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Teen Sex Scandals and Society’s Double Standard

Last week former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert was sentenced to fifteen months in prison. Many people who pay attention to the news casually might think the sentence was related to his sexual abuse of teenagers several decades earlier when he served as a high school football coach.

However, since the statute of limitations ran out on those cases many years ago, Hastert could not be charged. Instead, he was found guilty of violating the Bank Secrecy Act by making several withdrawals just shy of $10,000 in order to evade mandatory reporting requirements. Hastert did this in order to gather “hush money" to pay off one of his victims.

Some commenters have noted that Hastert’s punishment is extreme, given that most violators of the BSA’s $10,000 rule received no jail time. They maintain Hastert is being harshly punished for this crime in order to make up for the fact that the state could not punish him for his past sexual abuse.

Indeed, the U.S. District Judge in Hastert’s case said to him in court, “I can’t sentence you as a child molester. It’s not what you were charged with, it’s not what you’ve pled guilty to, and any sentence I give you today will pale in comparison to what you would have faced in state court."

But this whole thing got me thinking about society’s double standard when it comes to teens and sex.

When age makes a difference

On the one hand, as Hastert’s case shows, the law considers sexual relations between adults and minors, who in most states are anyone under the age of 17, to involve serious wrongdoing. Several states have the option to punish those who engage in sexual relations with a minor, even if the minor desires sex but because of age cannot consent to it legally, with twenty- or thiry-year prison terms.

On the other hand, our culture glorifies minors having sexual relations with one another. It’s a common plot element in television and film, and those who say young people shouldn’t engage in sex are considered naïve at best or repressive puritans at worst. One congressional panel said it would not fund abstinence education even if the programs were shown to reduce rates of teen pregnancy and STDs.

That’s because some adults believe young people have a right to sex (or, for some, a right to enjoyable sex) as well as information and devices to help them have sex without becoming pregnant or spreading disease. For example, the University of Minnesota published a book in 2002 by Judith Levine titled Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex. Here’s one illuminating passage:

Teens often seek out sex with older people, and they do so for understandable reasons: an older person makes them feel sexy and grown up, protected and special; often the sex is better than it would be with a peer who has as little skill as they do. For some teens, a romance with an older person can feel more like salvation than victimization.

Fortunately, most people aren’t as bold as Levine. They instead have a deep-seated intuition that sex between minors is unwise, but adult-minor sex wrong.

But what if that intuition leads to mistaken conclusions about sexual morality, just as our intuition that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones can lead to mistaken beliefs about physics? After all, how does the morality of an act change just because one of the actors involved is not of a certain age?

My contention is that sexual behavior between adults and minors harms minors, and if there is no morally relevant difference between adult-minor relationships and minor-minor relationships, then minor-minor relationships are equally harmful and should not be tolerated.

The state may find it prudent to not prosecute minors in the same way it prosecutes adults for these acts (especially since minors have immature decision-making abilities), but society should at least not celebrate or shrug its shoulders at this harmful behavior. (For a great antidote to Levine’s book, see Miriam Grossman’s Unprotected,which shows how modern sex-ed ideology harms young adults).

Possible objections

The best way to refute my argument would be to show that, even though the physical acts look identical, there is a morally relevant difference between adult-minor sex and minor-minor sex that justifies criminalizing one but not the other.

One could argue that adult-minor relationships harm the minor, because the minor can’t consent to sex due to the minor’s inability to fully understand its serious consequences, such as STDs or pregnancy. That’s true, but that supports my argument. By this reasoning, adult-minor relationships have one person who can’t consent, but minor-minor relationships have two people who can’t consent.

By that logic, don’t minor-minor relationships cause more harm? That’s like saying it’s wrong for an adult to buy a minor alcohol but not wrong for two minors to brew their own alcohol at home together. The serious consequences of sexual union become only more present in minor-minor relationships, not less present.

One could also argue that, unlike in minor-minor relationships, many adult-minor relationships involve manipulation by an authority figure like a coach, clergyman, teacher, relative, or someone else who imposes sexual relations upon the child. But many men have been convicted of statutory rape who were not in positions of authority over a minor, such as relationship with the friend of a friend who attends a nearby college.

Some critics say that all adults, by virtue of adulthood, have power over minors, and so minors are always exploited to some degree in these relationships. But this doesn’t explain why some states allow adults who had preexisting relationships with minors to continue those relationships after they reach the age of consent (e.g., so-calledRomeo and Juliet laws). Moreover, some sexual relationships among minors involve power imbalances but are not (in most states) illegal, such as a sexual relationship between a junior in high school and an eighth grader.

Instead, there must be something about sexual union itself, and not the people involved, that always harms minors (even if the child does not report being harmed).

The real reason

Why can minors consent to activities that can lead to physical injury, like team sports, but not to sex? I would answer that it is because sex is not just a pleasurable activity. Sexual union intrinsically relates to a lifelong gift of self to another person, which becomes objectively real through the creation of new human life that often results from this behavior. This kind of union exists even if there is little or no emotional connection between the partners, because sex itself creates that kind of union. As St. Paul says, “Do you not know that he who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two shall become one’" (1 Cor. 6:16).

Minors are incapable of consenting to having sex with anyone, because they lack the emotional and intellectual maturity that is needed understand the lifelong consequences of sexual behavior. That’s why minors aren’t allowed to join the military, buy a home, or sign contracts.

Indeed, most people are repulsed by the idea of “teen brides"—or at least uncomfortable with teens marrying one another—but they are not as concerned about teen sexual behavior. They think that marriage has more life-altering consequences for teens than the actual marital act itself.

But I think many people don’t consider (or don’t want to consider) the idea that sex is an intrinsically lifelong giving of self to another that is inappropriate for teens, because to acknowledge that would wreck many adult ideas about sexuality. For example, it would wreck the idea of casual sex or “friends with benefits," or any extramarital sexual relations at all.

So that leaves critics at a crossroads: either admit that sexual union is intended for serious, lifelong unions recognized in the eyes of society from which children are often born (or what we usually call “marriage") or cling to the idea that sex has no intrinsic meaning and can be a casual activity.

But if you do the latter, be prepared to give up any principled objection to your child going out with her new adult friend, who is only helping her indulge in the twenty-first century’s obsession with “autonomy."

Written by Trent Horn


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