- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 10, 2003

VIRGINIA BEACH (AP) — The Virginia Department of Health has placed six provocative billboards around the Hampton Roads area as part of a pilot project intended to prevent statutory rape.

The billboards carry the message “Isn’t she a little young?” in large letters, with the words “Sex with a minor. Don’t go there,” in smaller letters below.

Less dramatically, the department is distributing 2,000 posters and 4,000 postcards with similar messages.

All of the materials refer people to a new Web site sponsored by the health department, www.varapelaws.org. The site provides links to Virginia laws and advice on how to handle situations such as “Your buddy is involved with a girl and you know it’s not right” and “You know a younger person who may be in a coercive relationship.”

The campaign may spread to other parts of the state if officials consider the Hampton Roads test a success. For now, the billboards are limited to Chesapeake, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Virginia Beach.

Virginia has various laws that address “consenting” sex between a minor and an adult. Generally, the younger the victim, the more serious the charge. It’s a felony for someone 18 or older to have “carnal knowledge” of a 13- or 14-year-old. The charge drops to a first-degree misdemeanor ? contributing to the delinquency of a minor ? if the minor is 15 to 17.

Because no one under 13 can consent legally to sexual intercourse, any carnal knowledge of a child 12 or younger is considered a forcible sex offense.

Rebecca K. Odor, director of sexual violence prevention at the state Department of Health, said focus groups helped shape the message so that it would resonate with men between 18 and 29 years old.

“We want to change the norm so that it’s not OK,” Miss Odor said. “Right now what we are finding in our focus-group testing is that some guys think it’s OK to have sex with younger girls.”

The department will try to gauge the effect by comparing results from pre- and post-campaign surveys of 200 men in the target audience, she said.

About 18 months in the making, the pilot project’s cost is $25,000. Though it might seem frivolous amid state budget cuts, Miss Odor said it fulfills a federal mandate.

All states that receive federal money for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families programs are required to spend some funds on statutory rape awareness, she said.

The message especially needs to be heard in Virginia Beach, Miss Odor said.

Virginia’s most populous city had more statutory rape offenses and arrests than any other locality in the state in 2000 and 2001, Miss Odor said. In 2000, police reported 33 incidents and made 20 arrests — 15 percent of all statutory rape arrests statewide. In 2001, there were 29 reports and 10 arrests.

Virginia Beach police Detective Joe Schuler was glad to learn about the campaign.

“You’ve got to start somewhere,” Mr. Schuler said. “It’s long overdue.”

Detective Schuler doesn’t believe Virginia Beach is more prone to statutory rape than other Virginia cities.

He said the number of offenses and arrests there is consistent with the city’s size. But he noted that the city has a lot of people moving through it, especially during the summer, which can create problems.

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