‘Call Me By Your Name’ is not controversial because of an ‘age gap’, but a larger message it sends to LGBT teenagers.

In what was a fairly routine and deceptively simple tweet, I accidentally unleashed a tidal wave of controversy that simply never would have occurred to me. Well, to be more precise, James Woods unleashed the controversy. I was just there along for the ride. Amber Tamblyn Accuses James Woods of Being a Sexual Predator, Woods Calls It ‘Lies’, the Daily Beast reported. James Woods Responds to Armie Hammer, Amber Tamblyn Following Twitter Dustup, by the Hollywood Reporter.

The controversy began when I replied to another LGBT media tweet gushing praise for the upcoming movie, Call Me By Your Name. The movie has taken the LGBT world by storm, even more intensely than Moonlight did, has a 98% Rotten Tomatoes rating and whispers of Oscars are floating around Hollywood. The movie takes place in Italy in the 1980’s and features a love story, as the Hollywood Reporter describes it, “…the story of a graduate student who falls in love with his professor’s underage son[.]” The graduate student in question is 24 and the professor’s son is 17.

On my original tweet:

“He posted: “24 year old man. 17 year old boy. Stop.” (Underage gay sex is something Green has written about in the past; as a HuffPost contributor, he published What Happens When Men Have Sex with Teenage Boys in February of this year.)”

James Woods somehow saw the tweet (we do not follow each other) and commented “As they quietly chip away the last barriers of decency. #NAMBLA”.

This was on September 10th, at around 10PM Est when I posted the comment. The following day I had intended to focus on remembering 9/11 and spent most of the day retweeting people’s stories. But as often happens, the fire behind the controversy spread unexpectedly. I was suddenly inundated with surprisingly hostile and irrationally angry people (even for my twitter) who all seemed utterly outraged by my criticism.

The responses all seemed to revolve around the following arguments or ideas:

  • The age of consent in Italy is 14 (and varies from country to country and even state to state within the united states.)
  • You wouldn’t be offended if it happened to be an older man and a younger woman (people never seem to get that I am gay on twitter.)
  • You am only offended because it is a positive portrayal of gay men in love.
  • What is the difference between age 17 and age 18?
  • I had sex with adult men before age 18!
  • Its just a story.
  • You are perpetuating negative stereotypes about gay men!
  • Have you even read the book or watched the movie?
  • Generalized, nasty, typical ‘STFU’ and personal insults.

The three most liked responses to my tweet were:

My exclusive and consistent argument was, and is, that it is wrong for an adult to have sex with a teenager. There isn’t a great deal of nuance involved in that rule for me. If you have to ask if its wrong, it probably is. The Hollywood Reporter is correct in that I have devoted a lot of writing to this topic. Although they phrased it as ‘underage sex’, as though my issue is the idea of teenagers engaging in sex at all. I was sexually active at 14, which I discussed in length the emotion and consequences in What Happens When Men Have Sex with Teenage Boys. This is an important issue for me.

I noticed a great deal of fixation on the idea that I was shaming young gay men for being sexual or attempting to impose some Christian-Right abstinence agenda. In truth, I was not commenting on the 17 year old person involved. I was speaking to the 24 year old. Much focus was on the precise definition of ‘adult’, when consent made sense, the fact that other countries have extremely low age of consent laws etc and none of that interests me. To argue sex is acceptable if an age of consent law is in place argues that adults in Italy can freely have sex with 14 year olds if that 14 year old consents.

Laws do not equal morality and my argument is not a legal one. The core of my argument is focused on the adults choosing to engage in or defend sex with minors. Why are so many adults driven to pursue sexual or romantic partners so young? And as a society, should we be romanticizing these relationships? This is not an issue of an ‘age gap’, which every media outlet reporting on this topic insists upon. When Armie Hammers, star of Call Me By Your Name, replied to James Woods, or as several media outlets have described ‘shut him down’, he and they assumed the issue was hypocrisy. ‘You criticize a relationship between a 24 year old and a 17 year old? Well what about you being 60 and dating a 19 year old??’

Of course, the primary concern for those of us on the other side of the argument is not of an age gap but of an adult-teen sexual relationship. To quibble over the precise definition of ‘teen’ is beside the point. This is not a concern over legal exactness. It is a concern over ethics and morality. Is it ok for an adult to have a sexual relationship with an 18 year old? Legally, of course. Morally? Socially? Ethically?

In my view the difference is largely in autonomy and maturity. An 18 year old has legal privileges and autonomy a 17 year old does not. They are far more responsible for their actions now than they were a year ago. They are expected to join the adult world. 17 is a cutoff because we must have one, but it is also reasonable. Especially in our society of perpetual adolescence, the innocence of that time should be carefully protected.

For me it is simply an issue of responsible adult decision-making. When an adult has sex with a teenager they are being selfish, fulfilling their own temporary desires. They do not recognize or possibly even care about the impact that encounter can have on a very young and impressionable mind trapped between finding security in who they are and assuming more wisdom than they currently have. This is especially true in the gay world where these encounters can be secretive, risky and can mean far more to the younger person than the older one.

As adults we must recognize our own limitations in fulfilling desire. Teenagers do not have the same capacity for rational decision-making. This is typically expressed by feminists who argue an intoxicated woman cannot consent to sex. Adults have the benefit of experience and emotional control (generally speaking) that teenagers do not have. In the same way it is reasonable to recognize they cannot fully consent to emotions and desires they are less able to control than the adult is.

This upcoming movie is one in a long line of gay male storylines focused on a teenage boy discovering his sexuality in the arms of an older man. In truth, the cultural backlash against criticizing such a relationship by young gay men demonstrates how profoundly these stories influenced a generation. It has come to be assumed that teenage gay boys will experience their first sexual encounters with older men and the LGBT media has fashioned this into a beautiful and romantic right of passage.

It is my view that adults hold a responsibility to protect the young until they can make decisions on their own. An adult seeking a relationship with a teenager is incapable of providing that role. As LGBT leaders attempting to create a world safe and free for young gay people to grow up in, it is vital they challenge adult gay men to take the role of protective mentors over sexual partners.

As a society it is time we recognize that the liberal obsession with inverse autonomy (5 year olds can choose their gender but 25 year olds cannot provide for themselves without government assistance) is placing real lives in real danger. The focus on celebrating identity does not have to include accepting sexual exploitation. The sheer number of people arguing in favor an age of consent at 14 in my feed should be enough of a wake up call for everyone.

It is more than just a movie or a book. It is a cultural message to teenagers to seek out adult partners and romanticize relationships they are not yet able to manage. It normalizes the idea to such an extent people cannot grasp why it would be wrong at all. It justifies legality as a measure of morality and it perpetuates the very ‘gay men prey on teens’ stigma LGBT are driven to fight.

Gay teenagers should be with other gay teenagers and adults should build healthy relationships with other adults. It shouldn’t be this controversial.