by Dan Jarvis
To see how much trouble Michigan teens are in, just look at the numbers. The Michigan Department of Community Health estimates that minors accounted for 7,963 pregnancies in 1999, with 37 percent resulting in abortions or miscarriages. Of those minors giving birth, only 40 percent reported the father’s age. In 1999, among girls aged 10-14, 54 percent said the father was at least three years older, while 31 percent of those girls aged 15-16 said the father was over 20.
Sexually transmitted diseases are also plaguing our young people. In 1998-99, there were 1,461 new cases of gonorrhea and chlamydia reported among children 10-14 years of age. Teenagers are also one of the fastest growing populations contracting HIV. Health experts believe that most of these children, 90 percent of whom are girls, were infected by older men who engage in sexual intercourse with multiple partners and then transmit the disease to the children.
The impact of disease and pregnancy can be devastating and long-lasting. Many of the diseases are incurable and even deadly; all are costly to treat. Pregnancy can be equally devastating to the teen and the baby. Teen parents are more likely to drop out of school and end up on public assistance. Babies of teenagers suffer as well. As opposed to children from two-parent families, children born to single, teenage mothers suffer physical, economic, and educational deficits that they often never overcome.
Given the high incidence of predatory sex (more familiarly known as statutory rape), one wonders whether the efforts of teaching refusal skills will help. Saying “no” to predators who are older, more manipulative and able to provide financial benefits, is harder than saying “no” to a peer. Obviously, much sexual activity occurs between peers, and refusal skills can help in those situations. Still, if our society hopes to curb teen sex, it is time to enhance our arsenal of weapons.
Law Gives Little Protection
Increasingly, policymakers may look to the law to answer the predatory sex problem. The federal welfare reform of 1996 requires states to address the issue of statutory rape in order to reduce teen pregnancy. Unfortunately, Michigan has done little to comply with the law to this point.
Rep. Doug Hart, R-Rockford, introduced legislation in 1999 that said it is reasonable cause to suspect child abuse and neglect have occurred if a child under the age of 16 is pregnant or has a venereal disease. While that legislation passed the state House, the Senate failed to address the issue. Hart indicated he may reintroduce the measure.
In 1997, Sen. Joanne Emmons, R-Big Rapids, had attempted a more aggressive strategy. Emmons introduced legislation that would have raised the age of consent for sexual intercourse to 18. Her legislation also provided enhanced penalties if the perpetrator was more than three years older than the minor victim. Michigan’s current age of consent for sexual intercourse is 16, a younger age than that which is required by law for marriage and for less dangerous activities.
Age of Consent and Rape
Laws which prohibit certain activities until a set age, such as consent laws, are put in place to protect a minor from being forced to make a potentially dangerous or burdensome decision. Essentially the law is saying, “You don’t even need to decide whether or not this is right for you because you are not old enough to make this decision or to deal adequately with the potential consequences.”
Consider this: Michigan law prohibits minors under 18 from voting, being bound by contracts, purchasing lottery tickets, selling goods to pawnbrokers or donating blood (17), yet sets the age for consent to sexual intercourse at 16. Oddly enough, minors cannot purchase pornographic material, but we allow them to consent to those very same activities which are depicted. If their sexual activity results in a pregnancy they intend to abort, we require them to get parental consent.
In one strange twist of events, a Port Huron man was arrested for illegal sexual activity with several 16 and 17 year olds. His arrest was not for engaging in sexual intercourse, which he did, but because he took pictures. It is illegal to photograph a person under 18 engaging in sexual activity. In all, 21 states have an age of consent higher than 16.
Given the emotional, social and physical consequences of sexual intercourse, we must intercede to protect our young people. Tying the age of consent to the age of marriage will put sexual intercourse in its proper context rather than establishing an arbitrary age, as if marriage and sexual relations are unrelated. It will also allow adolescents to reach a point of maturity where they are better able to handle the consequences of sexual relationships.
It is time for our statutory rape laws to evolve again. Our youth and our culture will be healthier financially, socially, emotionally and physically when we protect our children and put sexual activity in its proper context.
Dan Jarvis is the research and policy director at Michigan Family Forum.