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6 Ways We Talk About a Teenage Girl's Age—5 of Them Messed Up

The idea that a girl can be 'older than her chronological age' makes no sense, and puts young girls in danger.

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Last week, Montana District Judge G. Todd Baugh declared a troubled, now dead, 16-year-old girl culpable for her own rape. (The girl was just 14 when the crime occurred.) While in the process of reducing her rapist’s 15-year sentence to 30 days, he explained that the victim was “older than her chronological age,” and “as much in control of the situation” as the 49-year-old teacher found guilty of raping her. After  outraged protest and demands that he be removed from the bench, Baugh  apologized and has  called for a new hearing. This case bears striking similarity to one in the U.K. earlier this summer in which a 13-year-old girl involved was  described, including by the judge, as sexually “predatory.”

This happens with dulling regularity, and has for years. One month ago, defense lawyers in Louisiana used similar reasoning in a case involving a  juvenile detention guard and a 14-year-old in his care. They argued that the girl had consented to sex with the guard, though she was three years younger than the age of consent in Louisiana.

The language used in these cases demonstrates our confused notions about girls’ ages and what they mean.

An adolescent girl isn’t allowed to be “her age.” Indeed, she doesn’t actually have one age but many that people assess and judge as she goes through her day. When it comes to sexual assault, consent and justice, an individual girl’s “age” is especially a matter of social construction. Society constructs her age in at least six different ways:

First, there’s her chronological age. This is the easiest one, based on a girl’s birthday. Simple enough.

Second, there’s the age her body looks — which, for too many people in and out of the justice system, apparently makes a difference in rape. In 2000, a South Carolina Circuit judge  halved a 27-year-old youth minister’s sentence in a case involving a 14-year-old, explaining, that the girl’s body “was [at] an unusual stage of maturity.” But what does this ridiculous consideration of “physical maturation” mean for girls  starting puberty at younger and younger ages? That assault of an older-looking 10-year-old is more forgivable?

Third, there’s emotional age. There are 12-year-olds capable of more easygoing conversation, passionate feeling, emotional intimacy and mature deliberation than some 30-year-olds. That does not, however, make them, in any way, the equal of a 30-year-old. These qualities are separate and apart from experience, power differentials, authority, control and consent. Judges generally don’t take emotional maturity into account when adults engage minors in other unlawful activities, and they shouldn’t in cases of sexual assault either. An emotionally and intellectually mature 15-year-old is still not allowed to vote. When a 49-year-old provides a 13-year-old alcohol, does a judge take into account how much the 13-year-old may have wanted to drink, or that the 13-year-old can hold his liquor? We cannot excuse teachers, coaches, priests and mentors from rape prosecution when they assault children in their care. We have legal ages for a reason.

Fourth, there’s commercially profitable age. This is the age at which a girl begins to be targeted for sexualizing products, often but  not always based on her  appearance. This age has become  depressingly young. Girls are  saturated with marketing messages about body enhancing products and “fun” ideas about how to  lookdressstandspeakrunsiteat,walkworksleepstarvefix their hairshavebleachcut bits offadd bits on and pose so that they are sexy. In other words, so that they are pleasing to boys and men.