As a society, do we really care that teens and preteens have sex? On the one hand we care too much—so much so that the criminal law is the central form of regulating teen sex. This form of regulation is derived from statutes that treat all sexual behavior alike, even though consent and context may drastically vary. In Law’s Limits: Regulating Statutory Rape Law, found here, I articulate why the criminal law approach, filtered through the judiciary, leads to absurd results. These absurd results include the extralegal punishments inflicted on youth who are punished for participating in consensual sexual activity, such as lifelong registration as a sex offender. These types of consequences and outcomes are problematic because they are morally wrong and foster significant harms across a series of areas, including creating social status harms, by reifying racial and homosexual stereotypes. The criminal law approach also leads to cruel and unusual punishments in an era where sex offender registries are increasingly the norm and a condition of release from prison. On inspection, such punishments are disproportionate and unjustified.
On the other hand, maybe we care too little about teen sexuality. The notorious Steubenville, Ohio rape case bears this out (where the rape victim suffered backlash and threats), as do the high rates of HIV, sexually transmitted diseases, and syphilis infections among teens, and teens’ relatively high use of alcohol and drugs prior to sex. Parents fail to talk to their children about sexuality when children most need to understand it: prior to commencing sexual experimentation. Empirical data shows that fathers barely speak to their daughters about sex and these omissions may impact their daughters’ sexual attitudes and behaviors. Governors and prosecutors sometimes demonstrate selective interest in teen sexuality—when it involves specific ethnic populations or the poor. This failure to care enough is manifested in the criminal law approach to shaping teen sex norms, rather than the public health where it is most justified.
So, how might we move forward? Continue reading