How old is old enough? Lewinsky's 'youth': Americans caught between contradicting views of who is a child.

January 28, 1998

THE WOMAN who allegedly had sex with the president in the White House was, according to various newspaper descriptions, "a 21-year-old intern fresh out of a small college in Oregon," "only a few years older than Chelsea [Clinton]," "not only innocent, but also not fully formed," and may have had a relationship with a man "old enough to be her father."

Monica Lewinsky, now 24, may have been exactly as described when she worked in the White House. Then again, maybe she wasn't naive. Either way, her story reflects America's continued grappling with the indistinct line that divides childhood innocence from adult accountability.

The public's reflexive outrage has been tinged with comments about a "child" being take advantage of. At the same time, few eyebrows rose last week at news that the U.S. attorney for Maryland, Lynne A. Battaglia, plans to prosecute "youths as young as 16."

People make distinctions between children they want to treat like adults and adults "not fully formed" who they want to consider children. But on what basis? Is the difference between a 21-year-old child and a 16-year-old adult a matter of their alleged transgressions?

Children are capable of some awful acts. Japan was shocked last year when a 14-year-old boy beheaded an 11-year-old boy, leaving the head on the front gate of a school. Here in the United States, a fifth of violent crimes are committed by someone 18 or younger.

Are children children only until they commit a violent crime? Unless they commit a violent crime, should they be considered naive in all matters, including sex? How can that be in a nation where 50 percent of all girls and 55 percent of all boys ages 15 to 19 have had intercourse, a nation where four in 10 women will become pregnant by the time they're age 20?

Parents today ask latch-key kids to act more like adults, then register outrage when children allowed to make adult decisions talk back to them like grown-ups. Maybe we're headed toward a future where age no longer matters. It's already hard to tell who the real children are.

Pub Date: 1/28/98

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