How old is old enough? Underage consent is a hot topic these days, especially for online communities where sex and porn are easily accessed with a quick fib in regards to birthday. What is being done? And more importantly, perhaps, what should be done?
Anyone who spends much time involved with the many sex-and-porn-focused subcultures on tumblr will probably be familiar with the problem: while it’s a perfect place for sharing sexual content thanks to its liberal TOU and excellent tagging system, it’s also a website populated by a lot of teenagers and they’re interested in your porn, too.
This clearly isn’t great. As soon as minors are involved in discussion of sex everyone gets awkward and freezes up a bit, and there are plenty of good reasons for that. Nobody wants to contribute to anything that could be damaging to someone else’s development or psyche, and nobody wants to be in a position where they can be accused of something unspeakable that they had no intention of doing.
Many people’s reaction to this has been a kneejerk blanket ban: banners at the top of their blogs loudly proclaiming that under eighteens aren’t welcome here and frequent insistences that they will block and unfollow not only anyone under the age of eighteen but also everyone who seems to support the inclusion of those people in our communities.
There are a few problems with this approach, however.
Problem #1: It’s a completely arbitrary age.
Problem #2: It doesn’t work.
Problem #3: Community is a vital part of human development.
The age of consent is 18 in much of the USA, but America is not the centre of the universe. In Australia, Canada and the UK, for example, it’s 16 - and Canada also includes a “close-in-age exception” essentially meaning that it’s perfectly legal for teenagers to sleep with each other if they want to. In Japan the age of consent is 13, and it’s set at 14 throughout much of Europe. In Bahrain it’s 21, and in Saudi Arabia all sex outside of marriage is illegal - but there’s no lower age limit on who you can marry at all.
What I’m saying is that this is a moving target. I first became involved in BDSM communities when I was 17, which here in London was perfectly legal for both me and my partners. It was a massively formative experience for me, and one that I’ve always been very happy to look back on and remember. The idea that anyone under the age of eighteen is totally incapable of being engaged with healthily on this level and then magically transforms into a mature and capable sexual being on their 18th birthday is patently nonsense, and there are always going to be outliers in either direction.
There is absolutely nothing we can do to keep under eighteens out of the communities we’re building here, either. It is triviality itself to lie about the year in which you were born, especially if nobody can see you face to face. It’s also not possible to pre-emptively block people from an open and public virtual space like tumblr, which in other ways is actually one of its major selling points.
It’s patently obvious that we shouldn’t be encouraging adults to engage in sexualised discourse with teenagers on the internet; while there absolutely are cases when such relationships are perfectly healthy and legitimate, it’s still a bad idea to work from the assumption that they’re going to be.
I really do think we need to lay off the teens on tumblr a bit, though. This is the internet, after all: we have no real control over who reads the stuff we put out there, and trying to pretend that we can or should have that kind of control is ultimately fruitless.
Don’t aim your content at people under the age of eighteen. Make sure your NSFW blogs are marked as such so that they don’t turn up in search results when someone has Safe Search turned on. Use tags in an accurate and responsible way. Feel free to ignore and not engage with anyone you’d like to ignore and not engage with, for any reason at all. But please, guys: lay off a bit on the vicious, shouty, witch-hunty approach to people who in a couple of years time you’ll doubtless welcome with open arms. It’s pretty arbitrary, and it’s not helping anyone.
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