Brain Development MattersIn the world of sexual ethics, there are few hard and fast rules. But here’s one we can all agree on: Don’t have sex with kids. Legally speaking, however, that’s a bit more complex than it sounds. That’s because not everyone actually agrees on the age of consent. In some states, a 16-year-old can consent to sex with an adult. In others, the age of consent is 18. It’s not that a teenager can’t reason. It’s that they tend to prioritize short-term gains and rewards over long-term consequences. “How is it that a teenager in Colorado is so much more mature than a teenager in California?” asks Jennifer Drobac, a law professor at Indiana University and author of Sexual Exploitation of Teenagers. “That’s ridiculous. They’re not.” This discrepancy arises from the fact that, for the most part, age-of-consent-laws aren’t based on any kind of rigorous ethical or scientific system – they’re the result of legislators’ intuition. Drobac says that’s the wrong approach. Instead, she argues, we should focus on the science of adolescent brain development to understand what kinds of decisions kids can healthily make. Research tells us that, while most teens are beginning to establish a stable sense of identity by age 18, their brains still aren’t done maturing. “Cognition continues to develop into the early 20s,” Drobac says. That doesn’t mean that 18-year-olds shouldn’t be “allowed” to have sex with people older than them. They’re legal adults, and deserve bodily autonomy. That does mean, however, that even older teens lack the cognitive skills to make sexual decisions on equal footing with adults much senior to them. Context matters. Factors like flattery or peer pressure can all blur a young person’s ability to consent. This, too, has to do with brain development. Research shows that adolescents make the same decisions as adults when they’re in “cool” situations: when they have all the facts, aren’t under pressure, and are emotionally even-keeled. In “hot” situations, however – ones that are high-stress, peer-pressured, or when they’re feeling a strong emotion (like horniness) – these decision-making skills go out the window. “It’s not that they can’t reason,” says Drobac. “It’s that they tend to prioritize short-term gains and rewards over long-term consequences.” That’s why, says Drobac, it’s important for teens to learn sexual decision-making through consensual experiences with other teens—not through questionably consensual sexual experiences with much older adults.
It’s About PowerWhat about when we’re all consenting adults? By the age of 23 or so, our brains have fully matured. At that point, other factors—like gender, life stage, and material power—become more important than straightforward neurological development. Ironically, the lack of clear-cut, brain-based differences can make parsing power and consent even trickier. “Age of consent isn’t a box that you check,” says Harris. “Just because someone is over the age of consent technically doesn’t mean that consent is implied or that a relationship is okay or healthy.”
We have to consider age as one factor within the relationship’s “ecology of power.”This is particularly relevant in situations where an older adult may have a supervisory role over a younger adult (as a boss or mentor), or when an older adult has access to substantially greater resources than their younger lover (for example, a wealthy older boyfriend). It’s also relevant for adults who need physical care, in which case the younger partner may have more power than the older person they are caring for. That’s why, instead of thinking of age differences as a math problem, Harris says we have to consider age as one factor within the relationship’s “ecology of power.” A phrase from domestic violence activism, “ecology of power,” encompasses the dynamics that surround two people’s intimacy. It’s the emotional equivalent of a rainforest or desert ecosystem. This ecology is made up of all the factors that affect how two people relate, from age, gender, and workplace relationships, to race, income, sexuality, and disability. Cultural stereotypes about sex and identity can affect ecologies of power. These are the beliefs that censure older “cougars” who date consenting younger men, while victim-blaming teenage boys whose assumed sexual precocity is used to justify their abuse. These also, says Harris, include the racist beliefs that long portrayed people like R. Kelly’s victims, mostly girls and young women of color, as unworthy of social protection. There’s no magical equation that gets us out of the hard work of creating egalitarian relationships. We can only commit to showing up, to questioning our own privileges and motivations, and to having conversations that might be uncomfortable, but will in the long run ensure everyone is consenting in a deep way.