By David S. Prescott, LICSW and Kasia Uzieblo, Ph.D
The week before last we wrote about the apparent double standard involved in a European singer’s affair with a 15-year-old. We took note of how many in society condemn sex with underage people even as they seem to make exceptions for those who are well-to-do and/or celebrities. Within hours of its publication, we learned of a related news item in the USA. In this case, a state senator seeking to replace a member of the US House of Representatives openly acknowledged impregnating a 14-year old who he later married (and divorced).
Recognizing that sexual misconduct is not the province of any one political party and that it has often appeared to be rampant in some governments, it was hard not to notice the shifting of blame in this case. The person involved blamed the political status quo. To some, his account may seem familiar:
"Everybody has something in their life that they did ... We’ve all had these problems. Why is this a big deal?" .... So, bottom line, it's a story when I was young. Two teenagers, girl gets pregnant. You've heard those stories before. She was a little younger than me, so it's like the Romeo and Juliet story," he said.
The news account further states, “He said he tried to ‘do the right thing’ and told the paper he married the girl when she was 15. They later went through what he described as ‘kind of a bitter divorce,’ … the ex-wife died by suicide when she was 20.” There is no description of her motivation to take her own life and so readers can only speculate. The aspiring politician says he tried to do the right thing but never says what the right thing is. Strikingly absent is the perspective of those who have other perspectives, in particular those with less power
It’s been the authors’ experience that some readers comment on how men marrying adolescent females has, at times throughout history, been commonplace. Many of these marriages end up being described and/or remembered as happy. We don’t doubt that this is the case; happiness and fulfillment can occur under all kinds of circumstances. Even in cases of chronic abuse, victims are struggling with the fact that they sometimes also experience positive emotions toward the person who abuses them – which confuses them even more. These observations, in turn, lead to further questions which are worthy of reflection for all seeking to prevent abuse from (re)occurring.
The first question is whether there are bright lines discerning abuse from non-abuse in situations like this and the celebrity we discussed last week? We suspect that there will always be situations that don’t fit into neat categories. Humans, and the lives we lead, tend to be too complex for that.
Still, the question that follows from there is what price young women pay when married off at an early age. Were they able to provide anything close to informed consent? Are the cases we hear about situations in which people made the best of circumstances that didn’t go their way? Did anyone ask the young women involved whether they saw or preferred other options? Did the young women have the opportunity to ask what part of their full potential they would not live up to through sexual behaviors and/or marriage in mid-adolescence?
Given the stakes involved in this recent news item, where the wife took her own life at the age of 20, we are reminded that the outcomes of sexual relationships in early and mid-adolescence are never entirely known. Whatever has unfolded in the past, it seems that all young people should have the chance to make these decisions in a fully informed way as well as in accordance with the law. Our collective years in working to prevent abuse has led us to conclude that unless we are working to uphold others’ autonomy we may be preventing them from living up to their full potential.
These cases highlight how far we’ve come as a society and how far we still have to go. The first author (David) had a great-grandmother who was considered “insane,” in large part because she insisted that her brother had forced her into having sex; this did not fit with her family’s wishes. Her circumstances would, hopefully, have been far more fortuitous today. Nonetheless, the news item described here, in which the voice of the young wife who killed herself is absent, reminds us how important it is to listen to our most vulnerable members of society outside the often implicit paradigms that belong to the past.