I was planning to write this last year when I watched The Crush from 1993, but figured I'd wait until this year when we were solidly out of the vulnerable phase of the excitement cycle, and had left behind its Me Too hysteria. Since entering the restless warm-up phase this year, people will be able to get the point without filtering it through the lens of an ongoing sexual moral panic.
To cover each restless phase in detail, I'll break the survey up into a series -- this introductory post, and separate posts on each of the restless phases (late 2000s, early '90s, late '70s, and early '60s). In each of those, I'll give a brief background on the vulnerable phase that preceded it, to show how attitudes changed, as well as a brief look at the manic phase that followed, to show how the attitudes persisted afterward (before reversing in the next vulnerable phase).
First, a reminder on the phases of feminism that change in tandem with the excitement cycle. Feminists are not the only group to weigh in on debates over sexuality, but they always do, so they're a useful indicator of the zeitgeist. (On the Right, there's typically an evangelical Christian counterpart of each feminist phase.)
During the vulnerable phase, they're in a refractory state, so they externalize their feelings of "attention = pain" into an emphasis on victimhood and trauma. Once they're out of that refractory state, during the restless warm-up phase, they don't need to portray all men as predators and all sex as rape. In fact, now that it's time to come out of their shells, they will ditch the victimhood Olympics and get flirtatious again. When that coming-out process has been completed, by the time the manic phase begins, they will resonate even less with victimhood and passivity. Their energy levels will be soaring on a sustained spike, making them feel active and invincible -- and therefore, carefree rather than hysterical.
The topics of teenage sexuality, and age differences involving a teenage partner, clarify an otherwise nebulous debate about "sexual predation," and naturally come to the forefront of the discussion. The anti-horny side can make an easier case about one partner overpowering the unwilling other partner when the former is more mature (mentally and physically), while the latter is still developing.
That is the debate within liberal morality, which focuses on matters of harm and fairness. But there is a related debate within conservative morality about the wholesomeness of such relationships, or of teenage sexuality in general -- regardless of whether any meaningful "predation" is taking place. Conservative morality includes matters of purity and taboo, violations of which are disgusting and ought to be prohibited.
While the anti-horny side may be zealous in both cases, it's not true that "left-wing sex police are just as puritanical as the right-wing sex police". Anti-horny liberals will focus narrowly on matters of harm, power, and consent -- unlike anti-horny conservatives who will focus on a gut reflex of "that just ain't right, you're just not allowed to feel things for / date / have sex with that type of person".
Regardless, anti-horniness rises and falls according to the excitement cycle, even if it comes in distinct liberal and conservative flavors. So we won't focus on the justification given for or against, but only whether the zeitgeist is tolerant of or opposed to age differences.
And this survey will be descriptive rather than normative. I might occasionally wade into the debates myself, but having already experienced several cycles worth of these debates, I've concluded that they don't affect anything other than the short-term feelings of individuals and perhaps the cultural portrayals in the mass media. It's not a substantive debate, but the expression of society's current mood, which goes through five-year phases that cycle every 15 years.
So I won't weigh in on whether some state, whose age of consent is 16, ought to raise it to 17 or lower it to 15. Or whether the age of consent should be structured -- e.g. 16 for a partner who's however-close in age, but 18 if the partner is however-older. These are fake debates that never go anywhere, and never change anything real. They are the most boring epiphenomenal reflection of the underlying zeitgeist. I'll stick to the more relatable and moving examples from popular attitudes and pop culture.
I chose the word "naturalization" deliberately for the title of this post. The restless-phase zeitgeist is not so much about an overall celebration of teenage sexuality, or of age-gap relationships. It's merely the elimination of the taboo quality that the discussion used to have during the trauma porn atmosphere of the vulnerable phase. Some may be in favor and others opposed, but it will be a mundane and naturalistic discussion, not a zealous moralistic panic.
But when the topic is naturalized, it will receive some naturalistic and approving portrayals in pop culture -- however tempered, qualified, and ambivalent these approvals may be. And that will be a pronounced change from the vulnerable phase culture, when the topic was taboo and portrayals were limited to caricatured trauma porn.
To close, here's a hint from a recent Red Scare podcast of how the discussion is shaping up at this early stage of the current restless phase. You can already sense the boredom, lack of resonance, and overall restlessness to move beyond the Me Too hysteria where all sex is predatory. I've been dropping hints from real-life experiences since the end of last year that teenagers are both coming out of their shells, and specifically to make blatant passes at older guys, to show how the sentiment is changing from their end.
But it still is early in the current restless phase, so there isn't much to survey. The next post will focus on the late 2000s -- not only the horniest period in recent history, but including for age-gap relationships (both older-man and older-woman).
In the meantime, a teasing reminder of the complexities of such interactions. It's not as though a 16 year-old is not feeling urges for a hot older guy, and willing to deploy whatever weapons she has available to her -- both physical and emotional -- in order to gain his trust, wear him down mentally, and gradually increase levels of touch, until -- she hopes -- he'll give in.
Adrian Forrester from The Crush. Who's groomin' who?