Wes: “Sex offender” — one of the five or six worst terms you could possibly hear applied to your child. At “Double Take,” we try never to scare people unnecessarily — and often take issue with media coverage that does. Kids can survive a lot of mistakes in life as long as they learn from them. A sex offense is not among them. Legal and societal response to these crimes has changed dramatically over the last decade from a treatment model to one of no-holds-barred punishment, at the very same time teen sexual expression has become much freer, if you will.
Hard time and online registry for predators with hundreds of victims lurking in the shadows or on the Internet, waiting to strike at our children, sounds pretty great. However, there are many offenders — including teenagers — who simply don’t fit the “predator” model, which has a very specific definition that’s often lost in translation.
The Aug. 6 edition of The Economist provides an interesting investigation of America’s sex crime laws. It’s worth a read for every parent who wants to protect their children from getting caught up in something they never imagined. In fact, lack of imagination is how most parents overlook this issue, preferring to adopt myths about who sex offenders are in our society, forgetting that they are usually people we know and trust.
There are more ways for teenagers to commit a sex offense than we have time to list. As mentioned last week, one way is to have sexual relations with someone under 15, or depending on your age, a 15-year-old. And yes, this goes for either gender. But what if underaged partners lie about their ages? GET ID. The older teen is the only one culpable, and the charge is based on the actual age of the participant, not what he or she claimed at the time and NOT whether consent was given.
The online world is even more perilous because it so easy to get into trouble with the click of a mouse. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children notes that “online predators” pose far less danger to kids than they pose to themselves. Nowhere is that more true than in solicitation for sex. If your teenager responds to what he believes to be an interested 14-year-old girl, and they discuss sexual behavior — there is a good chance he’s talking to law enforcement.
This is a favorite sting operation for the FBI and other agencies, like shooting really dumb fish in a barrel. And what’s likely to appear beside your child’s name on the state sex offender’s registry? Something like attempted aggravated sodomy or indecent liberties, depending on exactly what they are describing. Try going to college, getting a job or even leaving home with that label.
Parents must sit down and talk with teens about the serious dangers of inappropriate touching of young children, sexual contact with younger peers, online sex, sexting and sexual harassment, as well as date rape. Include a discussion of substance use, which often accompanies bad sexual decisions but won’t get anyone off the hook in court. I realize these topics are terribly uncomfortable, and it’s easier to talk being victimized, but it’s equally important to help kids avoid becoming offenders. This is especially crucial for any teenager who is left to supervise younger children. You don’t even want to get me started on that one.
Finally, parents need to coach their children on their Miranda rights for any legal problem. I abhor sexual misconduct because I’ve spent a career working with victims and believe in reasonable consequences for juvenile misconduct. But we live in a society based on the rule of law. Children need to know that they HAVE THE RIGHT TO REMAIN SILENT and should not waive that right. Never allow a child to be interviewed by law enforcement, school officials or SRS about any potential crime without benefit of an attorney. Legal rights do not start at 18; they start at birth. More than one good-hearted, honest parent has dutifully told his or her child to “tell the truth” about a serious crime — and learned quickly how that turns out in the real world of jurisprudence.
Samantha: The Economist article presents valid points. Teens having consensual sex or a male who visits a prostitute should not be on the sex offender list. I wanted to see for myself just how many people are on the list without much merit. I searched the Kansas registry and found 56 sex offenders residing in Lawrence with an address, picture, list of distinguishing characteristics and more.
Examining date of birth, offense committed, date of the offense and age of the victim on that date, the smallest difference in age I could find between the perpetrator and the victim was four years: a 15-year-old and a 19-year-old. To me, even if the sex were consensual, it would still be pretty gross, but it would definitely be more forgivable. Most of the sexual offenses I saw were, instead pretty offensive.
The age of consent in Kansas is 16. I have no idea whether 16 is the “right” age, and I wonder whether it really is worse for an 18 year-old to have sex with a 15 year-old than for a 25 year-old to have sex with a 16 year-old. The dividing line for the age of consent may seem arbitrary, but it ensures the law is applied consistently without dealing into each case to sort through gray shades.
In last week’s column, I made the point that you cannot judge someone based on stereotypes or assumptions about his or her age. I stand by that opinion. However, I do believe you can judge someone for something they already did, like committing a sex offense.
The punishment for violating the age of consent law is entirely avoidable by waiting until the other person is 16. Rules are rules. Yes, a person who violates this law can be punished for making one stupid decision. However, as Wes points out, we should know the laws regarding sexual offenses. Parents whose teens are dating younger partners should look take an even closer look at these laws (all are available online) and give their teens a serious talk about the consequences of violating them.
— Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Samantha Schwartz is a senior at Lawrence High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.