Sunday, September 15, 2013

The campsite in the rye

Relationships at 18 can be weird. They can go wrong in specific ways that ones later in life can't, because things that seem like obvious red flags to someone with a bit of life experience (extreme interest, or extreme hedging) may seem charming to someone with little or none. But of all the terrible fates to befall an 18-year-old woman (yes, woman - more on that in a moment) in the boyfriend sphere, getting together with a famous writer, and then dumped by him, and then dining out on that story, to put it mildly, for the rest of your life, seems maybe not the worst possible outcome.

While the same things that make a relationship abusive (as vs. merely crappy) among older adults certainly count as such at 18, the mere fact of a relationship can't be statutory rape if both parties are adults. Which Joyce Maynard comes awfully close to claiming about her affair at 18 with the guy who wrote the book read by Americans who've only ever read one novel.

Maynard writes:
Some will argue that you can’t have it both ways: how can a woman say she is fully in charge of her body and her destiny, and then call herself a victim when, having given a man her heart of her own volition, he crushes it? How can a consensual relationship, as Salinger’s unquestionably were, constitute a form of abuse?
The possible answers to this rhetorical question: when the "woman" is a girl, and/or the man is her teacher/boss/older relative. Or when a relationship entered into consensually becomes abusive. Maynard suggests that "people in positions of power — mentors, priests, employers or simply those assigned an elevated status" are the problem, which seems far too broad. Relationships will often have an age or status mismatch, which doesn't somehow remove consent. Or can it?

This was the passage that jumped out:
I am as troubled by the use of the word “woman” to describe the 18-year-old object, briefly, of a 53-year-old’s affections as I am by the use of the word “lover” to describe my 18-year-old self, in the context of that relationship.
And, I'm not sure what to make of this. Yes, age of majority is a construct, and yes, it's possible to be 18, 19, 39, and hopelessly naive, and fall under the spell of a glamorous mansplainer who stands in the way of your education and friendships. But there's a difference between being an underage girl who merely thinks she's in a consensual relationship with a grown man who should know better, and being an adult woman who falls for a less-than-ideal guy. Also a difference - if a more subtle one - between being in an abusive relationship and voluntarily signing up for a certain power-imbalanced relationship dynamic.

Isn't it kind of unfair to the actual girls abused by older men (including girls who imagine they were in consensual relationships, and including whichever girls Salinger was also involved with) to retroactively declare an 18-year-old self - someone who was already living on her own as a college student - not yet a woman? To suggest that Salinger was equivalent to a professor or coach or some such, with power over Maynard in particular, when he was something far closer to a celebrity? Even if Salinger engaged in emotional abuse (maybe? unclear from the essay, but likely possible to sort out from other things Maynard has written; what we do learn of sounds a great deal less devastating than much of what I recall going on between those of 18 and thereabouts in relationships with fellow students), it was emotional abuse of an adult woman.

Dan Savage's "campsite rule" seems apropos: that the older partner in an age-and-power mismatch relationship - the assumption being that both parties are adults - leave the younger one in better shape than they found them. Also that there shouldn't be any promises made of more serious commitment than is being offered. The cultural-education bit seems fair - what exactly is the point of a fling with a famous older writer if not to have your tastes challenged? - but the dropping-out-of-college bit, not so great. But a violation of the campsite rule, while poor form, not in at all the same realm as exploitation of someone underage.


Miss Self-Important said...

"the guy who wrote the book read by Americans who've only ever read one novel"
Ha! True fact.

Phoebe said...

I wonder if it still is? It was when I was in high school.

Miss Self-Important said...

Well, you could do an - ahem - opinion poll, but I think the joke still works, regardless of the facts.