by Charles Platt
Since “protecting our children” became a reliable mantra for DAs seeking re-election at some time during the Reagan administration, the horrors of statutory rape and child pornography have justified countless legislative excesses. Unfortunately such laws conflict with the inconvenient biological fact that most young people become capable of reproducing around the ages of 12 or 13.
Age-of-consent laws used to recognize this. (In the text below I am talking primarily about teenagers having sex with each other and taking pictures of each other, not adults taking advantage of children, which is, or should be, an entirely separate issue.) Here’s a site that tabulates international laws on the subject. In Chile, for instance, the age of consent still appears to be 12. Many other nations used to share this permissive attitude until the US and the UN leaned on them to shape up.
Even in the United States, the situation is confusing. Suppose a 17-year-old girl starts giving oral sex to her 17-year-old boyfriend while he drives their car west across Texas (not a safe practice, but, it happens). As they cross the state line into Arizona, they magically turn into sex offenders.
During my lifetime, liberties for young people have been progressively eroded. To see how extreme the transition has been, just take a look at the movie of Woodstock. Two explanations come to mind. From a sociobiological perspective, adults benefit by delaying the reproductive activities of young people for as long as possible. From a political perspective, those under 18 cannot vote, so legislators can trash their rights without reducing their chances of re-election.
Adult backlash against teenage sexuality has been far worse in the United States than in some other countries. The Japanese, for instance, see nothing wrong with cute 15-year-old pop stars in tight sweaters and micro-skirts, flaunting themselves as sex objects. The notorious Saaya Irie, who started modeling lingerie when she was 11, is pictured here at the advanced age of 16. She has appeared in several movies and is promoting herself as a serious actress.
Since this seems to be an area of fear, denial, and repression, I suppose it’s inevitable that laws relating to it should be a mess. This, however, does not excuse their existence. I tend to think that if we really want to stop teenagers from fornicating (and taking salacious pictures of each other), parental guidance is a far more benign remedy than arrest, conviction, jail, and subsequent stigma as a sex offender.