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Posted by on Jun 22, 2008 in At TMV | 4 comments

Stop threatening to put kids in jail for sex!

Geveryl Robinson tells us in the Savannah Morning News today that she saw the Today Show this week. She didn’t like what she saw:

I saw a story about 17 girls in a Gloucester, Mass., high school who made a pregnancy pact to get pregnant by any means necessary because they wanted to raise their children together.

And that’s exactly what they did.

Now this upsets Ms…. er, I’m thinking that in this case “Ms.” just won’t do! The appropriate honorific really has to be either “Miss” or “Mrs.”… Robinson and she goes on at some length about it. I’ll spare you the rosy prose and cut to her proposed solution:

One of the women from the town – I believe she was an attorney – said that they had to try to figure out what to do with all the guys who were having sex with girls who were 15.

“That’s statutory rape” she said. You think?

The parents of these little baby makers need to be slapped… HARD.

Then the baby makers and the men – correction – boys they had sex with need to be slapped… HARDER.

The last time I checked, statutory rape was a serious crime. In Massachusetts, offenders can receive up to a life sentence. So there’s nothing to figure out. Do to these guys what the state of Georgia did to Genarlow Wilson when, at the age of 17, he had consensual sex with a 15-year-old girl. Put them behind bars.

Now I know there are some people who would say locking the kids up wouldn’t do any good. But I don’t just think the boys should be locked up. I think the girls should go to the slammer as well.

Flummoxed, I hardly know where to start. Count me among those who believe locking up kids won’t do any good. It will do great harm! And I know just a little bit about the topic. I live in a town with six state prisons — prisons are economic development in rural towns like mine — and I sit on the advisory board of the youth prison. I invite anyone who thinks a young person convicted of consensual sex belongs in a prison to go visit one!

For God’s sake, do you really think the punishment fits the crime?

But let’s just say for a minute that you do. I promise you, you put that kid in that prison and he (or she) is going to come out a prisoner. There are real prisoners, real criminals, in there! What have you done? Made another prisoner! And what has it cost you? Prisons are expensive! Fortunately, most of the law enforcement professionals I know understand that. Apparently it’s the politicians — and the public — who don’t!

The Genarlow Wilson case that Robinson cites made Georgia a national embarrassment and was overturned by our Supreme Court (Genarlow is now attending Morehouse College and his attorney was named Newsmaker of the Year last year in a 7,000 word piece by the Fulton County Daily Report). It was messy and complicated but few believe it should have gone the way it did and the laws have been changed as a consequence.

To throw kids in jail is to give up. It is an abdication of our adult responsibility. And it is a shameful attempt to blame our failing on the kids. A look at the divorce, infidelity, child abuse, and abandonment rates suggests just how utterly and completely hypocritical the fine upstanding adult population is that seeks to lock up the kids for doing the same thing their parents’ generation did! Further, evidence indicates these kids want information about sex from their parents. The parents aren’t giving it!

What’s worse, instead of talking to our kids about sex, we talk about abstinence, then turn our backs on them as we sexualize, fetishize, and ogle them in every advertising, media, and pornographic (where’s the middle-aged porn?) representation of them in our culture. Then we blame them and want to lock them up for our our desires! Kids don’t need us to leer at them — they need us to talk to them!!! And they don’t need us to criminalize them because we are afraid of either our desire or theirs!!!

So, what of the legitimate interest of the law to protect young people? William Saletan wrote a piece last fall in Slate on rethinking the age of consent.  “Age-span” provisions in the law have become common. Using the research that finds differences in the age of physical, cognitive and emotional readiness, he would extend those provisions accordingly and finds the beginnings of a logical scheme for regulating teen sex:

I’d draw the object line at 12, the cognitive line at 16, and the self-regulatory line at 25. I’d lock up anyone who went after a 5-year-old. I’d come down hard on a 38-year-old who married a 15-year-old. And if I ran a college, I’d discipline professors for sleeping with freshmen. When you’re 35, “she’s legal” isn’t good enough.

What I wouldn’t do is slap a mandatory sentence on a 17-year-old, even if his nominal girlfriend were 12. I know the idea of sex at that age is hard to stomach. I wish our sexual, cognitive, and emotional maturation converged in a magic moment we could call the age of consent. But they don’t.

OTHER RESOURCES: Recently John Stossel did a full hour on The Age of Consent which features 14 video reports still available online. The Midwest Teen Sex Show is a video podcast done on a shoestring budget by three 20somethings who say they’re frustrated by the relatively chaste sex-education taught in high school. Go see Juno. I sensed an emergent millennial morality in it and the ultrasound scene is particularly relevant to this post…

N.B.: None of this is to suggest that I advocate kids having sex. I advocate sex education and adults talking appropriately with young people about sex.