This post is a response to anonymous questions and comments I receive via SurveyMonkey (www.surveymonkey.com/r/XYRDXHH) or from private messages. I love responding to these, so if there is something on your mind, good or bad, please send me a message. No subject is off limits and here is a link to previous questions or comments I’ve received and responded to.
Okay, I meant to respond to this request last week but I ended up running out of hours in the day. I had a couple of work deadlines, a dentist appointment, and I went out a couple of nights with some friends. I hope the author isn’t too annoyed with me.
Hey, Peter, I have been following you on Facebook for a few months. I accidentally stumbled on your page and am really glad I did. My question for you is about the legal age of sexual consent and what your thoughts are on them. In NJ the age is 16 but for other states, it is as high as 18. I tried to find out the reasoning behind the decision on the age but wasn’t able to come up with much. I did look up what the ages were in other countries and for the most part, it was 16 or younger. A surprising amount of countries had their consent age set to 13 (Spain being one of them). Personally, I don’t understand why it would be anything older than 15. Punishing someone who is of sound mind for wanting to have sex with someone older just because of their age seems unnatural to me. What are your thoughts on this? Thanks in advance.
Hi, Facebook friend! I’m glad we stumbled together (probably… this was submitted anonymously so maybe I don’t like you, but that’s unlikely). One of my favorite things about social media is that it can bring people together who may have never crossed paths a decade ago. Facebook sucks sometimes, but overall it is a net gain for the world. Though, I could certainly have a healthier relationship with it than I do. But that’s true for a lot of things in my life, including alcohol, sex, and other awesome life experiences.
Anyway… I’m rambling. On to your questions.
Oh man, this is actually kind of a complex issue. My short answer, the age of consent laws in the US are often (though not always) well-intentioned but, like the infamous road to hell, the results aren’t good. There are ways our society can address teenage sex that would be an improvement.
Now for my long answer, I think there are a lot of factors in play but the four major issues that come to mind first to me are how our justice/legal system operates, the rights and cognitive abilities of children, and sex negativity. I’ll tackle each issue individually but they all overlap.
Justice/Legal System – In many cases our justice and legal system are set up in a way that is convenient for lawyers and politicians but reduces the rights and freedoms of citizens. This happens whenever a law is based on an action instead of a result. I understand the need for objectivity in the law and on the surface things like “If an 18-year old has sex with a 15-year old then a crime is committed” seems to be objective and fair, but it fails to address the purpose of a legal system: to address harm. A better way to treat teenage sex would be to only punish sex that causes harm, but treating this issue based on result instead of action would certainly be difficult. It is easy to prove an act happened but more difficult to prove that act resulted in certain harm (at least in the case of sex).
Not all laws are written this way. In fact, some criminal acts are based almost entirely on result instead of action. Take, for example, the difference between assault and attempted murder. If I decide I want to murder someone, plan to do it, and then walk out on the street and shoot someone in the chest the crime I am charged with depends on the whether the person survives or not. My intention and action (pulling the trigger hoping to kill) are not relevant to whether I am charged with murder or attempted murder. In fact, the specifics for why one person would die and one person would live is irrelevant to the charge. If I shoot someone with a clotting disorder and they die because their body can’t clot blood I will be charged with murder, even though I had no idea they had this disorder and I didn’t give them that disorder. But, if I shoot someone who is healthy (or larger or something like that) in the exact same spot but they survive then I am charged with a lesser crime. In this case, the degree of harm decides the charge, not the action.
I would like to see sex treated the same way. Harm should exist in order for an action to be criminal. Basically, who is the victim? If there is no victim then there is no crime (and no, I don’t think parents can claim their child is a victim in a way that overrules how the child feels about the act). But, that brings us to the next topic…
Rights and cognitive abilities of teenagers – Teenagers do not have the same cognitive abilities as adults, but where we draw that line (16, 18, and 21 depending on the act they wish to engage in) isn’t based on science or individual evidence. Instead, we base it on political expediency, convenience, and tradition. We seem to recognize that teenagers can make major life decisions at 16 like operate a 3,000 machine that is the third leading cause of accidental death in the US. Or, at 18, teenagers are allowed to buy cigarettes (probably the most dangerous habit in the world) or join the military. But, we don’t think teenagers should be allowed to buy alcohol (which is probably a post for another time). But, when it comes to sex things are all over the place.
I think the real question we should ask ourselves is “is this teenager capable of making healthy decisions with regards to sex?” Basically, can they recognize unhealthy power dynamics? Are they capable of voicing their desires and saying no when necessary? Do they understand how to use birth control and ask for help and the risks associated with sexual activity? But, instead of asking those questions and implementing institutional changes to address them we have decided to take the convenient way out and just slap an age on the act.
I think things would be greatly improved if we treated age of consent in a similar way that we treat driving. With driving, we recognize that there is a general age where most teenagers are capable of making responsible decisions but then we also provide an education on the subject and test fluency. Perhaps, we could have some sort of “sex license” where having sex with a teenager without one of those licenses is a crime (this is clearly imperfect and kind of sounds silly but I think it would be an improvement).
For example, maybe the “age of consent” issue turns into a licensing issue. When a teenager turns 15 they are eligible to get a sex license that would allow them to have sex with people over the age of 18 without it being illegal (of course rape, assault, etc. would still be illegal but just the act of sex wouldn’t be). In order to get this license, the teenager would go prove fluency in STI and pregnancy convention, communicating desire, saying no, etc. I think the biggest thing preventing any system like this is that a teenager would likely need parental consent for this license because we don’t recognize them as having full rights (hmm… this would probably be a good post in the future too) and, in general, parents are sex-negative.
Sex Negativity – A lot of adults in the US are terrified of sex, particularly of the idea that their children are having sex (spoiler: they are). Instead of providing a thorough education many parents do what my parents did, they ignore the issue and hope for the best. Or maybe they do passive aggressive things like leaving a copy of “Choosing to Wait: A Guide to Inspiring Abstinence” on the bookshelf and they suddenly decide to start cleaning their teenager’s rooms in order to throw out any porn they find. Teenagers look to their parents for guidance and in order for teenagers to make healthy, responsible decisions regarding sex it needs to be discussed in a realistic way. For most of human history, teenagers were having sex, getting married, and raising children, but some sort of puritanism runs through the US that denies this reality.
I think a lot of the laws in place are really about sex-negativity. Adults either want to legislate away the problem (which is impossible) or they don’t want to have a rational discussion about it and change the laws. I understand that this would be political suicide for someone. Any politician that wanted to reform age of consent laws would be accused of wanting to have sex with teenagers. So, unfortunately, I don’t think things are going to change much. I’d rather us have a better system but I don’t have any hope for change.