NPR logo Teens, Sex and the Law

Teens, Sex and the Law

Teens, Sex and the Law

Audio for this story is unavailable.

MP3 Download


Web Extra: Michel Martin talks with American University law professor Angela Jordan Davis and Georgia state Sen. Emanuel Jones about the Wilson case. Listen to the interviews

People often want to know how we "get" stories. Does somebody assign them to us, do we read them in the paper, do we hear about them from other people, do we go out and find them or stumble across them? The answer, of course, is all of the above. Increasingly, though, there's another source, which combines elements of all of the above. That source is the Internet. For good or for ill, the Internet plays an increasingly powerful role in getting stories in front of the public.

Here's the downside of that: There's ever more unsubstantiated stuff flying around at a faster and faster clip. It offers a vehicle for people to grind their ideological axes ever sharper without regard for the facts. The facts usually catch up, but it can take a lot of time before they do.

Here's the upside: You can more easily become aware of stories that you might not otherwise see. And if those stories resonate — if you see that people are responding to them by passing them around — then you often have a decent indication that there's grist for a bigger conversation.

The story we're about to bring you is one of those.

Article continues after sponsorship

Several of us kept hearing about this case from people we know — and even people we don't know. A friend of a friend sends it to an uncle, who sends it to you — that kind of thing. A woman who lives in another city sent an article to a woman on our staff, another mom, with a note saying, "I'm not letting my kid out of the house until he's 30." Another correspondent, here at NPR, sent me a detailed story from a regional magazine saying, "Why hasn't this become a national story?"

It has become a national story, but we still felt we could add to the reporting.
The short facts: A Georgia teenager named Genarlow Wilson is now serving a 10-year prison sentence because when he was 17, he attended a party where a 15-year-old voluntarily performed oral sex on him. She wasn't intoxicated, she hadn't used drugs and she didn't want to press charges. It turns out that Georgia law is quite strict on what teens are allowed to do sexually even if there's a slight difference in age between the parties. Although the law has changed somewhat since Genarlow Wilson was convicted, and a lot of people don't think he belongs in prison for what he did, the situation hasn't changed so far.

We tackle a number of angles on this story: We talk to the lawyer who is handling Wilson's appeal. The prosecutor declined to give us an interview, but he referred us to others he has given. You can read his comments here.

But we wanted to dig deeper. We wondered what Wilson's peers think about his situation, so we asked four teens — two boys and two girls — from his former high school to give us their take on teens and sex, and the law. The girls are 14 and 15; the boys are age 17, the age Wilson was when he got into trouble. Some of you may find yourself troubled by what the kids have to say, but I hope we all agree that it's better to know than not to know.

We also talk to Laura Sessions Stepp, a Washington Post reporter and author of the book Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love, and Lose at Both. Stepp has done extensive work on how kids see sex these days; she's taken a lot of heat for her candid reporting, but she tells us the real deal that parents often don't know.

We were so deeply intrigued by the legal and legislative wrangling surrounding Wilson's prosecution that we've posted an additional segment as a Web exclusive (audio): We talk to American University law professor Angela Jordan Davis about how and why prosecutors bring charges like these, and Emanuel Jones, a Georgia state senator who wants to change the law.

You may wonder why we didn't talk to Genarlow Wilson or the young woman with whom he had oral sex. Wilson has given a number of interviews. You can watch one here and here. Frankly, we thought that B.J. Bernstein, his lawyer, was a better person to tell us what we wanted to know about the law and how it worked in his case. As for the young lady, she never wanted this matter to become public, and we felt the roundtable was a better way to handle those kinds of issues.

This is a long post, but we're covering a lot of ground in this program. Tell us what you think. Are there any angles you wanted to hear but didn't? Is there anything else we could have done to deepen this story or make it more compelling? How do you feel about the open discussion of oral sex and teen sexuality in general? We figured this is a podcast, so you're choosing to listen to it. But if this were an on-air broadcast, would you find the language and tone acceptable?

About