Should we really treat teenagers who have sex with other teenagers as criminals?
Should our legal system play any role in regulating “consensual” teen sexual behavior?
Now, in fairness, neither of these boys went to jail just for having sex with an underage girl, there were aggravating circumstances – one punched his girlfriend’s father and both violated judges’ orders to stay away from the girls.
(Years later as a sexuality educator, these are among the litmus tests I would suggest to teens.) The problem that really didn’t occur to me until last week, however, is that from a legal standpoint it was not a consensual relationship.
In Massachusetts—which has one of the least nuanced laws regarding age of consent—a person under 16 cannot give consent, and I was three months shy of my 16 birthday that summer.
By the time we had sex, we had been together for many months and professed our love for each other, I had nursed him back to puffy-cheeked health after he’d had his wisdom teeth out and he had spent a great deal of time with my family on Cape Cod.
Though I can’t say it was a perfect relationship or the balance of power was entirely equal (he held some advantage by virtue of being older and more experienced), I can assure you that the sexual aspect of our relationship was consensual, mutually pleasurable, non-exploitative, honest, and protected from pregnancy and STDs.
History and Purpose of Statutory Rape Laws Statutory rape laws (which are called by a plethora of other names) refer to those laws that “criminalize voluntary sexual acts involving a minor that would be legal if not for the age of one or more of the participants.” The premise behind these laws is that until a certain age, young people are incapable of giving their consent for sexual behavior but the intent behind the laws has morphed over the 700 years or so since they were first codified.
The first known law, passed in Westminster England in 1275, made it illegal to “ravish” a “maiden” under the age of 12 (also the age at which a girl could legally marry) without her consent. The result was that an underage girl did not have to show that she had struggled in order to prove that she had not given her consent as her older friends did.While some law enforcement officials thought this was the right approach, many advocates for adolescent health were skeptical at best.The deputy district attorney in California’s Tulare County told the L. Times: “When we prosecute a few of these guys, we think it’ll make a lot of guys think twice.” By contrast, law professor Michelle Oberman felt these laws would never act as a deterrent: “Drawing a connection between enforcing these laws and lowering adolescent pregnancy rates flies in the face of everything we know about why girls get pregnant and why they choose to continue their pregnancies.But by spring they had broken up and one fateful Wednesday he called.From there we began what would be my first serious and my first sexual relationship.Armed with the statistic that half the children born to adolescent women are fathered by adult men and that many of these children end up on welfare, some state and federal lawmakers began to argue that stricter enforcement of statutory rape laws would deter older men from having sex with teenage girls and would, therefore, solve the teen pregnancy problem.