A growing roster of powerful men from Hollywood to Alabama to Pennsylvania Avenue have been accused of sexual misconduct lately, and it’s a vital first step to redressing decades of previously hidden violence against girls and women. But there are major, troubling issues in sexual violence that remain to be addressed. Progressives have not sunk to the depths of denial and whining about persecution that we’ve seen on the Right, which included the Alabama Republican leadership standing behind defeated U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, and a recent poll that showed the sexual assault allegations against him actually made many evangelicals more likely to vote for him. In the cases of Moore and President Donald Trump, who also has faced numerous accusations of sexual assault and harassment, even against young teenagers, supporters don’t care whether their candidates are sexual predators. In contrast, Democrats at least initially are setting a strong standard first in supporting an ethics investigation that Senator Al Franken ruefully requested into his own offenses. He later resigned under pressure from his own party. However, progressives still harbor serious hypocrisies.
Given the hostile climate fostered by constant denigration, why would girls feel safe reporting abuses?
First, there’s the perpetual Bill Clinton problem. Feminist commentator Michelle Goldberg chastised liberals who believed women’s on-the-record testimonies of sexual misconduct by Republicans Trump and Moore but dodged a woman’s on-the-record testimony accusing Democrat Clinton of rape. Liberals are appalled that Moore blatantly admitted dating teenagers while in his 30s, but they tolerated a 50-year-old Clinton’s hookups with a 21-year-old White House intern he supervised. However, Democrats caught up in Washington’s rising anti-harassment tide are reassessing his misbehaviors, so his reprieve may be coming to an end. Second, as I concluded from reviewing hundreds of media articles for an article in Youth and Policy, mainstream and liberal media have long produced sensational and inaccurate stories that vilify teenage girls and young women. Splashes on “teen pregnancy” and girls’ violence, meanness, bullying, “hooking up,” depression, recklessness, sexting, narcissism, drunken partying, shallow materialism, and so on, deploy demeaning, generalized language. Rosalind Wiseman’s acclaimed guide to young girls in society, Queen Bees and Wannabes, is typical; its first 15 pages label teenage girls “confused,” “sneaky,” “lying,” “mean,” “lashing out,” and “totally obnoxious.” Given the hostile climate fostered by constant denigration, why would girls feel safe reporting abuses committed by respectable, powerful men? And why would authorities (or anyone else) believe them? Third, progressive interests have, for political reasons, downplayed both adults’ sexual abuses against girls and consensual adult-teen sex. In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that two-thirds of all marital births and 44 percent of unwed births among mothers age 18 and younger were fathered by adult men 20 years of age and older. Some 10,000 of those cases involved men older than 24. And these are just births; total sexual encounters would be many times higher. Most of these liaisons presumably were consensual, but some were not, and most involve debilitating conditions of poverty and prior abuses imposed on young women. The history of this issue is not edifying. In the early 1990s, research emerged documenting that large majorities of teenage mothers, as well as sexually active girls younger than 15, had been victims of rape and sexual abuse by older assailants, and that most teenage pregnancies involved adult male partners, not teen boys. Poverty afflicting 15 million children and youth is strongly associated with teenage pregnancy, childbirth, and victimization. Economic studies found teen motherhood had some positive benefits for poorer young women, including bringing them more personal and financial stability. Research found that poorer teenagers who become pregnant typically stabilized previously chaotic lives and, by their 30s, were actually earning more money and receiving less public assistance than similarly poor young women who waited to have babies. Initially, this research seemed to augur positive change in the myth-filled “teenage sex” debate.
Democrats and liberals maintained the political myth that “teen pregnancy” was just a girl problem.
However, the politics of then-President Clinton’s embrace of the Right’s “family values” and welfare-reform campaigns exploited anger at “teenage mothers”—specifically, black teen mothers. Acknowledging adult male partners, sexual abuses, and poverty didn’t fit Clinton’s crafted message that the problem was just bad morals: girls lacked “personal responsibility” and “character.” Democrats and liberals maintained the political myth that “teen pregnancy” was just a girl problem. Their double standard was epitomized by a badly flawed Urban Institute paper, which found unacceptable teenage girls who get pregnant, but justified adult men up to five years or more older (if unmarried) and older men of any age (if married) impregnating juvenile girls under 18 “regardless of the mother’s age” as “squarely within societal norms.” Welfare-reform politicians, buttressed by the paper, effectively buried the unwanted complications of adult-male partners and abusers. Today, leaders, interest groups, and news media perpetuate the myth that teenage sex and pregnancy and campus rape are just peer problems caused by ignorant, badly behaving girls and boys in need of more sex (or abstinence) education. In a troubling example, I found no case in which former President Barack Obama publicly mentioned the nearly 500,000 sexual abuses and rapes against children and teenagers in their homes, overwhelmingly inflicted by parents and parents’ partners, that his agencies substantiated during his eight-year presidency. Obama’s anti-rape campaign, and that of Trump’s education department, didn’t mention the substantial contributions older men made to sexual violence on and around campuses. Adult men who victimize teenagers in difficult conditions are typically treated as a faceless environmental contaminant, like smog. In contrast to the mass media hysteria that generates a steady stream of stories on bullying by mean girls, girls seduced by the dark side of social media, slut-shaming, tawdry celebrity exposés and the like, powerless young women receive support and validation in the media only in two limited circumstances. The first is when partisans can use scandal to skewer political adversaries, such as former Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner, now serving a jail sentence after right-wing media exposed his sexting with a schoolgirl. The second is when similarly powerless teenage boys can be lambasted as girls’ and young women’s assailants and impregnators.
Births and sexual violence among teens and young adults have plunged in recent years.
Both partisan allegations and pointing fingers at peer boys highlight a part of the problem that’s easy to confront. But they represent only a fraction of the much larger, more difficult tradition of sexual behaviors and victimizations these prominent cases are bringing to light. Fortunately, amid the denials, exploitations, and hypocrisies, young people appear to be striking a different course. A fascinating trend has emerged: births and sexual violence among teens and young adults have plunged in recent years. Furthermore, births that do occur are much less likely to involve much-older partners.
The massive decline in births by under-18 girls, especially those involving older, over-20 fathers, occurred everywhere, whether sex and contraception education is required, or abstinence is preached, or if nothing at all is done. A similar trend occurred among women age 18 to 24. Young women today are avoiding early motherhood, especially with older men. Similarly, FBI statistics show rape and sex offenses by teenaged boys and young men have plummeted to record lows, while crime victimization surveys show rape and sexual crimes against teenaged girls and young women also plunged. What’s going on? As young women have gained more education and independence in recent decades, sexual violence and birth rates both have fallen sharply. Over the last 25 years, the teenage female population grew by one million, became more ethnically diverse, and displays record educational achievement, defying skyrocketing burdens of tuitions and debt. In 2016, 61 percent of 18- to 24-year-old women were in or graduated from college, compared to 51 percent of men that age, an enormous gain over previous generations. The growing power of young females may contribute to another crucial change: the acceptability of young women reporting sexual victimizations by older men contemporaneously instead of having to wait decades to gain credibility. My analyses suggest increasing power and independence of young women brought dramatic decreases in their early pregnancies and sexual victimizations. That teenaged girls and young women who allege Moore, Trump, and other powerful men tried to victimize them forcefully rebuffed their advances is a remarkably positive turn of events for women. We now have to demand more—much more—change from men. Updated Dec. 13, 2017. This story was updated to reflect Alabama election results and Sen. Al Franken’s resignation.
Mike Males is a senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, the principal investigator for YouthFacts, and the author of five books on American youth.