- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 13, 2008


The recent raid on the Texas compound of a religious sect that practices polygamy has raised again a number of issues regarding marriage, family, and sex. On the one hand, the existence of such a large group of practicing polygamists within our borders reinforces the concern that some have (which I share) that redefining marriage for the benefit of homosexuals would put us on a slippery slope toward other redefinitions-including legalization of polygamy.

On the other hand, a raid which has reportedly separated over 400 children (some of them very young) from their own biological parents raises concern, even for those of us adamantly opposed to polygamy, about state interference with parental rights.

However, the actual legal issue at stake in the Texas case is not polygamy, or child custody, or even “pedophilia” or “child sexual abuse,” which are terms usually applied when the victim is pre-pubescent. Instead, the issue is a crime usually referred to as “statutory rape.” Every state makes it illegal to have sex with someone below a certain age, even if the young person “consents.” These laws are based on the premise that children and young adolescents do not have the maturity to rationally “consent” to sexual relations-especially with an adult who may be exploiting them.

John Stossel, the “give me a break” guy from ABC’s 20/20, interviewed me (before the Texas raid) about these “age of consent” laws, for a TV story and follow-up op-ed. Mr. Stossel, reflecting an attitude common since the sexual revolution, seems to scoff at the idea of using the law to place any restrictions at all upon consensual sex between people who are physiologically mature.

One facet of this argument is that teenagers are going to have sex anyway, so the law is futile. But it makes little sense to say that we shouldn’t pass laws against things that lots of people do. Why not just abolish speed limits, since they are frequently exceeded? Or lower the drinking age, since “millions of Americans” probably drink before they are 21? CDC statistics on teen sexual behavior suggest that an “age of consent” of 16 (which is common) would merely require teens younger than that to conform to the behavior of three quarters of their peers, which is abstinence.

In any case, an argument just about “teens having sex” is hardly relevant, since statutory rape is almost never charged when two minors of the same age have sex with each other. Many states have “Romeo and Juliet” provisions, which allow statutory rape laws to apply only if the gap in age between the partners exceeds a certain maximum.

Such laws are far more likely to be used in cases like that of the Texas polygamists, who are accused of “marrying” middle-aged men to underage “wives.” People convicted of statutory rape are sometimes classified as “sex offenders.” That can be a label that follows them and restricts their activities for the rest of their lives. Stossel interviewed one man who suffered this fate after having sex at age 18 with his 14-year-old girlfriend. He argues that labeling a teenager as a sex offender for life because of a consensual relationship is unjust. In some cases, it may be. But the logical solution would be to modify the laws governing the sex offender registries-not to lower (or abolish) the age of consent.

The real issue is simple-some people think that teenagers having sex is no big deal. That’s where they’re dead wrong.

Literally “dead” wrong, in some cases. The Centers for Disease Control recently announced a study showing that 40% of sexually active teenage girls already have one of four common sexually transmitted infections-and that list did not include HIV, syphilis or gonorrhea. Some of them already have the infection that will kill them, such as HIV or HPV, which causes cervical cancer. Teenagers who are sexually active are several times more likely to suffer from depression and to commit suicide than teenagers who are abstinent. Eighteen percent of American women will bear a child by the age of 18 — and that’s not including those who will abort their baby.

The authorities in Texas have much to sort out. They have yet to locate the 16-year-old alleged victim, who said in a phone call that she was forced to “marry” (and have sex with) an older man. They’ll have to determine whether separating hundreds of small children from their parents was worth it. However those issues play out, the case should serve as a reminder of why we have statutory rape laws. Do we really want to send the message — by lowering the age of consent-that it’s OK for teenagers who are fifteen and younger to have sex? Give me a break!

Peter Sprigg is vice president for policy at the Family Research Council.

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