I’m not going to defend the rights of smokers just now, but rather the rights of those other pariahs. Because of widespread confusion, ignorance and fear about sex itself — not just harmful sex — whenever another sickening crime occurs, legislators go into panic mode and pass a new law. Some make sense, others don’t, but the worst thing about our sex offender laws is they seldom if ever distinguish between different kinds of sex “crimes.” These laws plunk together the 19-year-old kid who has sex with his 17–year-old girlfriend into the same category as the 30-year-old child-snatcher who molests five-year-olds in his car. These draconian laws vary from state to state.
In Russell Banks’ latest novel, Lost Memory of Skin, The Kid, a 21-year-old virgin and Internet porn addict (in this
case the term porn addict isn’t a stretch) is invited by a girl on a chat group to come over while her mother’s out of town. Naturally, The Kid is champing at the bit, eager for his first real sexual contact, and rides the bus to the suburbs, bearing gifts of condoms, beer, and his favorite porn video. When he walks into the house, he is promptly arrested by an FBI agent.
Lost Memory of Skin is fiction, but these things happen to real people in real life. (See To Catch a Predator, TV reality show.) At 17, Anthony Croce began having sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend; when he turned 18, the girl’s disapproving mother pressed charges and Croce pled no contest. He was then legally compelled to register as a sex offender. This is the most common teenage sex “crime” and punishment: when an amorous couple are caught “doing it”, if she’s underage and he isn’t, he’s arrested. He cops a plea or goes to trial, and carries the “sex offender” stigma for ten years or more, sometimes for life. His mug shot is posted on the Internet and sometimes around his neighborhood. In most states he’s not allowed to live near schools, parks or other common kid spaces – one teen, Generlaw Wilson, couldn’t even live with his family because his kid sister lived in the house, and he wasn’t allowed to be near her. Some sex offenders have to wear GPS devices, or tell prospective employers they’re perverts. On Halloween, cops in towns and cities make the rounds from one sex offender’s home to another, checking to see that they’re home with the lights out and the shades drawn so as not to attract trick-or-treaters to their doors.
Acknowledging that youthful intimacy is not the same as child molestation, a few new Romeo and Juliet laws attempt to correct these overly harsh punishments. (Romeo would be labeled a sex offender today, as he was believed to be 16 and Juliet 13.) Still, even these are frequently enforced unfairly says Mark Chaffin of the National Center on the Sexual Behavior of Youth. “In many cases, they are enforced largely by how angry the parents of the younger party are.”
Not surprisingly, R&J laws are even harder on gay and lesbian teenagers. Matthew Limon was a mentally disabled 17-year-old who had consensual sex with a 14-year-old boy. If the boy had been a girl, Limon would have been sentenced to 15 months in prison under Kansas’s Romeo and Juliet law, but because it states that partners must be members of the opposite sex, Limon was given a 17-year sentence.
If, as I believe, the proliferation of child sexual abuse is a by-product of sexual ignorance, then instead of passing legislation we ought to be investigating why people become predators. Banks’s Kid wasn’t a predator at all, only ignorant and isolated and horny as hell with a sad screwed-up family background to boot. Why do grown men lust after children? What makes someone so crazy out-of-control with…what? Is it lust? Is it, as with adult rape, an assertion of power? Wouldn’t it be good to know? Molesters don’t give a shit that they’re hurting kids; doesn’t that make them psychopaths? Yet they apparently don’t even care about the consequences to themselves. Would research tell us why?
Unfortunately, at this time (as throughout most of history), anti-sex attitudes prevent such research from happening. According to “Long After Kinsey, Only the Brave Study Sex,” an article in the New York Times, very little sex research is conducted these days. From the article:
“Pedophilia in particular is off-limits. Psychiatrists and psychologists have studied and tried to treat people imprisoned for sexual crimes, with limited success…People do not choose to become pedophiles, experts say, but usually discover as adults that they are afflicted with unusual desires, and many long resist the urge to act on them….The intensity of the emotion on this issue is so high that it is heresy to express any concern about a person with pedophilia,” much less study treatment, said Dr. Fred Berlin, founder of the Johns Hopkins University sexual disorders clinic.”
Dr. Berlin has been widely vilified for his views on the subject, and is a target of venomous threats online.
One reason I feel so strongly about this issue is that if Romeo & Juliet laws had existed back in the day, my beloved G.D. would have been sent up the river for the scandalous things we did in his car when I was 16 and he 19, and half my girlfriends’ boyfriends would have kept him company in nearby cells. I’ve always been grateful I had the opportunity to explore my sexual feelings with my peers, and I genuinely feel sorry for kids today. I’m no fan of teen pregnancy or exploitation of young girls – but if the grownups won’t give them real sex education, it’s best to just leave the kids alone.