sufficient experience with the development of male sexuality to pass a harsher judgement on relationships between boys and men than on relationships between girls and women. Only an honest evaluation of our experiences as children will help us in our attempts to understand children's sexuality.
My first intimate relationship was with an eight-year-old girl, when I was the same age. One occasion in particular was fun, thoroughly sexual and ultimately a disaster. Naive (even for eight-year-olds), we were oblivious to our surroundings and the consequences of our joy until it was too late and we were caught. The most profound thing I learned from that experience had little to do with sexuality and a lot to do with taboos, guilt, and parental hysteria and power. The experiences of boys and young men are, I'm sure, not much different. Some of them may be braver, more aggressive and self-assured in relating sexually and in resisting adults, which may account for their greater willingness to enter into child-adult relationships at a younger age. But guilt feelings are still ingrained, more often by parental and social reaction than by the relationship itself.
We must remind ourselves, those of us who began at an early age to question and to rebel against our socialization that while fourteen- or fifteen-year-old women seem just that young women to us, this isn't necessarily the view of the dominant cultural that we live in. For the straight world out there a fourteen-, fifteen- or sixteen-year-old is a child for whom any kind of sexual expression is sinful, sick or criminal whether it is gay or straight, with an adult or a peer. To the great "them" out there, a fifteen-year-old "girl" involved with a teacher or a camp counsellor is a child in the grasp of disgusting corruption, no matter how mutual or loving the relationship. This perverse attitude says that sex is primarily reproductive and that the law has the right to interfere with this aspect of our lives, whether it is to deny women control over their bodies, to give preferential treatment to "legalized" relationships, or to outlaw lesbian or gay sexuality altogether. Any vestige of these attitudes has no place in either the gay or lesbian movements.