It is so important that we get questions of sexual policy right. The Mark Foley scandal demonstrates how hard this is for us to do. It is so important that we be able to talk about sex offenses, about age of consent, and about sexual harassment in the nuanced terms that those discussions require. If we are not about to talk in reasoned and nuanced ways, we will continue to find ourselves faced with policies that result in ridiculous outcomes.
Imagine for a moment that I’m 17 and my partner is 22. (This was the case in my first serious sexual relationship, and I was fortunate to have such a wonderful partner to introduce me to heterosexual intercourse!) In many states we would be within our legal rights to have a sexual relationship. I would be of an age to consent. And yet, should my partner send me sexually explicit messages using the Internet, he or she could be in violation of federal law. And should I take a nude photo of myself and give it to my partner, he or she could be in violation of child pornography laws.
Does this make sense?
And, a person who is arrested and found guilty of public urination in some states lands on the sex offender registry (for lewd behavior). That person, while not a child sex predator, will be stigmatized by his registry status and might be prevented from living in vast swaths of some towns. And many laws that restrict the movements or actions of registered sex offenders don’t specify level of offense, though some do. Now let’s assume this person was a father out with friends at a baseball game when he took a leak on his way to his car. Not only is he affected by his new status as a sex offender, but his wife and kids are as well.
Does this make sense?
Here’s the problem. We can’t have reasonable discussions of these ridiculous outcomes because as soon as a person raises one in debate, there is general panic and outrage that the objector is “defending sexual predators.” It is not even safe to have the discussion!
How can we make smart policy that truly protects people if we can’t raise such questions without fear of being labeled predators or defenders of predators?