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Relationships with Older and Younger Partners

It is normal for sexual/gender minority teens to seek older role models from whom they can learn how to negotiate life in their identity.

 

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Parents are understandably protective of their children when it comes to close personal relationships they may have with adults or even older children who are outside the family circle and whom the parents do not know. Such relationships can be problematic: parents worry that an older friend may take advantage of their child or influence the child in directions very different from the goals or values they would prefer. However, it is normal for all developing teens to seek influences and acquaintances outside the family as a step toward negotiating life as a soon-to-be independent adult who is no longer living at home. Boys without fathers actively involved in their lives stand in particular need of older male models. Rainbow teens have special needs in this regard, as parents can seldom provide mentorship in how to live as a proud and self-confident sexual or gender minority person, and many teens are uncomfortable outing themselves to their own age peers in high school for fear of ridicule and rejection. It is not unusual for sexual/gender minority teens to seek older role models from whom they can learn, and it is not unnatural for sexual/gender minority adults who remember their own loneliness as teens to take interest in a confused younger person who is trying to find their way. Such interactions, as between a gay teacher and student, can be benign and even beneficial to a gay or trans teen’s development, so parents need to be able to distinguish when an older mentor may be a helpful guide or a malign influence who is out to exploit teenagers for their own self-gratification. Automatically assuming the worst of any older sexual minority friends your teen makes is a mistake that can alienate and isolate your child by making them suspect and distrust  anyone older. It can also drive a wedge between you and your teen. This section aims to give you advice on how to deal with these situations, including those in which your teen may become involved with a child younger than they are.

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If your teen doesn’t talk about a certain friend they spend time with or introduce that friend to you, it may be due to a natural and common reticence of gay teens to discuss their relationships with heterosexual parents. Gay teens often fear negative judgment even from parents who have made every attempt to be supportive of their identity. This is particularly likely when that friend is a gay or lesbian adult who may also fear parental suspicion of abuse. Being secretive is not necessarily a sign that anything abusive or illegal is going on. All teens, whether gay or straight, prefer a certain zone of privacy when it comes to their sexuality and sexual development. Asking too many questions can be intrusive and counter-productive, making it more likely that teens will actively break off lines of communication and conceal their involvements. Surveillance of a teen’s electronic devices will usually foster distrust and cause more problems than it solves [1,2,3], except in the most extreme circumstances where you see clear signs of abuse or sudden development of serious behavioral problems.

Warning signs of what might be a manipulative or harmful relationship, whether with an older partner or another teen with an older partner, could include access to alcohol or drugs when these were not present before, involvement in petty crime, evidence of your child having money or expensive items that you did not give them or know the origin of, skipping school without your knowledge, staying out too late at night, or vanishing for an extended period without making contact. Asking your teen questions about whom they were with or how they acquired things is entirely appropriate. You are within your rights as a parent to set boundaries in these cases and tell your child not to associate with people you think are bad influences. Focus on the actual infraction, be it substance abuse or staying out too late. You should not necessarily assume that there is a sexual dimension to what is going on in these cases, and it is best not to appear accusatory in a way that your teen will interpret as homophobic or unaccepting of their identity. What you want to avoid are actions that will shut off channels of trust and dialogue with your teen. You can warn them that their friends may not have pure motives and might not have their best interest at heart. Make it clear that you are supportive and open to them if they do have a bad experience with someone older who is trying to take advantage of them, sexually or otherwise. With this strategy, they are more likely to tell you about any real abuse they may encounter.

It is popular wisdom that any adult who becomes involved with any minor must be a sexually violent predator who cannot control their actions and poses a threat to all minors, and that violation by such a person is one of the most devastating fates that can ever befall a young person, condemning them to a lifetime of distrust and mental health problems. The truth is considerably more complicated: most victims of child sexual abuse, even as very young children, go on to live well-adjusted lives free of serious mental health challenges [4], and there is no statistically significant difference in later sexual, social, or psychological adjustment between those whose first sexual encounter was as an adolescent with an adult and those whose first time was as an adult with another adult [5,6]. Adults who become sexually involved with a teenager may show bad judgment, but they are not “pedophiles” as the term is defined in the psychiatric profession and are not classified as mentally ill under the criteria of the profession’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. This is not to say that such relationships are without risk or should be encouraged.

Psychologists have done multiple studies of the effects and consequences of pre-adult sexual encounters with adults. It is best not to study clinical populations, as these are mainly limited to patients who do have serious psychological problems, but to look at broader populations, often drawn from undergraduate students who volunteer to fill out surveys to assist professors’ research. These surveys ask participants to rate any sexual encounters they had as minors with adults as positive, negative, or neutral (i.e. mixed). Female students had mostly negative evaluations of mostly heterosexual encounters with adult men. However, male students more often rated their experiences as positive than negative, regardless of their partner’s gender [7]. Broader population surveys drawn from the pioneering interviews of sex researcher Alfred Kinsey show similar results [8]. Most gay and bi-sexual males rated their experiences with adult men as overwhelmingly positive (77% vs. 15% negative in one student sample, 70% vs. 16% in the broader Kinsey sample), regarding them as developmental milestones in their formation [9,10,11]. Similar results have been found for minor females having a same-sex relationship with an older female (85% positive vs. 0% negative) [12].

Surprisingly, the positive-negative ratios and perceptions of abuse have little to do with the age of the child or the intensity and duration of the experience, but are highly correlated with whether the experience was retrospectively interpreted as consensual or coerced [13,14,15]. There is little evidence for serious long-term psychological harm from fully consensual adolescent sexual exploration on the part of straight and bi-sexual boys with adult women, or gay and bi-sexual boys with adult men [16,17]. There is also no evidence that being abused turns a minor gay, but there is some evidence that being gay or gender-nonconforming makes them more likely to become involved in age-discrepant relationships [18,19].

None of this should be understood as implying that such relationships are well-advised within jurisdictions where they are criminalized and severely punished. They carry a high degree of risk for both participants if the relationship is discovered and reported to authorities: risk of arrest, long incarceration, and lifetime sex offender registration for the older partner, risk of embarrassment and traumatic police interrogation for the younger partner. Criminalization necessitates secrecy and drives many teens into deceiving their family and even friends, such that they lack the correct support mechanism if the relationship does become troubled and they need advice. The risk of such relationships in the contemporary social environment of the US and countries with a heavily punitive approach stems in many cases not so much from inherently harmful qualities of the relationship as from the negative social, legal, and familial responses to such relationships, which may convince a minor they were harmed and manipulated even in cases when they did not originally feel that they were. See below on “iatrogenic harm.”

Don’t panic and don’t go to the police just based on suspicions. First, find out exactly what the laws are in your jurisdiction, as they vary greatly and are often complicated in cases where one partner is just above and the other just below the age of consent. The website www.ageofconsent.net gives relatively detailed information about the laws in all 50 US states and worldwide, but these laws are frequently subject to amendment by legislatures and even this website’s information is not always completely up-to-date. In Canada, the UK, and the majority of US states, the age of consent is 16, but there is often not a single age: for example, in Delaware the general age of consent is 18, but 16 or 17 year olds can legally be involved with a partner below 30, and 12-15 year olds can legally be involved with a partner who is no more than four years older. In many continental European countries the age of consent is 14 or 15; in South Korea, it is 13. These laws are seldom understood by teenagers themselves and your second step after ascertaining the law is to educate your teen about it.

Discuss your concerns about the relationship directly with your minor child before disclosing it to anyone else. Listening to them in a calm and understanding way is important in making it possible for them to trust you and tell you the truth. Before expressing any discomfort with the relationship, ask how well they like this adult, how they now feel about whatever interaction they had with him or her, and whether it was a one-time event or had been an ongoing series of interactions to which the minor willingly returned. It is also important to consider how any sexual interaction came into your teen’s relationship with this adult or older teen: was it at the older partner’s initiative or your child’s, or did it come about through mutual expressions of physical affection? Gay male teens are often hungry for experience or physical intimacy with a partner from outside their social circle, who won’t judge them [9].

Gay males begin to be sexually active at a younger age than their straight peers, 14.5 on average [20], and one study showed that a gay or bi-sexual male’s first sexual partner is on average six years older, so it is not unusual for gay teens to explore sex with someone more experienced [21]. Many gay teens access adult dating or hook-up apps/websites pretending to be 18 when they aren’t: over half of sexually active gay or bisexual male teens do so according to one recent study [22]. In such cases, their partner may not even be aware of their actual age, as many teens who experience puberty early can pass as the legal age when they are not. Gain as much context as you can before telling your teenager what you think. If this is your child’s first acknowledged sexual experience and they sought it out or engaged in it willingly, they may misinterpret your warnings as opposition to their sexual identity. Parental overreaction and expectation of lasting harm in such cases can actually generate more negative psychological outcomes than the relationship itself [23].

However, if your teen says that this relationship or interaction was something initiated by the older partner and your teen was reluctant or feels bad about what happened, it should be regarded as abuse and you should take steps to insure this person has no further contact with your child. If you can determine the identity of the abuser, you should confront them or their supervisor (if they have one) and threaten to go to the police if there is any further contact. If the abuser is an older teenager, you should talk to that teen’s parents: see https://www.stopitnow.org/ohc-content/talking-to-parents-about-childrens-behavior for a useful guide to initiating such a conversation. Only if these approaches fail or prove impossible should you actually consider going to the police. As we shall explain in a following section, opening a police investigation and judicial process will place tremendous pressure and stress on a minor who is already trying to heal from genuine abuse. If you decide that it is necessary to involve the police, you should prepare your gay child for the public spotlight this may shine on the most private details of their sexual life and identity. Being outed in this context can be humiliating. The decision to involve the authorities is a very grave one that in itself poses serious risk for your child, so you should only do so once your child is prepared for the exposure and fully consents to it. Just as many adult victims of rape prefer not to involve the authorities, especially in cases where drugs or alcohol are involved or there is some ambiguity over consent, minor victims’ preferences also need to be respected. You don’t want to become the second adult who violates their consent in such intimate matters.

If your teen says that it was a one-time experiment they willingly engaged in with someone they will never see again, the risks created by getting the police involved may outweigh any potential gain. The more difficult cases are those when your minor child continues to feel affection for an older partner and wants to continue the relationship. In such cases, it can be counter-productive to try convincing them that they are being manipulated or abused if they do not themselves feel that way [23,40]. You can warn your teenager about the dangers or signs of manipulation in a relationship with someone who may have more money and independence than they do; you should also warn them about the legal dangers if the relationship is discovered or suspected by others. If your minor child is in other respects doing well emotionally and academically, is not abusing substances, and appears to benefit from interaction with this partner, a policy of benign neglect or “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” can sometimes be the best option. Make sure that your child knows they can always come to you for help if they ever determine on their own that any relationship is becoming abusive. However, going to the police to break up such a relationship against your teen’s will is especially likely to trigger a serious rupture in your own future relationship with them. If an unlawful relationship is later reported by someone else, and the police question you, you should refuse to talk to them unless an attorney is present, as parents have occasionally been charged as “accessories” for allowing an association within their home or for providing condoms [58,59].

If everything you learn about your teen’s relationship makes you judge it a bad influence, even despite their wish to continue it, you can take decisive action to end it. You can forbid your teen to continue seeing this person and, if necessary, place limits on their activities or time away from home. If your teen defies your boundaries and persists in associating with this person, you can warn both of them that you will go to the police. You can seek a restraining order against this person even without having enough evidence to sustain criminal charges; for a restraining order, you just need a “preponderance of evidence” of harm to your child, not proof beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime has taken place. Actually going to the police should always be the last resort, when all else has failed to stop an association that you conclude is genuinely harming your child, based on clear evidence and not just emotional discomfort with what you feel is premature sexuality.

Once you involve the police, you lose all control over the situation. Once a report has been made, you cannot then say you don’t want to “press charges” and expect the police to drop the matter. Your objective should be the welfare and emotional stability of your child. Their objective is to make an arrest and obtain a conviction at all costs. Contemporary policing in the U.S. is based on the assumption that any adult who becomes involved with a minor is an incurable threat to all minors and must be removed from society permanently to protect public safety. Police like busting people they regard as “child molesters” because it gains them good publicity and is relatively easy, compared to solving other types of crime. If it becomes necessary to bully, manipulate, and coerce one child into making statements that do not reflect their actual feelings, police investigators will do so based on their conviction that it is justified in the broader interests of public safety. Many legal and mental health experts have agreed that investigation and adjudication of these crimes usually exposes a child to greater harm than the original crime, and that is also the conclusion of many parents who have seen their kids go through the process [24-27].

The more a minor is interviewed and the more people they have to talk to about their private experiences, the more likely they are to feel overwhelmed and traumatized by the investigative process itself [28]. Some police investigators can be ruthless in the way they interrogate gay teenagers. Relatively few gay men pursue careers in policing, and many of those who do find the culture of policing homophobic [29-31]. Most gay youth report their interaction with police as negative [32]. Police may tell you that they are experienced in handling these cases and know how to do it with sensitivity, but most of the cases they have handled in the past were likely very different from your child’s situation as a gay or trans teenager: the majority of cases police encounter concern very young children or vulnerable girls who were pressured by an older male into something they later regretted. You will not be allowed to be present when they interrogate your son or daughter about the most intimate details of their sexual life and desires. Their tactics in interrogating witnesses, particularly those for whom they have little sympathy or respect, are often little different from those they learned for interrogating suspects: the goal is to “break” down resistance emotionally. Your child may be isolated in a windowless interrogation room, under video surveillance, possibly for hours without bathroom access until the police get them to say what they want to hear. They may accuse your child of being a “liar.” Police can lawfully yell at your child and pretend to have information that they do not in fact possess, such as claiming to know of other victims or statements that no one made [33,34]. Click here to see a typical example of an actual police interview with a 13-year-old boy who clearly did not want to talk with them, but keeps being badgered with repetition of the same question until he tells the officer what she wants to hear. Police have been known to place minors in psychiatric institutions, threaten them with prosecution on other charges, or threaten their families with cut-off of social welfare assistance if they are uncooperative [35,36]. Your child can be made to feel that they are the one who did something illegal and wrong if they show any signs of denial that they were harmed or admission that they willingly collaborated in what was going on.  If multiple children are involved, your child may be accused of helping the suspect abuse other children, just as victims of sex trafficking are often accused of complicity in the trafficking of others [37].

Through these techniques, minor witnesses have frequently been manipulated into making false statements in order to help police and prosecutors cast the worst possible light on the accused and put them into prison for the longest possible time [38]. In the not infrequent cases when gay teens were  willing collaborators or even initiators of the sexual relations, they can later be haunted with guilt from knowing that their participation and any later statements contributed to incarcerating and ruining the life of someone they once liked or admired. From the perspective of law enforcement, your child’s conflicted emotions and subsequent mental suffering are just collateral damage.

The emotional stress of the process will be multiplied if the accused adult chooses to take the matter to trial and your child has to testify under oath to the truth of a statement that may have been a product of police suggestion, manipulation, or intimidation. Cross-examination by a skilled defense attorney can also be brutal, particularly if your child has made conflicting statements [39]. Before you go to the police, you should warn your child about all of these possibilities and proceed only if they agree that they are prepared for the challenges and think it is the right thing to do. It is a serious mistake to impose this emotional burden on a teenage child against their will or in cases that your child does not consider genuinely abusive.

As with the decision whether to involve the police, a therapist is not something you should impose upon your teenage child, but will work best if it is a mutual decision you both make after a conversation. Forcing a minor into therapy against their will can itself be harmful and counterproductive [40]. If your child feels good about the relationship they had with an older partner and denies they were harmed by it, they are unlikely to need therapy, unless there is some other behavioral issue that is creating problems. Desired sexual activity on the part of a teenager is not in itself abnormal or sign of a mental disorder; teens’ almost ubiquitous access to adult pornography online may encourage them to regard adults as sexually appealing, so a teen’s attraction to an adult is also not a mental disorder. On the other hand, if your child recognizes the relationship as abusive and particularly if you do report it to the police, seeing a therapist until the matter is resolved may be helpful. In cases where your child has mixed feelings or is confused by what happened, a therapist might help them make sense of it, but in these more ambiguous cases seeing a therapist is not without risk.

Although the laws are complicated and vary from state to state, therapists in most states are required to report certain illegal sexual acts your child tells them about, at risk of losing their license to practice or even facing criminal sanctions themselves. Therapists admit to being confused by these laws and will often choose to err on the side of reporting something even if they are not legally required to do so [41]. In this one area, the patient’s right to confidentiality is not absolute. Telling a therapist about a technically unlawful relationship, even one long in the past, can be as good as telling the police. If you and your child are not yet sure that you want to add the stress created by a police investigation and testifying in a criminal trial, you must be very careful in selecting a therapist and setting ground rules for the therapy. The therapy should not ask about specific sexual relationships, and your child must be advised to be careful in not disclosing specific details to their therapist about any acts that occurred while they were underage, unless the matter has already been reported to police. Before taking your child to a therapist, make an appointment to talk with the therapist yourself and tell them that you do not want any discussions that might trigger “mandatory reporter” requirements. Ask the therapist to explain to you the exact details of what the law in your state requires them to disclose. If the therapist seems uncertain about the law or is uncomfortable with limiting discussions to matters that do not trigger mandatory reporting, they are not the right therapist.

Most clinical therapists, including even those who claim to specialize in child sexual abuse, are actually not very well trained or informed about the full spectrum of modern research in this field, particularly as it pertains to rainbow adolescents. Many were trained long ago or cling to old dogmas about the universality of harm in any relationship between partners who differ in age and experience. Some therapists influenced by feminist theories view all such relationships through the lens of the father-daughter incest model, which actually applies only to a tiny number of cases when it comes to GLBT teenagers. Like police, they may implant negative judgments about the interaction that do not match the child’s actual feelings or experience at the time.

For assistance in connecting with a therapist who is well-trained in the area of child sexual abuse prevention without triggering mandatory reporting, you can contact the following organizations:

B4U-ACT: https://www.b4uact.org/attracted-to-minors/professional-support/

Sexually Inappropriate Behaviour (UK): http://sexuallyinappropriatebehaviour.org

Association for Sexual Abuse Prevention International: https://asapinternational.org/index.php/referrals/referrals_therapist_database

In an extensive set of interviews with victims of child sexual abuse, Harvard research psychologist Susan Clancy found, contrary to her initial expectations, that most victims did not regard the event as traumatic at the time, but were troubled later on, when they absorbed society’s prevailing narrative that such events must be traumatic and deeply damaging, and then became disturbed by the mismatch between what they were told normal people are supposed to feel about it and what they actually did feel [42]. For some victims, this leads to self-accusation of somehow being abnormal if they in any way enjoyed or actively participated in what society and their therapist tells them was monstrous abuse. Therapists and parents can do great harm by telling minors that they were just being manipulated into thinking they enjoyed the relationship or freely embraced it; teens find it condescending, disempowering, and belittling to be told that they were too naïve to understand how they were actually being deceived and exploited. This destroys any sense of autonomy or budding self-esteem the teen may have developed by negotiating what they thought was an equal and reciprocal relationship with an adult.

The concept of “iatrogenic harm” refers to damage done by a doctor in attempting to heal something else: in this context, psychological damage done by suggesting to patients that they should feel severely damaged by a sexual encounter or relationship, even if the event originally seemed trivial, inconsequential, or enjoyable [43]. In the worst cases of iatrogenic harm, troubled individuals may be derailed from proper treatment of anxiety, depression, or other mental health disorders that actually stem from more complex patterns of causation. Blaming all of a young person’s problems on sexual abuse can become an easy, pat explanation that allows patients, parents, and therapists to avoid confronting other aspects of a teen’s life that may contribute to their unhappiness even more. The minors who are most susceptible to sexual abuse are those who face an array of other adverse childhood experiences such as physical violence, emotional abuse, neglect, parental substance use, mental illness, poverty, or family instability. Studies have shown that these other factors, rather than the sexual abuse itself, are far more strongly correlated with later life adjustment difficulties [44,45]. Clinical therapists who focus exclusively on sexual abuse as the dominant issue neglect the greater long-term impact of these more sustained problems in the home environment. 

You should not have to be, but unfortunately, in today’s social environment you do need to be concerned if that younger child is outside your immediate family. Even though most rainbow teens will never act improperly with a significantly younger child, some apprehensive parents who do not understand gay children as well as you do may become suspicious and accuse your teen, perhaps out of unjustified fear that your child will turn their same-sex child gay. Trans teens may be treated with special hostility by parents who believe your trans child will influence their children to become trans. Sometimes relatively innocuous behaviors boys engage in like wrestling, showering or going into the bathroom together, using dirty words, talking about sex, or looking at naked pictures or online pornography can become the basis for an accusation by homophobic parents, and some of these activities are technically illegal even in cases when the children may be very close in age. Your teen may not even be the one who initiated the activity, but if they are openly gay or trans and the other child is not or has unaccepting parents, your child is liable to be accused of “molestation.” Children are also capable of making up allegations if they have a falling out or fail to get something they want out of an older friend. Being gay or trans puts a giant target on your child’s back from the perspective of other kids, their parents, and the police. LGBTQ teens are more likely to be accused, reported, investigated, and prosecuted for statutory offenses with other minors than straight teens in similar situations [46].

In such cases, hope that the other parent talks to you rather than immediately calling the police. You can point them to resources like this website and should do what you can to reassure them that nothing harmful will happen in the future; if necessary, agree to separate the two children to allay their concerns. Even if you judge their suspicions to be baseless or frivolous, take them seriously, as they can cause great damage to your child if they think you are uncooperative or in denial. Many parents can become very emotional rather than rational when their child is exposed to anything of a sexual nature. Tell them that you will be taking steps to educate your child on observing proper boundaries. Your objective should be to convince them that any police involvement will only make things worse for both children.

If such an accusation or suspicion arises concerning your teen’s relationship with another child, you need to discuss it with your teen in a calm and non-accusatory manner. Doing so makes it more likely that you will hear the truth from them so that you know what to tell the other parent or your attorney. Study the age of consent laws in your state and educate your teen about them; even many acts far short of sexual intercourse, including mere touching or exposure, count as felony sexual assault when committed in the company of a child below a certain age. Minors are very naïve about the laws and may be under the false impression that they don’t really apply to children playing with other children. They do. Close to one-quarter of the nearly one million Americans currently on the public sex offender registry are there for acts they committed when they were juveniles themselves, and over a third of those on the registry for illegal contact with a minor are there for acts they committed as minors [47,48].

If your child admits to you that they in fact did something of a sexual nature with a younger child, you will be tempted to believe that your child has something profoundly wrong with them and needs to see a therapist. However, sex play among children is very common: in the 1940s and 50s famed sex researcher Alfred Kinsey found that 60% of pre-pubescent boys had engaged in some form of sexual play with other boys, beginning at age 9 on average, and many later studies have confirmed similar figures [49,50]. Such childhood play has no relation to whether the child later develops as gay, and is usually harmful only to the extent that adults discover it and make a fuss over it. When it is a case of an older child with a younger child, the fuss is louder and more intense. The risk that you run with any therapist is that the mandatory reporter requirement may force them to involve the police if they learn of a technically illegal act your child tells them about. If you and your child do agree on seeing a therapist, it is important to set ground rules for both to follow: there must be no discussion of specific sexual acts or relationships, but only of other broader behavioral issues you may have noticed in your child. If the therapist is unwilling to steer clear of issues that might trigger mandatory reporting, you should either find another therapist or yourself take the lead in educating your child about the dangers involved in any kind of sexual interaction or talk with someone younger. If your child seems not to understand the gravity of the situation, you may need to make sure they have no occasion for solo contact with younger children.

We list below some organizations that maintain lists of vetted therapists who will try to avoid conversations likely to trigger mandatory reporting requirements and will instead work constructively with patients who struggle with inappropriate sexual attractions toward younger children. Not all of these therapists will accept adolescent patients, but some do.

B4U-ACT: https://www.b4uact.org/attracted-to-minors/professional-support/

Sexually Inappropriate Behaviour (UK): http://sexuallyinappropriatebehaviour.org

Association for Sexual Abuse Prevention International: https://asapinternational.org/index.php/referrals/referrals_therapist_database

There are also some good online courses to which you can refer an adolescent who displays troubling behavior toward younger children.

Shifting Boundaries: Lessons on Relationships for Middle School Students: https://preventipv/materials/shifting-boundaries

Help Wanted: https://www.helpwantedprevention.org/

Even if you think that you have persuaded the other child’s parents not to inform the police, someone else may, such as a therapist treating the other child. You should prepare for the worst by finding the best criminal defense attorney you can, preferably someone with experience in defending juvenile sex offenders. Some attorneys, especially public defenders, will be so overburdened with other cases or have such mixed feelings that they will not defend the case vigorously, but will just recommend accepting whatever plea deal the prosecution offers. Depending on their age and other circumstances, your teen child could be tried as an adult, but even if the case remains within the juvenile system, the consequences of a conviction for any sex-related crime are life-long and devastating. Juvenile detention facilities are notoriously bad places for vulnerable queer children, where they will become victims of sexual and psychological abuse themselves, particularly if they are identified as “child molesters” (or “chomos” in prison slang) [51,52].

You may be offered the opportunity to keep your child out of jail if you agree to put them into a state-sponsored treatment program, but some of these programs are so barbaric and degrading that jail may actually be the better alternative. The workbooks used in these programs are based on the premise that sexually active children are hypersexual deviants who must be taught to suppress all sexual urges. As recently as the 1990s, methods used on children as young as ten have included ammonia-aversion therapy while forced to listen to violent pornographic scenarios, compelling them to write confessional narratives, or chanting “I am a pedophile and am not fit to live in human society . . . I can never be trusted . . . Everything I say is a lie . . . I can never be cured” [53,47,50,54]. While these extreme approaches are less common today, punitive treatment of sexually active children is still based on engendering shame and repression. Many of the social workers who administer these programs are attracted to this specialty because they perceive themselves as victims of child abuse or rape [55,57]. Others are religious and social conservatives who see their mission as combatting an overly permissive sexual culture in contemporary society. Their ideologies sometimes supersede any commitment to the welfare and self-esteem of your child. Do not hand your child over to them.

The torment will not end with incarceration and humiliating “therapy” during a gay teen’s most sensitive years of development. Once adult, they will be required to register as sex offenders (although California has recently given judges some discretion not to require it in cases of close-in-age relationships). This public mark of Cain will bar them from many forms of employment and from residing within a certain state-mandated distance from any schools, parks, daycare centers, swimming pools, or other public facilities; some localities’ residency restrictions make it impossible for registrants to live almost anywhere within the city limits. If your house is within 1000 or 2000 feet of a school or park, your child may not be allowed to live with you post-release. Many wind up homeless, and even if they can find housing that is legally compliant with the distance regulations, most landlords who do background screening will refuse to rent to them. If they do manage to secure a place, most states require their name, address, photo, and crime to be listed on a searchable public website so their neighbors will be aware of their presence. The database will not tell anyone the details of what happened, such as whether this was a consensual interaction between two minors close in age; people will merely see “sex with a child under the age of __” and regard the registrant as a dangerous psychopath. Vigilante incidents designed to drive registered sex offenders out of a neighborhood are not uncommon [56]. Access to electronic media may also be severely restricted if the offense in any way involved electronic communications. Parole/probation officers detest sex offenders and will do everything they can to send them back to prison repeatedly for minor violations of their conditions (such as not having permanent housing or a job, having contact with other felons, failing to register their whereabouts, or using an unregistered electronic device). The registered sex offender’s life is that of the most despised pariah in modern American society. When faced with this future, some teens have preferred suicide [50]. Your goal as a parent should be to do everything possible to save your child from this fate: once they are branded as a sex offender, your child’s life will be over before it has even begun. If you have to sell your house or work a second job to be able to afford the best attorney, you should do it. Otherwise, you will for the rest of your life blame yourself for not having done more.

[1] Mathiesen, K. (2013). The Internet, Children, and Privacy: The Case Against Parental Monitoring. Ethics and Information Technology, 15, 263-74.  https://doi.org/10.1007/s10676-013-9323-4

[2] Barron, C.M. (2014). “I Had No Credit to Ring You Back”: Children’s Strategies of Negotiation and Resistance to Parental Surveillance via Mobile Phones. Surveillance & Society, 12(3), 401-13. https://doi.org/10.24908/ss.v12i3.4966

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