Sunday, February 11, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, February 11, 2001

Raising age of sexual consent
Changing law would hurt those in need of help

Proposed law would protect vulnerable youths

By Adriana Ramelli
Director of the Sex Abuse Treatment Center at Kapi'olani Medical Center for Women & Children

Legislators should seriously consider the impact on teenagers and their families when deciding the age of consent. The protection of both the emotional and physical well-being of teenage victims should be the goal.

As the law stands today, any person who threatens, coerces or otherwise engages a teenager in sexual activity without consent has committed a sex crime. The parents of any teenager who discloses sexual victimization can report the crime to police.

The proposed changes to the age of consent would affect only those situations where consent is the issue; i.e., where the teenager "willingly" engages in sexual activity with an older male.

While we all are cognizant of many of our young teenagers’ vulnerability to manipulation and exploitation, many of these teenagers do not perceive themselves as having been coerced or exploited. Those who do already can report exploitation to police; those who don’t see the victimization will — under the proposed legislation — enter the criminal justice system against their wishes.

Consider the impact on a 15-year-old girl who thinks she is "in love." Once the sexual relationship is reported, her sexual behaviors become sex crimes. She believes she consented but is told she does not have the ability to consent. She says he is her boyfriend, but she is told their relationship is against the law.

She is instructed to talk with a beat officer who takes the report, and then she must face discussing the most personal and intimate parts of her sexual activity with a sex crime detective. When she resists getting the male into trouble, she is considered uncooperative. If the case is referred to the Prosecutor’s Office, she is further questioned by an attorney and then may need to testify in court as an unwilling witness.

At the Sex Abuse Treatment Center, we counsel teenage girls who are involved with older men. Our experience is that these teenagers do not understand they have been coerced, manipulated or exploited. In fact, when the teenager believes sexual activity was "consensual," taking criminal action before she is ready can result in strengthening her bond to the male. Believing that he is being unfairly persecuted, she begins to see him as the victim and herself as the perpetrator.

Significant support is necessary to help these teenagers understand the behavior of the adult male who took advantage of them. Even greater support is necessary to help teenagers and their families sort through the various issues about this "relationship" and deal with the process of the criminal justice system. Without the willingness and readiness of victims and their families to cooperate with the legal system, these adult men will not be held accountable for their actions. The outcome of the criminal justice system relies heavily on the willing participation of the victim.

About 14 bills in this legislative session are proposing various changes to the age of consent. These bills, however, address only a change in law. None address the impact on teenagers and their families. None address how the public is to be informed of a change in law, especially those who do not speak English. None address the training of law enforcement and social service providers.

The American Bar Association’s Center on Children and the Law offers several recommendations. One is that "prosecutors, police, service providers, child support enforcement units, and community/citizen groups should come together in a jurisdiction-wide task force to improve communications and understanding of what role the criminal justice system can play in protecting vulnerable young girls from unlawful sexual relationships." No bill recommends this.

If the protection of teenagers is the goal, vital issues must be understood and thoughtfully discussed. Changing the law without first addressing all aspects of the impact of the law would be the real crime.

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