Age of Consent

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

The Genarlow Wilson case is still just a wire story in many major papers, but here at Talk we think it's a pretty big deal. Not only are the facts of the case surprising, to say the least, but it has real ramifications for parents and kids everywhere. In Genarlow's case, the two year difference between his age and his partner's meant his condemnation for aggravated child molestation, in spite of her willing compliance... and oral sex carried* a much heavier penalty than sex-sex. Turns out Georgia's not the only state with confusing laws about this... do you know the age of consent rules where you live? Do you make sure your sons and daughters are clear on what's just not a good idea, and what's actually illegal?

*That loophole was fixed with a 2006 law — consensual oral sex between teens is now a misdemeanor, and perpetrators do not register as sex offenders. But it couldn't be applied retroactively to Genarlow.



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While I do not condone, nor wish to see my own daughter having sex at such a young age, it is clear that children are consensually having sex at incredibly young ages. I don't think that the 15 year old girl who willingly has sex w/a boy a couple of years older than her gets to cry rape when she realizes the bad choice she's made. I also don't think parents get to claim rape when their young daughter makes a bad choice.
In this case, while the boy was VERY stupid in his actions, I don't agree that he should be brought up on sex charges. Much less, carry the sex offender stigma from now on.

Sent by Roxanne | 2:16 PM | 6-12-2007

When are we going to start real sex education?
That is the most effective way to reduce early teen sex and also to reduce unwanted pregnancies, STI's and Abortions. We have wasted millions of dollars on Abstinence only education that has shown no positive results.

Sent by Clemens Wittekind | 2:28 PM | 6-12-2007

Judith Levine's book "Harmful to Minors" comes to mind with this discussion, if anyone is interested -- she explores many of the same territories.

Sent by kimberly | 2:34 PM | 6-12-2007

Why does no one ever mention biology with regard to the age of consent? People are biologically capable of and have a drive for sex from around the age of 13. It may not be palatable to adults but that is the biological reality. Why is this never acknowledged by lawmakers or anyone else?

Sent by John Kramer | 2:34 PM | 6-12-2007

This is only one more example of how punitive a nation we've become...; soon, "the land of the free and the home of the brave" will more accurately reflect the land of the jailers and the jailed. I'm guessing that there isn't one adult in the judicial system who can swear that he or she did not have hormones raging at the same age...... and because all people make mistakes, we fall into two categories; those who got caught, and those who got lucky. We all need to take a deep breath, step back, and look at the bigger picture. And stop punishing or incarcerating people who would be better educated and brought into the productive mainstream of society.

Sent by Trudy Ray | 2:38 PM | 6-12-2007

Genarlow's being charged with aggravated child molestation is outrageous; the law was grossly misapplied. Hearing the details of the plea deal he was offered(instead of 10 years having the 15 years probation and felon status), it is clear he really didn't have a choice. Why hasn't anyone lost their job over this case? Genarlow has been wrongfully stripped of freedom for two years already - two years he will never get back.

This case also brings to light the problems with sex offender registry laws and the consequences of landing on that registry, the collateral consequences of criminal charges here are highly damaging and encourage offenders to re-offend, as your guest mentioned there are whole parts of Georgia where sex offenders cannot live, there is a like case in Florida where the authorities placed sex offenders who had recently completed their prison terms under a highway overpass, simply because their sex offender map showed no other place these men could live! And then the representative of the area goes on CNN and says it's even dangerous to do this because the placed offenders will be "sympathetic to one another's rage," and will "feed off one another's disgust." Get with it, fella! These men will re-offend because they'll be better off in prison! An 8x8 cell and regular meals is better than selling aluminum scrap from under a highway overpass, being rained on and suffering from rat infestation. The laws on the books and current policy cause offenders to re-offend and wind up in prison again, at taxpayers' expense!


Sent by David | 2:40 PM | 6-12-2007

I find it horrible that this young man was given such a harsh sentence initially. What is really sad is that he would have probably had a significantly lesser sentence if he simply had beaten up the girl in school. Our society continually puts a larger stigma on something as natural as sex between consenting people but less so on violence, where I am sure there is far less consent.

Sent by phil | 2:42 PM | 6-12-2007

I'm a 13-year old girl, and i know that people are now asking kids to develop earlier (to read and write earlier). Since we're being considered adults earlier, we're going to want to do the other things involved with being adults earlier, too. I don't mean to say that we SHOULD have sex earlier (i'm against that), but to say that kids should develop earlier, but "not in those ways", is hypocrytical at best.
Obviously, if two kids are having sex in middle school, they need therapy and not a ten-year jail sentance. But people have parcially brought the "early development" thing on themselves.

Sent by Micaela | 2:49 PM | 6-12-2007

Georgia's mandatory sentencing laws have been a mistake; we need a return to prosecutorial and judicial discretion in these cases. What is being left out of this discussion, however, is that the girls were reportedly inebriated AND outnumbered by the young men, two to one. Too many teenaged girls feel pressured or coerced to engage in sexual activity, even when they're NOT outnumbered.

Sent by Kris | 3:06 PM | 6-12-2007

I listened attentively to the comments by your guest on laws regarding sexuality and young people. Unfortunately I cannot seem to spell his name correctly to find out more about the book he wrote.

Could someone help me with this?

Sent by William | 3:08 PM | 6-12-2007

Many teens have consensual sex, but how can we tell when it's consensual unless they are tested for date rape drugs? Drugs like GHB are often slipped to victims to impair their ability to make decisions with perspective. They induce compliance with socially inappropriate behavior. The victims become euphoric and sociable when only a small amount has taken effect, so they look consensual on videotape. Not seeing the drug, witnesses blame the victims. This can ruin victims' lives. Perpetrators know this, so they take photos and videos to discredit victims. These drugs leave the body quickly so tox tests must be immediate. In the Duke case, for example, the stripper was not given a tox test at the Duke hospital which conducted the rape kit. Victims' lives are riding on these tests. Social support and recognition of abuse is vital to their recovery. Hospitals need to give these tests when police find young people intoxicated in vulnerable situations.

Sent by inspra | 3:12 PM | 6-12-2007

I believe the sex offender registries are unconstitutional. This case shows how they are grossly misused despite the good intentions. As a parent of two children, I understand the urges behind these registries. I can only imagine the grief of the families involved in the cases that spawned these laws. But, the fact remains, these people have served their time, they are still citizens of this country, and they are being denied the rights of life and liberty, much less the pursuit of happiness. Especially in cases like this. What happens if this boy grows up, finds a girl who loves him enough to look past the stigma he lives with, and has children? Will he be allowed at parent teacher conferences, or ball games? Where will they live? Will the government force him to leave his family because there are children in the home? All of these things have already happened to other people. Where will it end? These laws are the very definition of a slippery slope.

Sent by Sarah | 3:21 PM | 6-12-2007

To expect a hormonally challenged teenage boy to turn down sex with a willing girl is beyond wishful thinking. This kind of "crime" has been going on for as long as there has been puberty. The real crime is to ruin this young man's life over this. It is the prosecuter who should be behind bars.

Sent by George from Oregon | 3:27 PM | 6-12-2007

I was not aware until listening to the story that it was illegal in some states for teenagers to be engaging in consentual sexual acts with each other. Obviously, the person/s convicted has to live with the legal ramifications for the rest of their lives. In addition, I imagine if the law were actually enforced, it would deter teenagers from seeking birth control and seeking treatment for sexually transmitted diseases and for pregnancy. Also, more subtly, it gives the teenagers one more way in which they do not have to be responsible for their own decisions.

Sent by Francesca | 5:11 PM | 6-12-2007

While the law certainly has good intentions, it does have its drawbacks. If the act was consensual by both members, then both members should be punished equally.

Sent by Gary | 5:51 PM | 6-12-2007

Your guest mentioned the adverse affect that public and political outrage is having on these issues. Any time sex is involved, emotional reactions occur. They are instinctive and designed to get us pregnant. The outrage is no different. It is there to drive the behavior behind a bush or anywhere out of sight - Because that helps the cause of our instinctive side. We are in denial of our true nature and open, smart and intelligent discussion such as your guest offered is clearly the right path to be on. Lawmakers and the general public attitudes (puritan on the surface but depraved underneath) are on the wrong path.

Thank you for a very enlightened discussion.

Sent by Jeff | 6:00 PM | 6-12-2007

I frimly believe that the vast majority of harm done to children who innocently engage in sexual activity is the stigma that our society has placed on it and the public circus that occurs whenever the event is discovered. It is intended to be a private affair. Exposure to public scrutiny does the harm, and the mainstream media is significantly at fault - If politicians didn't believe they could earn points passing crappy laws with noble titles, it wouldn't have happened in the first place.

Sent by Jeff | 6:08 PM | 6-12-2007

As long as there are teenagers, there will be teenagers having sex. Instead of idiotic laws that punish kids for doing what comes naturally to them, we should be giving them honest and complete sex education. We should get the stupid laws like the one that caught Genarlow Wilson off the books. Any laws regarding sex should be more narrowly written so teenage fooling around is not considered a crime.

Sent by Diane Hoffman | 6:32 PM | 6-12-2007

Unfortunately I was only able to listen to the first 20 minutes of the show. I too am appalled what mandatory minimums and sexual presatory registry has done to our justice system. I have a personal interest in this because my son, a 30 year old geologist living in Orlando, serving a 9 year prison sentence for sexual battery (helpless victim). His victim was a 26 year old woman he met at a club and had a very romantic evening on the dance floor. He and a male friend were invited back to her apartment with her female friend. My son was engaged in, what he thought was consensual intercourse, with his hew found love when her friend burst into the room and called 911. Fifteen months later, after a trial and two appeals he was sentenced to 9 years. He could have been charge with a DUI and killed someone and gotten a shorter sentence. He would not be branded a "drinker" and have to register or stay away from bars for the rest of his life. Have we gone too far in our quest to "protect us from sexual predators?" My son's story is on

Sent by K. Jean Williams | 9:47 PM | 6-12-2007

Ex-Prime Minister of Canada, Pierre-Elliot Trudeau said it best:" The Government has no business in the bedroom of two consenting human beings"

That said, the real question is; Why do Americans seems to have so many cultural problems with sex? Why is sex education such a controversial topic?

Oh! you mean if no one talks about it, it won't happen? It'll go away, like when we were 3 years old we would shield our eyes and say: "You can't see me now!"...

Where in the world do you want YOUR kids to learn about sex? At the mall? On the street? In the media?

Speaking of which, violence is much less censured than sex in the media, yet sex is much more natural than violence. And rather more pleasant too. Is that the deal? Pleasure shall be banished because it makes one more human, more in sync with their true self?

As for the politicians who voted these repressive laws, what is there to say? You just can't fix stupid I guess.

Sent by Francois | 2:00 AM | 6-13-2007

I was shocked that the host and guest were not a little appauled by the caller that was 20 and had sex with a 15 year old! While his point about the therapy being inappropriate and being grouped with older men who victimized very young children was helpful, I wish someone had asked about his relationship with the 15 year old. That is a huge age difference at that point in development. How do we know this young man shouldn't have been punished they way he was? That is an age difference when a man could easily coerce a girl into sexual acts when she might not fully understand the consequences.

On another note, hormones are raging during those teenage years, but the effect on young women who believe they're having "consentual sex" can be more detrimental than it is for boys. Girls are learning younger and younger that their value in society rests in their sexuality.

While what happened to Wilson is obviously inappropriate punishment for what occurred, it is still important to discourage kids from engaging in sexual behavior before they are mentally ready.

Sent by Teresa | 10:32 AM | 6-13-2007

The topic of sex needs to be discussed at a young age. Parents, schools, and community youth programs need to educate children about the emotional and physical consequences of sex. It is extremely wrong to let the government punish people for making a very personal decision.

Sent by Kristine | 3:28 PM | 6-13-2007

Just listened to this podcast today. On the continuum of "informed consent" and teen sex, I personally have seen the gamut run from teens who may have been ill-advised to have sex but did it in the best possible way (with contraception and periodic health exams to find and treat STD's early). I've seen a lot of sex originate when one or both partners were inebriated (and that is hardly ideal since you often have sex with people you wouldn't have chosen to have sex with when you're impaired). I havetaken care of a lot teens that were pregnant; told some that they had STD's; seen teen sex between two cognitively impaired teens. I've seen tearful cognitively impaired females who either got swept into having sex when they didn't chose it or with multiple people they didn't chose (these cases _rarely_ in my limited experience get prosecuted). I've seen cognitively impaired females have sex because they liked the attention (ie they were consenting) but they were purely being used; and I've take care of 13 and 14 year olds that were pregnant. This is always a tragedy. I've listened to public health nurses bemoan that fact that in our state they have to report young girls who come requesting contraception to the child protection authorities--routinely. This is a frightening mixed message: We're glad you're here taking responsibility for you're behavior but just so you know, we'll be calling Child Protection Services. Which message do you think comes through the most clearly?

Though I thought the segment gave a quick glimpse of a complex question, it correctly asked the question of whether our laws are taking us where we want to go.

The two men that called in aptly fleshed out the issue. I question the ethics of putting teen boys who had sex with assumably consenting teen partners in a group setting with adult pedophiles. I thought that sounded horrific.

Excellent segment.

Sent by Janet | 9:36 PM | 6-15-2007

Thank you - all of you. As the mother of a son labeled as a sec offender for doing something stupid, we have experienced the fact that no one wants to know the real story behind 18 year old kids being saddled with felonies and being chased from place to place. Eleven years later, my sone is still being tormented, huge label on his driver's license, fees upon fees because the laws keep changing, crappy jobs because of the label which of course makes it hard to pay the fees and live.

When is anyone going to challenge the witch hunt?

Sent by Martha Hammonds | 11:22 PM | 6-19-2007