"Sometimes when you're overwhelmed by a situation-when you're in the darkest of darkness-that's when your priorities are reordered." Phoebe Snow
This is a hard blog to write. Last Saturday, Ed and I went to the movie, “Diary of a Teenage Girl.” When I first read about this movie, I wasn’t sure I could watch it: a coming of age movie about a 15-year old girl who is having sexual intercourse with her mother’s 35 year-old boyfriend.
From my perspective, I wouldn’t call this “having sexual intercourse,” I’d call it rape. A 35 year-old male—regardless of how a girl is behaving—does not have any business having intercourse with a 15 year-old. However, this movie makes no such judgments and leaves it to the audience to reach its own conclusions. And certainly, the 23 year-old actress did a fabulous job of portraying a self-possessed, curious and sexually driven 15 year-old, for whom sexual intercourse was not only desired, but also highly pleasurable. And the actor playing the 35 year-old did a good job portraying a somewhat bewildered middle-age male who completely fails to check his own behavior and discourage hers—but does not come off as a predator.
I am not arguing with the premise that some 15 year-old girls may very well be ready emotionally and physically for intercourse—but it is hard to imagine the degree of sexual confidence and self-possession in a 15 year-old as depicted in this film. And regardless of a whether a girl is or feels ready to be highly sexual at 15, she should not be involved with anyone more than 3 years older than she is—the age difference creates too great a risk for abuse of power. I speak to this from that hard place of experience.
When I was 15, I was pursued and “dated” by a 21 year-old college student I’ll call “Stan” for about six months. He was the son of family friends and when he asked me to go out for a hamburger on a family vacation, I was initially flattered—and surprised that my parents said “yes.” At the time, I was an athletic, nerdy, and somewhat shy kid and was just starting to think about boys. My thoughts were simple: I wanted a boy to like me; I wanted to hold hands on the beach or maybe have him put his arm around me; admittedly, the thought of a gentle first kiss was a thrill. Imagine my shock when my first kiss was Stan grabbing me and cramming his tongue deep into my mouth. Not exactly the sweet, tender experience I had imagined. I was grossed-out, scared, and overwhelmed. I hadn’t even decided at that time whether I liked him as a boyfriend or even wanted to be kissed, even gently.
This marked the beginning of six months of hell during which Stan abused me emotionally and sexually. He terrorized me with the threat that he’d kill himself if I ever broke up with him; he smothered me by showing up at our house Friday afternoons and staying until Sunday nights—and by calling nightly during the week.
He isolated me from my friends, calling them “sluts” and “bitches.” During the 6 months I “dated” Stan, he constantly pushed himself on me sexually, touching me at every opportunity, forcing me to touch him and never once asking if I wanted to touch or be touched sexually. I didn’t. I wasn’t remotely close to being ready for or interested in this kind of relationship.
At 15, I also did not have the resilience, strength or self-confidence to resist Stan: his age, experience and manipulations easily overwhelmed and paralyzed me. With my father’s alcoholism raging out of control and my mother doing everything she could to cope, I simply could not talk to my parents—neither seemed emotionally available nor equipped to help me out. When I finally hit my breaking point and broke up with Stan his parting threat (after hours of begging, pleading, and crying on the phone) was “look me up in the obituaries.” By that time, I knew what life with Stan would be like, and I was willing to take the risk and deal with the consequences, as horrible as it would have been.
I don’t tell this story to elicit sympathy—I’ve done my healing and forgiveness work—I tell this story because I see potential for great harm in a movie that portrays a 15 year-old who is highly sexualized and confidently interacting with an older man, as if this were the norm. To me, “Diary of a Teenage Girl” gives the Stans of the world—predators—an example, and an excuse to justify unacceptable behavior.
While “Diary of a Teenage Girl” can be lauded for portraying a sexually confident 15 year-old girl, it fails in pairing that girl with an older man and withholding judgment on the potential problems of such a relationship. And while I really do like the thought of girls and women living in a world where we can be shamelessly sexual when we are ready and in age-appropriate relationships, that world seems to be a long way off.