If It's Illegal For Them To Have Sex, Should They Get Birth Control?

Illustration for article titled If It's Illegal For Them To Have Sex, Should They Get Birth Control?

So, I ignited a bit of a shitstorm when I suggested last week that statutory rape laws (i.e., the ones that define consensual sexual behavior often among — but also with — teenagers as functionally equivalent to actual forcible rape) were, among other things, lacking in the recognition that sexuality is deeply personal and one's interest in or ability to choose to have sex doesn't and shouldn't start when the government or our parents decide that we're ready. Lots of you disagreed, which is fine. But, because I'm all about stirring the pot, let's talk about it a little more, in the context of the Portland, Maine school board's recent controversial decision to offer a full range of birth control services at its King Middle School health center (where students range in age from 11 to 14) , after the jump.


King Middle School's health center - which students need general parental permission to utilize but which offers privacy on the specifics of that utlization — served 134 students in the last school year, 5 of whom reported having sex, according to the lead nurse. Middle school students are between the age of 11 and 14 (depending on the school) and, Maine's criminal code says that it's illegal for anybody under the age of 14 to have sex, period, even with one another- having sex with anyone that young isn't even statutory rape, it's "gross sexual assault" regardless of the age of the person doing it . Notably, a health care provider with knowledge of such a thing is technically required to report it to the authorities, and both kids would be subject to criminal prosecution.

On the other hand, a recent poll polls shows that most people think giving out birth control at school isn't the worst idea in the world because it can serve to prevent pregnancy and (if we're talking about condoms) reduce the spread of STIs. But, obviously, you can't get kids to ask for birth control if the only person they can ask is legally required to report them (or their chosen sex partner) to the authorities because state lawmakers have chosen to criminalize the behavior in which they're choosing to engage. So, to a degree, lawmakers in Maine are going to have to decide if it's more important to provide these kids with access to birth control or enforce their age-of-consent laws and their health-provider reporting laws (which everyone knows will just force the behavior underground again).

I think that this situation is a good illustration of the problem with the unintended consequences of these laws. Kids are going to have sex, and some of them are going to do it when us grown-ups think they are too young and too immature to make good decisions about sex or the people with whom they are having it. And, for many of those kids, they might well be too young emotionally and be making bad choices, but making bad choices as a teenager is part and parcel of being one. I agree that there is a line of "too young" where it is child abuse and not consensual sex, but the line shouldn't criminalize a freshman and a senior agreeing to have sex, even if the dude in question is an asshole. I also agree that some dude in his 20s or older pursuing 15 year olds is creepy — I thought it was creepy at 15, too — but creepy-but-consensual and deserving of jail time and permanent registration as a sex offender are two completely different things.

In my opinion, by criminalizing the consensual behavior of kids in this manner, we are just forcing it out of sight and creating bigger problems (pregnancy, disease transmission, etc.) rather than doing anything productive about it. Want productive ways to keep teenagers from starting the sex at a young age? Well, a quick lit review spotlights some pretty obvious things: talking to your kids, making them aware that you disagree with the behavior, keeping them away from kids that engage in other risk behaviors, making sure they have high self-esteem, keeping communications lines open, and all that other obvious parenting stuff that the government can't control or enforce, either.

Maine middle school to offer birth control [MSNBC]
Maine Criminal Code Title 17-A, Chapter 11, Sexual Assaults [Maine Criminal Code]
Most OK with birth control at school, poll finds [MSNBC]
Articles on Teen Sexuality [Teen-Link]
Teen Sexuality and Pregnancy - Early Sexual Activity [Library Index]
The impact of self-components on attitudes toward sex among African American preadolescent girls: the moderating role of menarche [Sex Roles: A Journal of Research]


Jenna Sauers

Statutory rape laws are a very blunt instrument. I still can't get my head around how regularly they are prosecuted in the U.S. In New Zealand, I went years without hearing of any charges related to "unlawful sexual connection," our equivalent offense. There just isn't a culture of "OMG our daughter had sex! I'm angry and want her boyfriend put in jail!" there.

My boyfriend, when he was 18, didn't have sex with his 16-year-old girlfriend, but because of his state's terrible sex education, they both thought somehow that their heavy petting could have left her at risk of getting pregnant. They went to a health center to ask for the morning-after pill (still on prescription back then), and the doctor told them she could only prescribe the pill if they admitted having sex. And if they admitted having sex, then under compulsory reporting laws, she'd have to call the police on my boyfriend (since the state's age of consent is 18).

This freaked them both the hell out, so they left the doctor's office with no script for the MAP. (And no clearer idea how pregnancy occurs, either — something the doc could've told them pretty easily, you'd think.) When he first told me this story I was dumbfounded that a) such a stupid law could be on the books b) that the stupid law with its stupidly high age wouldn't even distinguish between an 18-year-old and a 16-year-old having sex and a 40-year-old abusing a 16-year-old and c) that a medical professional would feel more compelled to scare two confused and ignorant teenagers out of her office with the threat of prosecution than actually try and help them.

All in all I'd much rather the police put effort into prosecuting rape complaints than statutory rape complaints.