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Elmo Sex Scandal: Not A Crime, Just Creepy

Kevin Clash, the puppeteer who voices Sesame Street’s Elmo, was falsely accused of having sex with an underage boy. Instead, he merely had sex with a boy who was too young.

Last night, CSM’s Dan Murphy jokingly tweeted, “Well, at least Elmo is off the hook. So one in the plus column.” To which I not jokingly replied, “52 yo man* only has sex with 18-yo boys, not 16-yos. Yay.”

This set off an interesting discussion.

Jayvie Canono retorted, “Older straight men bag young bimbos all the time.” And Steve Hynd observed, that General Petraeus and his paramour “Broadwell are within shouting distance of that age difference. Double standards?”

We went back and forth a bit, with me clinging to the “Half your age plus seven” maxim as a rule of thumb. This morning, TAP’s E.J. Graff does a better job encapsulating my instincts:

But it still makes me queasy. Why is a 45-ish-year-old man having sex with a teenager? If the 18- or 19-year-old were female, I would be appalled at the probable power imbalance, assuming that a creepy middle-aged man was manipulating a youngster’s immaturity to use her sexually, to soak up the admiration of youth, promising (implicitly or explicitly) things that a more mature adult would know were lies. Why should my attitude be different if the youngster is male?

Some middle-aged men make sure they stick to the letter of the age-of-consent laws, refraining from sex with anyone a day short of 18 just to stay out of jail. But a 30-year age difference—at least, when one of the pair is a teenager—still gives the older partner far too much power. We know by now that the brain isn’t fully developed until the mid-twenties. In your teens, you may think you are an adult—but the rest of us, looking back, know we were not. At that age, you’re still finding your place, learning how to navigate relationships and the world. You’re more likely to be vulnerable and emotionally volatile than someone who has some experience in the tilt-a-whirl of heady sexual relationships. If you’re not old enough to drink alcohol, you’re not old enough to get in bed with someone two or three times your age.

This is exactly right. As one gets older, the raw numbers matter less. When I was in high school, I thought that the seniors who were hitting on the freshmen girls were on the skeezy side. Similarly, when I was in college, the thought of dating high school girls seemed a little creepy. By my late 20s, age difference of 3 or 4 years didn’t seem odd at all. At 39, I married a 34-year-old; at that point, a 5-1/2 year gap was so immaterial that we never really thought of ourselves as being of different ages.

There are all sorts of problems with the Petraeus-Broadwell affair. A 20 year age gap isn’t one of them, though. Broadwell is a bright, highly educated, fully mature woman. And, while Petraeus is on the high side of middle age, he’s not by any means old enough to create an Anna Nicole Smith-J. Howard Marshall situation.

I’m now roughly the same age as Clash was when he began his relationship with his former accuser and, alas, single again. I’m not sure exactly what my lower age limit is at this point. But it damned sure doesn’t end in -teen.

______________________
*In fairness, while Clash is 52 now, he was something like 47 when the affair took place.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Jeff Quinton says:

    There are reports now that a financial settlement happened before the recantation.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  2. alkali says:

    The half-your-age-plus-seven rule — I can’t remember where I first heard it, but Wikipedia says that it was popularized in the 1953 film The Moon Is Blue — still seems like a good rule of thumb to me. (That is, if you are 47, you shouldn’t be dating people younger than 30-31.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  3. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @alkali: Well, I think that if someone has finished their professional degree, they’re old enough to decide who to date. A 50-something and a 28 year old with a Pharm D or a CPA license might take me aback briefly, but it wouldn’t seem creepy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  4. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    I appreciated Ace of Spades’ take on this:

    Now show me on the Elmo doll where Elmo touched you…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 8

  5. MBunge says:

    @alkali: “I can’t remember where I first heard it, but Wikipedia says that it was popularized in the 1953 film The Moon Is Blue”

    Most folks today have probably heard of it from Spike Lee’s Malcolm X film.

    Mike

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  6. JKB says:

    I see Progressivism is dying. This was a legal relationship. But now everyone wants to impose their morality upon it. But in the post-modern world, their morality is as valid as yours.

    It’s like that “issue” at Evergreen College where people were upset when, in accordance with the law, a transgender woman used the women’s locker room. This is the world we were told was best. But now when the male genitalia is hanging out in the women’s locker room, everyone suddenly sees a problem. It’s the law, you either fought for it or didn’t fight against it so get used to the “new norm.” And stop your oppressive moralizing.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 9

  7. Rafer Janders says:

    If the 18- or 19-year-old were female, I would be appalled at the probable power imbalance, assuming that a creepy middle-aged man was manipulating a youngster’s immaturity to use her sexually, to soak up the admiration of youth, promising (implicitly or explicitly) things that a more mature adult would know were lies. Why should my attitude be different if the youngster is male?

    Because the relationship of one man to another man is not quite the same as the relationship of a man to a woman?

    It’s a bit different in the gay world. Quite often, the power imbalance is in favor of the younger, hotter guy rather than the older man. You could as easily assume that a young man was manipulating an older, out of shape man’s neediness to feel desired to use him financially, to soak up his longing for youth, promising (implicitly or explicitly) things that a younger man would know were lies.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  8. mattb says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    It’s a bit different in the gay world.

    Admittedly, I’m not a member of the family, but as someone who’s spent a lot of time around family and working on gender issues, I’m not buying this…

    Power relations are tricky things. I think the scenario you lay out — essentially the Gold Digger — can work regardless of gender. Both young men and young women can “manipulating an older, out of shape man’s neediness to feel desired to use him financially, to soak up his longing for youth, promising (implicitly or explicitly) things that a younger man party would know were lies.”

    It’s a pretty time honored trope (and the basis for a lot of good pot boilers).

    That said, I’ve known a number of gay relationships where the older party was definitely in control (even a case where his apparent lack of control was very much all about controlling the relationship).

    To be a bit harsh, I tend to think that the entire idea of the young, in control man, has as much to do with making the community feel “ok” about older/younger relationships as it has to do with actual reality.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  9. James Joyner says:

    @alkali: @Gromitt Gunn: I’m somewhere in this range. I’ll be 47 Friday. The “half your age plus 7″ rule puts my bottom range at 30.5. But I wouldn’t think dating a 27-year-old with a graduate degree to be unseemly. Compatible, though, is another question. Plausible, another.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  10. michael reynolds says:

    @JKB:

    But in the post-modern world, their morality is as valid as yours.

    Absolutely no one believes this. It’s a straw man, and your using it just reveals the depths to which you are a programmed Foxbot.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 3

  11. They still haven’t answered the question everyone really wants to know: which voice was Clash using during their assignations? ;>

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  12. JKB says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    You could as easily assume that a young man was manipulating an older, out of shape man’s neediness to feel desired to use him financially, to soak up his longing for youth, promising (implicitly or explicitly) things that a younger man would know were lies.

    Yes, that is different because absolutely no 18 yr old girl has ever manipulated an older man, or woman, by making them feel desired, used them financially, soaked up their longing for youth, etc.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  13. Vast Variety says:

    At 18 your old enough to be sent to Afghanistan to die for your country, so I would think if you want to sleep with someone 20 years older than you it’s not really anyone’s business. There is 11 years between my father and step mother and the first person I dated post highschool (while I was in the air force) was in their 40′s while I had just turned 21.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  14. JKB says:
  15. @JKB:

    Like most conservative boogeymen, post-modernism has nothing to do with what the right claims it is. All post-modernism means is the belief that meaning is not intrinsic; that is, the question of “What is the meaning of X?” cannot be answered without specifying “To whom?”

    That’s not, as the right likes to suggest, the same as saying nothing has meaning.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  16. Geek, Esq. says:

    The distinction is between legalities and personal morality/aesthetics.

    Yeah it’s gross, but thankfully being gross isn’t against the law.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  17. James Joyner says:

    @Geek, Esq.: No doubt. The headline makes that point and the lede implies it. I’m just arguing that being legal doesn’t make it okay.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 4

  18. wr says:

    Yes, this certainly is creepy. No, not the relationship between two consenting adults no one here has ever met. What’s creepy is the belief that we feel compelled to pass public judgment on two private citizens whose personal affairs are absolutely none of anybody’s business.

    It’s a fact of the internet that now every human being on the planet the ability to gossip about every other human being. But maybe we could show a little restraint and stay the hell out of things that don’t concern anyone other than those who are involved.

    Really, James, as you indicate, at some point you will start dating again. Should thousands or millions of people be lined up to opine on whether we feel your choice is appropriate or not?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 0

  19. @wr:

    Really, James, as you indicate, at some point you will start dating again. Should thousands or millions of people be lined up to opine on whether we feel your choice is appropriate or not?

    If he ever does become involved in a big sex scandal, I’m sure he’ll come to regret the current name of the blog, which is pretty much begging for all kinds of horrible double entendre.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  20. rodney dill says:

    New this Christmas — Bugger Me Elmo

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 7

  21. Rafer Janders says:

    @James Joyner:

    I’m just arguing that being legal doesn’t make it okay.

    News flash! Man disapproves of another adult man’s sex life!

    I mean, who really cares that it doesn’t seem OK to you, and who are you, anyway, to opine about it? I’m sure, James, there are things you do in bed that I wouldn’t regard as OK. But I don’t feel the need to broadcast that, or have much of a desire to even think about it in the first place.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  22. michael reynolds says:

    @JKB:

    You make this too easy. The site you link to? Here’s their contact address:

    AllAboutGOD.com
    PO Box 49625
    Colorado Springs, Colorado 80949
    719-884-2246

    In addition to other things, they are a paranoid anti-Muslim group. And you wonder why I don’t take you seriously?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 0

  23. Gustopher says:

    Why the condemnation for Elmo? Surely if this is wrong his young paramour is just as wrong? Probably some form of muppet chaser.

    The young man is attracted to older men. And he has to make his own mistakes in life. If he wasn’t dating Elmo, he would date some other older guy. Some older guys are nice, some are scum, just like younger guys.

    Without probing deeper into their relationship than anyone really should, we don’t know whether Elmo is one of the nice ones, scum or somewhere in between.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  24. Mark says:

    “Kevin Clash made a poor choice of a sex partner.”

    I don’t think that statement would be controversial to very many people even though it expresses a clear value judgement. There might be a number of reasons why a person might think his choice is poor but what unites us all is that we agree he made a bad choice. That is what postmodern ethics is. It is not an “anything goes and my version of the truth is just as good as yours” mentality. It’s realizing that people who approach an issue from different angles can actually reach the same conclusion; i.e., there’s more than one way to get from New York to Los Angeles.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  25. michael reynolds says:

    @JKB:

    Here you go, JKB, all about post-modernism. I am confident you will read it carefully and then recognize just how ridiculously simple-minded your preacher’s version is.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  26. Franklin says:

    @JKB:

    But now everyone wants to impose their morality upon it.

    I don’t really see the problem with judging behavior and sharing ideas on the pros and cons of a particular behavior. This is how society works, and is in fact how your personal idea of what “traditional values and rules” are came about.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  27. @michael reynolds:

    One critical thing to note is that post-modernism is purely an epistemological proposition, not an ontological one. That is, it’s making no claim whatsoever about the objective nature of reality, only about our knowledge of what that objective reality is.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  28. Franklin says:

    @wr: OK, *you* are arguing about the loss of privacy here. That’s something I’m sympathetic, too, but the information here is freely available. Closing the barn door and all that.

    We can most certainly discuss the world around us, and I think it’s beneficial. Remember when we didn’t talk about “teh gheys”? I think you’ll find that was the same period of time when it they were repressed and demonized. Now we’re all talking about homosexuality, and most of us are saying, “hey, if they’re consenting adults (with no obvious power imbalance), then that’s fine.” Talking about the issue has worked it out in a positive manner, in my opinion.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  29. Geek, Esq. says:

    @James Joyner:

    Eh. At some level many, many (perhaps most) men are inclined to something creepy–the thing sparing society massive embarrassment mainly being keeping private things private.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  30. john personna says:

    I always thought the Shelly Tambo character on Northern Exposure was neat. What was weird for us worked for her, so who cares ,,,

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  31. Rob in CT says:

    Hmm.

    My perspective on this is relatively unusual. My own parents fail the half your age plus 7 rule. My mom was 26 when they married… Dad was 47. It gets better. He was a high-level executive. She was a secretary (not his, though).

    That was in 1974. They’re still married, and happily so. They’ve set a great example for me, all my life, about what a good marriage looks like. But people always used to think my dad was my grandfather. :)

    And yet, yeah, a ~45 yr old and an 18 yr old? That sets off alarm bells for me too (not saying it should be illegal though!). I see a significant difference between 18 and mid-twenties. Also, both of my parents were divorced when they met. Neither was a babe in the woods, so to speak.

    The question should always be “what are your intentions?”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  32. Alanmt says:

    Here in Montana, the age of consent is 16.

    I agree that what is legal may not always be moral, and there is a danger here of a power differential and I personally have no understanding of why a man around my age would want a relationship with an 18 year old, although it is quite human to want to have sex with one, just as it is a mark of maturity and morality to abstain from doing so.

    However, I would respectfully submit that the greater wrong to be discussed here is of wrongful accusation and the attendant injury and damages resulting therefrom. The young man in his twenties deserves much more opprobrium for his use of lies to harm the other man through the use of civil and/or criminal law than Mr Clash for entering into a legal relationship.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  33. JKB says:

    @michael reynolds:

    You’re hilarious. If you’d checked the first link, you would see a google list of lots of links. I simply copied one for your amusement. I do like your link. I haven’t read such pretentious garbage in decades. Know why I switched from engineering to physics in my undergrad? Because the physic professors marked down for rambling BS. I’ve no doubt there is something at that link, but it isn’t worth any time to filter.

    But if as you say, morality is fixed, then how can you attack people who abhor homosexuality? Which historically was considered immoral?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 3

  34. michael reynolds says:

    @JKB:
    So you used a term you don’t understand, linked to a site which also doesn’t understand it, admit you are not intellectually capable of absorbing an actual explanation of said term, and leap from that to a conclusion that my philosophy must be the opposite of your obtuse interpretation of the very term you don’t understand.

    Ah yes. Conservative thinking at its clearest.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  35. Alanmt says:

    @JKB:

    But if as you say, morality is fixed, then how can you attack people who abhor homosexuality? Which historically was considered immoral?

    That morality may be capable of being objectively determined does not mean that man has done so correctly.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  36. Janis Gore says:

    Ummm. I’ve had relationships with men 8, 11, 20 and 30 years older than I am. I was in my early to mid 20s.

    All of them were built on mutual pleasure and shared interests.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  37. Janis Gore says:

    My husband was a little more than 10 years older.

    It could have something to so with my five older brothers. They ranged from 11 to17 years older than I was.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  38. Franklin says:

    @Alanmt:

    However, I would respectfully submit that the greater wrong to be discussed here is of wrongful accusation and the attendant injury and damages resulting therefrom.

    Good point. Without this wrongful accusation, we wouldn’t be delving into Clash’s privacy, as wr objected to above.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  39. Robert in SF says:

    One of the aspects of these kind of analyses of “sex scandals” that bothers me is this triple standard that exists.

    We tolerate, but often tsk tsk an older man and much younger woman, depending on the power balance… Lecherous abuse or desperate mid-life crisis, or gold-digging opportunist, or maybe, sometimes, rarely, a relationship of mutual informed choice and benefit.

    We are shocked and dismayed by the older man and younger man relationship, often wondering if the younger man is being abused, or emotionally or financially manipulated, or perhaps the younger man is the charming con-man out to fleece his paramour. But certainly, rarely if ever, a happy or content arrangement between two people who both enjoy and appreciate the relationship.

    Third, we are titillated and aroused by the older woman/much younger man relationship, often sharing high-fives, and “ah, if only….” fantasies in which the teen boy-man is hugely favored and envied, and the older woman is much appreciated and sought after. Coming of age stories and TV shows are written around this, and certainly no one objects, well…not many if any of quantity. Hell, I imagine some fathers encouraging and rewarding these relationships, however brief.

    So someone explain to me why *any* of these relationships is morally acceptable if any of the others are not.

    I feel that society has to set some standards of what we set an age at which relationships become, at face value, a “your on your own” standard, and barring exceptional circumstances of mental development, then no one gets to forbid it or question it based initially and solely on arbitrary age limits that were set by decree. If not, then it becomes a vote by society of who gets to date/marry/fool around with whom, and that will not work.

    Personally icky as some others’ relationships might make me feel, it’s up to them to take personal responsibility to guard and guide their own relationships (with consideration from those they seek for advice like their friends and family, clergy or other authority figures), until somehow society comes up with scientific/psychologically sound reasons to legislate something different.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  40. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @JKB: So basically you’ve always taken intellectually lazy path.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0