How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Send your questions for Stoya and Rich to firstname.lastname@example.org. Nothing’s too small (or big).
Every week, the crew responds to a bonus question in chat form.
Dear How to Do It,
I am writing to you today half to settle an argument, half because I am legitimately curious. I am a 22-year-old autistic queer woman who has never been sexually active, more because of a long-distance (and theoretically open) relationship and a belief that navigating sensory issues with a one-night stand sounds more like work than fun. This somewhat pertains to my question, I swear. I’m going to phrase this bluntly: I keep getting in arguments with people, friends—even progressive, feminist friends—who are older than me and try to take on a bit of a “mom friend” vibe, about whether women and gay men under 25 are able to consent to sex. I am told, at least once every couple weeks, that if you’re under 25, you’re incapable of consent because your “frontal lobes are still developing.” When I point out they suspiciously only apply the argument to women and gay men, they either tell me I am too young to understand, too inexperienced to understand, or too autistic to understand. When I point out that rhetoric about adults not being developed enough to consent has deprived generations of developmentally disabled people from necessary sex education and led to appalling sexual assault statistics among us, I’m told that I’m too young to understand, too inexperienced to understand, or too autistic to understand.
If these were people who weren’t generally progressive, I would not even be asking, because I would just assume it was more conservative puritanism nonsense like what I grew up with, but since they’re almost always staunch feminists it has me a bit confused. “You, a legal adult, are too young and disabled to fuck” does not feel that different from conservative talking points, but I’m getting it from these nice, well-meaning “motherly” feminists whom I otherwise am really friendly with. Recently I ended one of these arguments with something along the lines of “I am not going to believe this until I see a real neuroscientist say people under 25 shouldn’t have sex, or have sexual fantasies, or masturbate, or do whatever the thing people are concerned about today is.” I did Google it myself and found zero things about adults under 25 being unable to consent. And then I thought, “Wait—that advice column often asks experts in stuff like this to weigh in.” So I thought I would ask: Is there real, actual, verified, and peer-reviewed scientific data that says people under 25 are unable to consent, or are people selling me bad information in the guise of concern? (I am aware that there is probably a gray area here, but no one who tries to tell me this is talking about gray areas.)
Rich: So, while initially reading this, I balked because what our writer’s maternal, seemingly well-meaning friends have suggested about consent challenges what I understand about it. And then I took a sec and realized that, regardless, this is an interesting thought exercise and a perfect question to be tasked with answering here. It’s healthy to challenge our cultural beliefs that are reinforced (if not created) by our laws. I also love that the writer specifically reached out because we tend to reach out to experts for backup. Happy to foster that reputation.
Stoya: I took the question personally at first. I’m neurodivergent (ADHD) and had to question my immediate reactions, which were, “Of course this adult who writes well is capable of thinking through sexuality, making good choices for themselves, and dealing with their mistakes.”
Rich: I share the view that her friends are condescending to her.
Stoya: As the writer asked, I reached out to a former colleague, Shanna Kattari (Ph.D., M.A. in education, CSE, ACS—she knows her stuff). Her take wraps up with this, lightly edited:
I am guessing there is a lot paternalism and ableism tied up in this, namely the “all disabled people are asexual and shouldn’t be having sex or [are] hypersexual and don’t know what they are consenting to” trope that is so common [as to beliefs] people, media, and the medical industry often hold when it comes to disabled bodies and minds. I agree that there certainly are grey areas, but my guess is most of these are just concern trolls. You can tell them a professor of social work who is a board-certified sexuality educator told you so.
So, having checked my gut, these people are overstepping. Our writer seems very thoughtful and in touch with what she needs—specifically when she points out that navigating sensory stuff with a one-night-stand sounds trying. The whole thing makes me think of a casual acquaintance from the naked-lady business: She’s autistic, and she’s impervious to the kind of bad male behavior we see neurotypical women accepting regularly or complaining about online. You know, that guy who stalks your Instagram stories but doesn’t text. Refuses to meet when it’s convenient for you. Only texts when he’s lonely in the middle of the night. This woman I’m thinking of has got her boundaries, and if they aren’t adhered to and respected, she’s out with no regrets.
Rich: One possible scenario is that her friends are telling her this in an attempt to convince her to wait because of something that they can see she isn’t saying—perhaps something about her prospective partner, or maybe some unmentioned issue that they previously witnessed. But again, it’s condescending to present pseudoscience as a means of talking someone out of a mistake you think they’re about to make.
Stoya: Yes—it’s absolutely possible that there’s a specific person her friends are trying to steer her away from. That won’t work out well. If they genuinely believe there’s cause for alarm, they need to point out the specific person and reason. Not leave her trying to guess what’s actually going on.
Rich: Especially since she’s so sensitive to potentially factually incorrect reasoning that is supposedly based in data.
Stoya: Just in case anyone reading needs to hear this: Autistic doesn’t mean broken or stupid.
Rich: Not at all, and this specific instance shows savvy on the part of our writer. And to help prove that—that she’s right and they’re wrong—I also reached out to J. Paul Fedoroff, a doctor and co-director of the Sexual Behaviors Clinic at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. Among his areas of interest are developmental delay and brain injury. He co-authored a paper about a case in which a man was accused of raping his wife who had dementia. He said questions or issues involving consent and brain development tend to concern injury or deterioration. He told me he’d never heard of a study regarding brain development and the notion of people under 25 being unable to consent. In fact, he said he didn’t even see how such a study could take place.
Stoya: My dad told me, around the time I turned 25, that some important parts of the brain were just finishing development. I can see how trickle-down knowledge could eventually warp into “people under 25 can’t consent.”
Rich: Yes, that’s just what it is: trickle-down knowledge that doesn’t assess the expanses of the human experience in a rather narrow interpretation of neuroscience. When people talk about the brain not being fully developed until the age of 25, they’re generally referring to the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for “executive functioning” like impulse control and planning. I emailed with someone (another expert) who had a lot to say about conflating neuroscience with public policy, but first, I’ll finish my summary of Federoff’s response. He told me by phone: “People with not fully formed prefrontal cortexes can learn and make informed judgments. You don’t need a fully developed brain to do that. People are sexually mature much before the age of 25 and there are many people who are raising children when they’re 18 or younger and doing it very competently.” He said that upping the age of consent, which seems to be the natural extension of our writer’s friends’ argument, would in fact prohibit people from reproducing during years that are particularly healthy for just that. Also, the age of 25 thing? It’s generally believed to apply to men; women’s brains typically finish developing earlier, which totally refutes her friends’ argument.
Stoya: Well. I’m proud of both of us. And grateful for this particular question, which I feel has pushed us to up our expert game.
Rich: Same! And if you think about it, were people unable to consent before age 25, we’d hear many more stories of regret.
Rich: “Looking back, I shouldn’t have had sex at 22.” That’s just not present in our culture the way that other stories about consent and its absence at young ages are.
Stoya: I’ve literally never heard that.
Rich: So on top of that …
Stoya: Oh boy. Is it another expert?
Rich: LOL yes. The idea that neuroscience is the be-all, end-all of public or cultural policy in terms of (all kinds of) informed consent is repeatedly refuted in this rather interesting paper I read, “Adolescent Maturity and the Brain: The Promise and Pitfalls of Neuroscience Research in Adolescent Health Policy.” Here’s a key passage: “The ability to designate an adolescent as ‘mature’ or ‘immature’ neurologically is complicated by the fact that neuroscientific data are continuous and highly variable from person to person; the bounds of ‘normal’ development have not been well delineated.” The authors add that there are several other factors that go into human development beyond mere brain development. And by the way, when we say “fully developed” brain by age 25, we mean adultlike. In actuality, a healthy brain continually develops throughout life, albeit less drastically than in youth.
Stoya: The boundaries of youth, adult, and elder aren’t that simple.
Rich: The goal, or at least my goal, is to never stop developing, or least attempting to be better/greater/smarter/more efficient.
Stoya: Same. I’m thinking about the disability rights movement now. I took some online courses related to that movement last year. And I’m cognizant of the fact that 50 years ago, we treated people in wheelchairs like they were less than whole. Wheelchairs! Fortunately, this sounds absurd to most of us in 2020. We do the same thing with neurodivergent people and young people today. And older people too.
Rich: A hundred percent. So I reached out to the lead author of the paper I just quoted from, Sara B. Johnson, a professor at Johns Hopkins. I refined my ask to a simple question: Should the age of consent be raised to 25? Here is, in part, what she said:
Unlike driving a car, voting, drinking alcohol, or buying a firearm, sexuality is an integral part of human development. If we decided that the age of consent was 25 (which is a sort of arbitrary cutoff developmentally but the car rental companies like it based on actuarial tables), we’d be undermining social, romantic, and sexual development. That’s probably creating more problems than it’s solving.
Instead of raising the age of consent until people’s brains are fully developed (which itself is a tricky benchmark), health education programs should focus on helping people navigate consent and establish and communicate their personal boundaries in romantic and sexual relationships. This approach decreases the chances of coercion for everyone, regardless of how old they are or their stage of brain development.
Stoya: Which circles back to another point our writer made: “Rhetoric about adults not being developed enough to consent has deprived generations of developmentally disabled people from necessary sex education and led to appalling sexual assault statistics among us.”
Rich: Exactly. Like I said, she’s savvy. She didn’t need us, even, but I’m happy to have her back here with some expert heft.
More How to Do It
My wife never had sex before we got together, not even masturbation, because of her conservative upbringing. On my part, I started masturbating in seventh grade, and I first had sex while I was 16. We enjoyed ourselves the first few years. After that, she seemed to lose interest. I think she had a few real orgasms, but mainly faked them. Now, I always suspected this was because I am not very big—I’m about 3.5 inches erect, and I tend to ejaculate quickly. I told her about bigger men and said she could try another man, since I had 13 to 15 sex partners before we were married and she had none. I wavered on this a few times as I got insecure and jealous, but in one of my more permissive times, she met a man and liked him. I tried to call it off, but she wants to go forward. Should I let this happen?