Editor’s note: This piece includes discussion of statutory rape and sexual assault.
Agency is an assertion of power, and power is not something traditionally afforded to young women. Portrayals of young women’s nascent sexuality, when they are portrayed at all, have typically been infantilised or pathologised in mainstream pop culture.
Perhaps nowhere is this more demonstrable than in early teenage girl fandom. While it’s been argued that fan frenzies like Beatlemania helped bring about the sexual revolution, to this day teenage girls continue to be mocked or dismissed for partaking in the culture they love. More recently, the fan revolt by female fans against GQ’s treatment of One Direction’s Harry Styles played into what critic and journalist Michelle Dean called the misplaced ‘notion that female fandom is irrational and scary’, reflecting the widespread societal and political need to police women’s right to have sex.
This pervasive anxiety around young women’s sexuality, and the disconnect between raised consciousness and the reality of sexual encounters reaches a zenith when popular culture depicts young women in morally ambiguous relationships with older men. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is perhaps the archetypal portrayal of this kind of relationship, with clear ethical quandaries in the power dynamic between Humbert Humbert and the young Dolores Haze. But this power dynamic has been depicted time and time again throughout films and books directed and written by men. Indeed, Louis CK’s film I Love You Daddy, a tribute to Woody Allen which features a relationship between a 17-year-old girl and a 68-year-old filmmaker reminiscent of Allen’s 1979 film Manhattan (and his own alleged sexual misconduct, it should be said), was set to premiere this week but was promptly cancelled after multiple allegations of sexual misconduct were reported against CK.
But the last few years have also seen a centring of the perspective of young women in these relationships, a refusal to capitulate to the male gaze so inherent in texts like Nabokov’s and Allen’s.
The last few years have seen a centring of the perspective of young women in these relationships, a refusal to capitulate to the male gaze.
Benedict Andrews’ 2016 film Una (based on David Harrower’s 2005 play Blackbird) depicts the eponymous victim of child abuse tracking down her abuser fifteen years after their relationship has ended – whether this is to exact revenge or demand an explanation is never made entirely clear.
Una was thirteen when forty-year-old Ray, her neighbour and family friend, entered into a sexual relationship with her. The young Una is depicted as being in love with Ray – the footage of her testifying her love for him via courtroom video deposition is as chilling as it is heartbreaking – and the older Una oscillates between repulsion, rage, and what appears at times to be lingering desire.
In 2015, the moral and cultural anxiety surrounding young female sexuality found its antithesis in the graphic novel-turned-film Diary of a Teenage Girl, which portrays an uneven relationship with a similar age difference to Una, but which resonated with critics and filmgoers for very different reasons.
In it, a fifteen-year-old Minnie Goetze exclaims into her cassette-tape audio diary, ‘I’ve just had sex! Holy shit!’, after she has sex for the first time with her mother’s 35-year-old boyfriend, Monroe. Minnie’s affair with Monroe kick-starts an emancipatory journey of sexual discovery that exalts Minnie’s agency and ownership of her body.
‘It’s hard to overstate what a radical idea it is to show a teenage girl enjoying sex in a movie…That Minnie does, and that she emerges with her dignity intact, is the movie’s biggest provocation,’ writes Rebecca Keegan in LA Times.
The director of Diary of a Teenage Girl, Marielle Heller, subverts the male gaze and the exploitative nature of the relationship through her astute choices in cinematography and lighting. As Manohla Dargis notes in the New York Times, the only time viewers see Minnie completely naked is when she’s by herself, examining her own body and the changes wrought upon it by puberty. ‘She may be the object of Monroe’s lust (and he is unambiguously hers), but Ms Heller ensures that Minnie – who’s never lighted or framed for the viewer’s erotic contemplation – isn’t ours.’
Positive reviews of Diary of a Teenage Girl evoke the idea that Minnie makes her own decisions, however bad they may be, while others observe that Minnie ‘gives consent freely and willingly at numerous instances throughout the film’.
But agreeing to sex is not the same as consenting to it – what is the extent of young women’s sexual agency and their ability to negotiate consent when they enter into legally non-consensual relationships with older men? In Australia, the legal age of consent in most states and territories is sixteen, and anyone under the age of sixteen is said to be a child without the decision-making capacity to consent to sex or sexual behaviour with anyone two years or more older than them, even if they agree to it.
In her research paper on the negotiation of sexual consent, academic Melissa Burkett surveys eight young women aged between eighteen and twenty-four to find that unspoken gender norms impede young women’s ability to negotiate consent. Although women in the 21st century have more access to sexual education and are considered liberated sexual beings compared to women of earlier generations, the research finds that sexual negotiations remain ‘defined by male-privileging sexual ideals’.
Although women in the 21st century are considered [comparatively] liberated sexual beings…sexual negotiations remain ‘defined by male-privileging sexual ideals’.
The line Diary of a Teenage Girl treads between empowerment and exploitation is a delicate one, and although the overall sentiment is one of unbridled celebration of female sexuality, Heller is clear that she’s still depicting a tricky relationship that equates to sexual abuse.
Minnie, when she’s in the midst of it, isn’t feeling abused and she isn’t feeling like she’s being taken advantage of, and so we need to feel that way too.
A lot of abusive situations are actually more complicated, like this. There’s a lot of psychological manipulation. People don’t always believe they are being abused. I was trying to paint a complex picture of this situation.
Locally, Cory Taylor’s debut novel Me and Mr Booker was lauded for the same reason as Diary of a Teenage Girl – its unjudgemental and frank look at burgeoning female sexuality. Engulfed by a growing sense of malaise and entrapment in her small New South Wales town, sixteen-year-old Martha enters into a sexual relationship with the married thirty-something Mr Booker. In his introduction to the Text Classics edition of the book, Benjamin Law says some will find the read an unnerving one precisely because of how it examines ‘teenage female sexuality from the girl’s perspective, without ever dismissing her agency in the relationship.’
At sixteen, Martha has passed the widely agreed-upon age of consent in Australia. But despite not being depicted as a passive participant in the affair, or as being duped into it, is Martha able to consent without being influenced by the disproportionate age and power dynamics in her relationship with Mr Booker? Conner Habib writes about how Taylor skirts around this uncertainty:
The difference between seduction and manipulation is really a difference between uncertainty and innocence: when we’re being seduced, we’re not, in general, unaware of the seduction itself, but we are often uncertain as to whether or not we’ll give into it.
Manipulation, on the other hand, generally requires a party wholly innocent of the motivations of the manipulator. The book hovers just above that difference. Martha is knowing, but is she knowing enough to be seduced and not just manipulated?
While writing about the darker underbelly of fandom in the 1970s, in particular David Bowie’s highly contentious sexual relationship with teenage fan Lori Maddox, American arts and culture writer Jia Tolentino navigates the grey area between robbing a young woman of her autonomy and acknowledging that her negotiation of consent is inevitably muddied by the disproportionate levels of power between a young woman and an older man.
What is our word for a ‘yes’ given on a plane that’s almost vertically unequal? Does contemporary morality dictate that we trust a young woman when she says she consented freely, or believe that she couldn’t have, no matter what she says?
Tolentino observes how women learn to have sex by subliminally adhering to the mores of the time, but perhaps somewhat extraordinarily, they ‘have developed the vastly unfair, nonetheless remarkable, and still essential ability to find pleasure and freedom in a system that oppresses them.’
Una never alludes to the same notion of agency that is so prized in Diary of a Teenage Girl’s Minnie and Me and Mr Booker’s Martha – the shifting goalposts of sexual agency and female sexuality in the three works could not be more stark.
‘[Women] have developed the vastly unfair, nonetheless remarkable, and still essential ability to find pleasure and freedom in a system that oppresses them.’
Political, social and cultural context has a lot to do with it – both Diary of a Teenage Girl and Me and Mr Booker are set in the supposedly liberated 1970s, a time that writer Rebecca Solnit concedes valorised sex with young women.
The culture was sort of snickeringly approving of the pursuit of underage girls (and the illegal argument doesn’t carry that much weight; smoking pot is also illegal; it’s about the immorality of power imbalance and rape culture). It was completely normalized…Which doesn’t make it okay, but means that, unlike a man engaged in the pursuit of a minor today, there was virtually no discourse about why this might be wrong.
When both Minnie’s and Martha’s relationships are discovered, the responses by their guardians are troubling in their inadequacy – Minnie’s mother tries to marry her off to Monroe, never once acknowledging that their relationship is equivalent to statutory rape; Martha’s mother skirts around the issue, while those around her joke about it. Only in the more contemporary Una does the older man face any tangible repercussions for his actions – a four-year prison sentence is a paltry one, and Ray is shown to have escaped thereafter with his dignity largely intact, but it is a form of retribution that is missing from the other narratives.
Beyond popular culture depictions, environmental factors add a new, real world dimension to young women’s negotiation of sexual relationships. In her recently released book The New Puberty, Amanda Dunn writes about how the relatively new phenomenon of increasingly early-onset puberty brings with it an incongruity between a girl’s physical development and her psychosocial development – resulting in the body of an adult, driven by the mind of a child.
‘For girls in particular, physical puberty, or gonadarche, immediately sexualises the body, in a way that is understandably concerning when it strikes young children. It has implications for their physical, social and emotional wellbeing.’
As gender theorist Patrizia Gentile notes, ‘female sexuality has always been constructed as either innocent and pure and in need of protection or something dangerous, unpredictable, and therefore to be feared,’ in what she and numerous other academics have termed the ‘whore/Madonna paradox’. Within a highly sexualised society that still expects women, but particularly young women, to conform to a repressive notion of chastity and purity, the highly contradictory messages young women receive about sex can have corrosive effects on their sense of self.
As cultural narratives on child sexual abuse evolve, the focus of creators has shifted away from demonising young women for having the temerity to showcase agency and more towards empowering them to view their sexual desires as natural and as important as men’s. Sexual agency remains shaped by political, cultural and environmental factors beyond our control, but the sooner we equip young women with the tools to navigate these forces, the less likely they are to be misled by those who would exploit their burgeoning womanhood, and the more likely they are to make sexual discoveries on their own terms.