May-December romance, or child abuse?

The New York Times reconsiders the age of consent and the definition of sexual abuse.

Published December 15, 2005 4:38PM (EST)

An article in last Sunday's New York Times took a fresh look at the recent spate of sexual abuse cases involving female teachers and their teenage students. Of course, by now much of the country has heard of Debra LaFave of Florida, who is facing prosecution for sleeping with a 14-year-old student, and Lisa Lynette Clark of Georgia, who was impregnated by her son's 15-year-old friend -- and no one asserts that their actions should be condoned. But Broadsheet thought the Times piece was brave to point out that some of these cases fall into a difficult gray area. As reporter Kate Zernike says, "[Especially] when the women face prison, questions are raised about where to set the age of consent. And because many of those named as victims refuse to testify against the women in what they said were consensual relationships, not everyone agrees that the cases involve child abuse."

"We need to untangle the moral issues from the psychological issues from the legal issues," Carol Tavris, the author of "The Mismeasure of Women," tells the Times. "That's the knot. You may not like something, but does that mean it should be illegal? If we have laws that are based on moral notions and developmental notions that are outdated, do we need to change the laws?"

Zernike reports that "researchers [have begun] to question the practice, common in many studies, of lumping all sexual abuse together. They contended that treating all types equally presented problems that 'are perhaps most apparent when contrasting cases such as the repeated rape of a 5-year-old girl by her father and the willing sexual involvement of a mature 15-year-old adolescent boy with an unrelated adult.' In the first case, serious harm may result, the article said, but the second case 'may represent only a violation of social norms with no implication for personal harm.'"

Frankly, Broadsheet has to wonder if any of this would even be subject to debate if the roles were reversed to involve adult men and teenage girls. It's a delicate subject and hard to think about without demonizing and victimizing all parties involved. So, we turn to you, our wise readers, to help us puzzle this out. What do you think: Is the age of consent too high, considering teenagers' sexual appetites and hormones? Is a sexual relationship between an adult and a teenager always inherently abusive?

By Sarah Karnasiewicz

Sarah Karnasiewicz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Until recently, she was senior editor at Saveur magazine; prior to that she was deputy Life editor at Salon. She has contributed to the New York Times, the New York Observer and Rolling Stone, among other publications. For more of her work, visit and Signs and Wonders.

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