An Open Letter to Wolak, Finkelhor and Mitchell
Why are adult-teen relationships illegal?
Dear Drs. Wolak, Finkelhor and Mitchell,
In 2004, you released a paper that showed in detail the circumstances surrounding sexual liaisons between adults and teens that were initiated over the Internet. The findings of the study, Internet-initiated sex crimes against minors: Implications for prevention based on findings from a national study, were contrary to popular belief. While many believe that young teens are deceived into sexual relationships with adults, your study showed that this is not usually the case. On the contrary, it showed that most teens entering into such relationships do so with the full knowledge that the relationship is going to be sexual. Furthermore, it appears to inidicate that sex does not traumatize the teens as much as the drama resulting from the discovery of the relationship by other adults. Indeed, 73% of the teens in the study met their adult lovers more than once; 59% of them meeting three or more times.
Despite these findings, however, you concluded that education needs to be improved to show teens how dangerous and risky such relationships can be. Amongst other things, you mention that teens need to be aware that their actions can land their lovers in prison and that the details of the relationships might wind up being heard in a court of law. You also mention that participating in such relationships could increase the risk to other teens despite your findings that the adults involved in such relationships rarely used force or deception in their dealings with the teens. I am baffled that you took the luxury of moralizing and speculating in a paper that was otherwise impeccable in its objectivity and methodology. Why did you feel the need to contradict your own findings and why is the most dangerous risk you cite the discovery of the relationship and the subsequent prosecution of the adult? It appears that many teens willingly enter into and enjoy these relationships, so why are the relationships illegal? Rather than trying to prevent and proscribe these relationships, should we not be asking why such restrictive laws are on the books in the first place?
Deception Not a Factor
Adults’ Openness about Sex
|Lied about sexual motives||21%|
|Brought up sexual topics||80%|
|Engaged in cybersex||20%|
|Sent sexual pictures||18%|
|Sent adult pornography||10%|
|Sent child pornography||9%|
Public perception says that ‘Internet predators’ deceive their victims, either by lying about their motives or their age. Your report, however, turns these assumptions on their heads. Instead, you discovered that the adults spoke quite openly about sexual matters, bringing it up 80% of the time. In fact, only 21% of the adults lied about their sexual motives.
|Claimed to be under 18||5%|
|Stated lower than actual age||25%|
|20+ years older than teen||47%|
Considering the age differential between many of the adults and teens, the adults were generally quite honest about their age as well. Only 5% of the adults claimed to be minors. A more common (25%) deception was to state an age that was lower than their actual age, but still significantly higher than the teen’s age. Thus, the vast majority of adults were honest about the fact that they were significantly older than the teens and were well aware of the fact that they were communicating with minors. Only nine percent of the teens claimed to be adults.
Coercion Not a Factor
What Happened at Meetings
|Teen went somewhere with adult||83%|
|Teen spent night with adult||41%|
|Intercourse or oral sex||89%|
|Rape, violent Sex||5%|
|Violence or threatened violence||5%|
In 76% of the cases used in your study, online contacts led to face-to-face meetings. Despite the age differences involved, the face-to-face meetings did not scare the teens off. Instead, 93% of the meetings led to some sort of sexual activity. While 46% of first meetings occurred in a public place, the young people were usually willing to go somewhere more private with the adults. Fully 83% of the teens willingly rode in a vehicle and went somewhere with the adults. 41% of the young people spent the night with the adult.
First Meetings Not Traumatic
|At least one meeting||73%|
|Three or more meetings||39%|
|Moved in with adult||20%|
One would expect that if these first encounters were negative or traumatic for the teens, they would decline further meetings. Your report, however, shows that the young people overwhelmingly elected to continue in these relationships. To be precise, 73% of the teens had at least one more meeting. 13% had two meetings, 39% had three or more meetings and a fifth of the teens actaully lived with their adult lovers for some period of time.
Courtship Is a Factor
Length/Quality of Relationships
|<1 month before first meeting||27%|
|1-6 months before first meeting||48%|
|6+ months before first meeting||16%|
|Adults gave money or gifts||47%|
|Teens in love/felt close to adults||50%|
While the common stereotype says that the adults in such cases are only interested in sex, your study suggests otherwise. Only 27% of face-to-face encounters occurred within one month of the initial online contact, while nearly half (48%) took place after 1-6 months of correspondence. 47% of the adults gave money or gifts to the young people. Fully half of the young people said that they were in love or felt very close to their adult lovers. The fact that nearly three quarters of the young people who had face-to-face meetings with their friends continued on to subsequent meetings also indicates that the adults succeeded in cultivating more than just a selfish relationship with the the teens.
Considering that the discussion and conclusions you present after your results fly in the face of the data you presented, it seems necessary to inquire about some of your specific statements:
“Most offenders took time to develop relationships with victims. Sixty-four percent communicated with the victims for more than one month.”
This does not appear to be any different than online courtship between two adults or two teens. What is it then that makes the cultivation of this sort of relationship bad and what evidence do you have that a relationship between an adult and a teen is harmful to the teen?
“In summary, Internet-initiated sex crimes involved teenagers too young to consent to sexual intercourse that were described by respondents as in love with or close to the offenders they had met online.”
Why are teens considered to be incapable of consent? It appears that the teens in this study made their decision to have sex over a period of time. Why is their consent then considered invalid? What is the harm of falling in love? If teens are experiencing genuine love in these relationships then what is the reason for proscribing them? Do you have any evidence that suggests that these adult lovers are any less sincere in their love than another teen might be?
“These were nonforcible crimes, committed by men who were much older than the victims. The victims knew that they were interacting with adults who were interested in them sexually. The length and variety of communications and multiple fact-to-face meetings in most cases indicate that many victims viewed their interactions with much older adults as desired relationships.”
Once again, it is not apparent why such relationships are considered harmful. Other than the events that occurred after the exposure of the relationships and perhaps the need for secrecy throughout, what part of these desired relationships damaged the teens? Your evidence appears to suggest that even young teens are indeed capable of understanding the dynamics of romantic relationships and deciding for themselves what they desire. How then do you justify prevention of such relationships and support for consent legislation?
“Although they undoubtedly manipulated juveniles in a number of ways, the offenders in these Internet-initiated crimes did not generally deceive victims about being older adults who were interested in sexual relationships. Victims usually knew this before their first fact-to-face encounter with offenders.” [italics mine]
Where is your evidence of ‘undoubted manipulation’ by the adults? What are the ‘numerous ways’ that this ‘manipulation’ took place? Are these supposed manipulative behaviors any different from behaviors common to courtship between two adults or two teens? Do you have any evidence that suggests that the teens were incapable of coping with these behaviors or that they did not engage in courtship behaviors of their own?
“The data suggests that a major challenge for prevention is the population of young teens who are willing to enter into voluntary sexual relationships with adults whom they meet online.”
If this is the case, rather than concentrating on prevention, should we not be examining why teens seek out adult partners? Would it not be wise to examine the validity and purpose of consent laws? Are not such laws discriminatory against the teens and adults who desire these relationships?
“One avenue is to educate teenagers directly about why such relationships are a bad idea. Young teens may not be fully aware that the adult in these relationships are committing a crime and can go to jail. They have probably not considered that the publicity, embarrassment, and life disruption likely to accompany a public revelation of such a relationship.”
It appears that your most compelling argument for discouraging these relationships are external to the relationship and are the result of legislation that makes the relationship a crime. On the other hand, your results showed that the young people desired the relationships that they were in. If these things are true, should not the external negative factors be removed so that teens and adults can engage in relationships they desire without fear of these negative external factors coming into play?
“They may benefit from understanding the manipulations that adult offenders engage in, and from understanding that adults who care about their well-being will not propose a sexual relationship or involve them in risky encounters.”
The study results do not seem to indicate deception and manipulation. Where is your evidence that these relationships are manipulative? What is the basis for the statement that caring adults are never interested in sexual relationships with teens? Are these encounters risky only becase of external factors? If so, should the validity of these external factors be examined?
“They should know that corresponding with adults trolling for teenaged partners can encourage offenders and endanger other youth, even when the relationships are confined to the Internet.”
Where is the evidence that such relationships endanger youth? Your study results show that there was little danger to teens in these relationships other than public exposure. Is falling in love dangerous?
“In addition to monitoring for unhealthy online relationships adults, parents and professionals working with children need to discuss the reality and inadvisability of these relationships.”
What is unhealthy and inadvisable about these relationships other than external factors? What ‘reality’ of these relationships needs to be discussed? That many teens willingly entered into, desired and enjoyed these relationships? (That would not appear to be an effective prevention strategy.)
“Further study about the nature and characteristics of online relationships in general will help to distinguish between the qualities of healthy and unhealthy relationships so that prevention can be aimed at the latter while not discouraging the former.”
What are the criteria of a ‘healthy’ and an ‘unhealthy’ relationship? Are these criteria based upon what is actually beneficial or desired by the teen or upon whether the relationship will run afoul of external limitations such as consent legislation?
“We also ned to evaluat the impact of victimization by nonforcible sex crimes on adolescents. Internet-initiated crimes, especially when perpetrated upon naïve adolescents, could involve elements of projection and betrayal that could increase their harm.”
Do you have any evidence that a teen having a relationship with an adult is at greater risk of disappointment or betrayal than a teen in a relationship with a peer? What is the evidence that the teens involved in these relationships are naïve? Your study results suggest that they had the necessary sophistication to make these decisions for themselves.
Your study suggests that the primary risk factor to teens in relationships with adults are the possibility that the adults in their lives will discover the relationship, that it will subsequently be reported to the police and the adult arrested and that this will result in the relationship being publicized, the details even being dragged into court. In other words, nearly all of the damage appears to be the result of the refusal by society to accept such relationships and of the laws they have enacted to prohibit such relationships from taking place. Furthermore, while these laws are ostensibly in place to protect young people from predatory adults, they appear to be only effective in criminalizing consensual and mutually beneficial love relationships between teens and adults. What is really needed is research into the negative effects of the enforcement of consent statutes on these youth as well as an examination of how the adverse publicity arising from these relationships causes them harm and emotional trauma.