Dangerous Campsite?

First published at 365gay.com on July 3, 2009

“What do you think about my having sex with an 18-year-old?” a thirtysomething friend asked.

What do I think? Tread carefully.

Notice I said “Tread carefully,” not “Run in the other direction,” which was my initial gut reaction. So let me fill in some background.

The legal age of consent where these two live (Michigan) is 16. The 18-year-old is a recent high-school graduate. The thirtysomething guy has no interest in running for mayor of Portland.

The 18-year-old quite clearly initiated the flirtation between the two, and wants it to go further. This I observed personally, as I was present when they met.

Like most 18-year-old guys, he’s horny. He has not been impressed, thus far, with other guys he has met (usually on the internet).

The thirtysomething guy is good-looking, thoughtful, kind, and healthy. I’d rather see the 18-year-old hook up with him than with many of the guys he’s likely to encounter.

Aside from the age difference, and the accompanying educational and economic differences, there are no other obvious power imbalances (which is not to diminish the significance of those just mentioned). The 18-year old is not the thirtysomething’s student, or intern, or employee, for example.

Neither of them plans for this to be an ongoing thing—or so they now say. Recalling my own youthful tendency to fall hard for anyone who showed me romantic attention, one concern I had (and voiced) is that the 18-year-old might quickly want more than this relationship is likely to offer.

On the other hand, that risk—along with many of the others that come to mind—could arise in a peer relationship as well, the difference being that I trust my thirtysomething friend’s ability to handle the situation better than I trust most youths’.

All relationships carry risks, as the thirtysomething guy knows and the 18-year-old will learn in his own time. That includes risks for the older partner. The dynamics of power can shift when one falls in love or lust.

Regarding relationships with younger partners, the ever-insightful Dan Savage proposes his “campsite rule”: “leave ’em in better shape than you found ’em.”

Specifically, he says, “Don’t get ‘em pregnant, don’t give ‘em diseases, and don’t lead ‘em to believe that a long-term relationship is even a remote possibility.” Also, work to ensure that they emerge from the relationship with “improved sexual skills.”

Needless to say, the general campsite rule is a good rule for all sexual relationships. Non-sexual ones, too. But it becomes especially important with the young, who are vulnerable sexually.

The flip side of that vulnerability is receptiveness to positive input. Just as a bad sexual relationship during your formative years can permanently scar you, a good one can be a great blessing, instilling salutary habits. (Such as: Use a condom every time. Tell your partner what feels good—and what doesn’t. Watch your teeth. And so on.)

All else being equal, an experienced partner can teach such things better than a novice.

Some will balk at this endorsement of “casual” sex. Yes, sex can be a deep, meaningful thing in the context of a committed relationship. But it can also be a safe and highly pleasurable experience between relative strangers, and I don’t think the casual kind now undermines the committed kind later. On the contrary, it can help train one—physically and emotionally—for the committed kind.

Many people harbor the peculiar idea that sex requires no training. We’re supposed to be able to do it instinctively, the way birds pushed from the nest fly. No wonder the world has so many lousy lovers.

I’m not suggesting that the solution is for older folks to start cruising high school parking lots. Let’s face it: there are plenty of unscrupulous characters who are all too eager to manipulate the young.

My friend is not in that category.

However, one might argue that the fact that so many ARE in that category is a good reason for endorsing a bright-line rule against sex with younger partners.

I agree that bright-line rules are sometimes necessary. For example, while some 13-year-olds would make better drivers than many adults, we don’t issue them licenses.

Legally, Michigan law sets that bright line at 16 for sex. (Other states vary.) I’m not convinced that the moral bright line in this case should be different, and I certainly don’t think that it should be over 18.

As one friend put it, crudely but accurately, “There are worse things you can do to an eager 18-year-old than give him a good blow job.”

I would add that, if you keep the campsite rule in mind, are honest and kind, and strive to be a good mentor, you might in fact do him a considerable service.