No, it’s just another lazy excuse of male weakness, writes Hugo Schwyzer.
Please note that this column may prove triggering for some.
Can a little girl really seduce a grown man?
I was asked that question this week by a friend of mine, a graduate student whose dissertation looks at evolving attitudes towards sexual abuse. In the course of her research, my friend met a woman in her 40s who, over a series of interviews, repeatedly insisted that she’d been a “little Lolita” in her own preteen years. Deborah (not her real name, of course) wanted to make it clear that, as she put it, “grade-school girls can have sexual agendas too.”
Deborah, now a mother of teens herself, told my friend that when she was 11, she’d started taking private piano lessons. Her teacher was a married man in his 30s, and he gave these lessons out of his home while his wife was away. Deborah was desperate for affection, and she thought her piano teacher was “very handsome.” She cuddled up to him on the piano bench, and eventually worked her way up to sitting in his lap.
One day, she felt his erection driving against her. Deborah had secretly read her mother’s copy of The Joy of Sex; she knew—or thought she knew—what an erect penis meant. As she put it to my friend, she “delighted in knowing he was turned on,” and began to move around on his lap. Her teacher moaned and clasped her tighter; Deborah reported that it “felt really good.” When it was over, he sent her home angrily. But he didn’t cancel their next lesson, and soon she was in his lap again. Their sexual relationship only ended when Deborah and her family moved away.
In Deborah’s telling of the story, she was the pursuer and her teacher the pursued. That she was a preteen and he in his 30s was irrelevant. As she insisted to my friend, “sometimes girls are stronger than grown men.” Deborah seemed to remember the relationship with a mixture of pride and shame, noting that her teacher seemed powerless to resist her. “He always told me it would never happen again. But it always did.”
I’ve told my friend to refer Deborah to therapy. But I wanted to write about this story because it fits in well with one of the most troubling aspects of the myth of male weakness: the idea that adult men might be powerless to resist the charms of a seductive teen (or even pre-teen) girl. Deborah isn’t the only person who believes that girls might be responsible for seducing adult men. Listen to the chorus of complaints about how provocatively teens and tweens are dressed, and you’ll hear at least a few notes of concern that adolescents might be sending the “wrong message” to adult men. Call it the “Lolita Myth”: the idea that pubescent girls have the power to cause men many times their age to lose all sense of right and wrong.
We see this theme in pornography. One of the staples of written erotica (both in serious literature and in modern porn) is that of the very young girl who seduces a much older man. A little Googling led to one website, “The Young Girl Erotic Repository.” It features an archive of stories, most of which feature the same thing: girls 12-16 (or even younger) seducing their uncles, teachers, pastors, and—astonishingly often—their own fathers. These little “nymphets” are invariably the aggressors, hungry for experience. The older men they pursue usually try to resist, pleading morality or common sense, but inevitably fall prey to the intensity of their own desire for these girls. It’s not hard to see that these stories are carefully crafted to alleviate the guilt of child molesters. But the mindset they reflect is one held by many who aren’t pedophiles.
I’ve heard stories like Deborah’s more than once. Most of the therapists I’ve talked to about this story have heard them as well. So I’m quite confident that some young girls (but far fewer than are imagined by a certain kind of pornographer) do try to seduce older men. Many children are hungry for attention, and many girls, sadly, have learned that the best way to get that attention is through their sexuality. And as psychologists have been telling us for generations, pre-pubescent children are capable of sexual feelings. In some instances, such as Deborah’s, a sexual encounter with an adult might genuinely “feel really good.” As I’ve written before, we make a huge mistake by assuming that the victims of sexual abuse never feel pleasure.
Rightly concerned as we are about the sexualization of young children, we need to be careful to remember that teens and tweens are sexual. Children and adolescents need the space and the freedom with which to develop their own healthy sexualities, free from the unhelpful encouragement to “be sexy” for others and from the equally toxic pressure to repress all of their desires until marriage. And one key way we help young girls develop a healthy sexuality that is theirs alone is by creating a culture in which they don’t see themselves as objects of adult male desire. That means the onus is solely on adult men to set and maintain good boundaries.
Some teens do want, or think they want, sexual attention from older men. But the reality that underage girls (be they 11 or 17) occasionally behave seductively towards older men doesn’t mean that older men can “be seduced.” The word “seduce” means “to be led away” or “to be led astray.” No adult is so weak that he (or she) is powerless to refuse sexual temptation, much less from a child. As powerful as the libido is, it is not so strong as to trump the will. Testosterone may drive desire, but unless a man has sustained significant trauma to the moral center of his brain, hormones can’t override the power to choose. (Hint: an erection doesn’t constitute significant trauma to the right temporo-parietal junction.)
Deborah’s piano teacher had a choice as every man has a choice. The fact that she was blatantly seductive doesn’t in any way mitigate his responsibility to have chosen differently, just as the fact that she may have experienced both power and pleasure from what took place change the reality that she was sexually abused. There is no ambiguity when it comes to sex between adults and minors. An adult always has both the ability and the obligation to resist a seductive child. A child may grow up, as Deborah did, with an enduring sense of responsibility for a sexual relationship with an adult. But what Deborah needs to hear is that no matter how sexually aggressive she may have been, she was not in any way the architect of what happened.
There is no gray area here. Grown men who outsource their self-control to grown women underestimate their own capacity for reflection and restraint. Grown men who outsource that control to little girls—even little girls with women’s bodies—use the myth of male weakness to justify the unspeakable.