Monday, January 22, 2001
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Posted on: Monday, January 22, 2001

Island Voices
Raise Hawai'i age of consent

By Kelly M. Rosati
Executive director of Hawai'i Family Forum, a local nonprofit organization committed to preserving and strengthening families in Hawai'i

Adult males are luring young girls into the commercial sex industry — and it’s legal.

It is one of a parent’s worst nightmares: The 35-year-old soccer coach is involved sexually with your 14-year-old daughter. Maybe it is the 21-year-old guy from down the street or the 25-year-old man across town. You’re horrified and you contact the police.

What most Hawaii residents don’t know is that the police can’t help you. Under Hawaii law, each of the above situations is perfectly legal. Yes, that’s right. If your 14- or 15-year-old daughter is having a so-called "consensual" sexual relationship with the 35-year-old married father of two who is supposed to be teaching her soccer, you have no legal recourse. The soccer coach’s conduct is legal.

Unfortunately in Hawaii, adults of any age can legally have sex with minors 14 years or older. That’s because Hawaii has the lowest age of consent or "statutory rape" age in the nation. Most states set the age at 16, 17 or 18 years. In most places, adults understand that 14- and 15-year-old minors are "jailbait." You mess around with a minor, you go to jail.

In Hawaii, you can go to jail for 20 years for so-called "consensual" sexual relations with a 13-year-old minor. It’s a class-A felony, one of the "toughest laws in the country," according to some. But once the minor reaches age 14, she’s fair game for adult sexual exploitation.

And make no mistake about it — the adult male perpetrators in our community who lure girls into the commercial sex industry know full well the best legal strategy for their ultimate illegal plans for their victims. That legal strategy is to first become the girl’s "boyfriend." Once this happens, the girl is dependent, more vulnerable and more easily manipulated into strip clubs, nude massage and ultimately prostitution.

The good folks at Sisters Offering Support (SOS), the nationally recognized local agency helping girls out of the commercial sex industry, is seeing this scenario unfold at an increasingly alarming rate. The problem is that early intervention is not possible under this scenario because the law allows adult men to have 14-year-old "girlfriends."

This is absurd public policy, defying all common sense, public opinion and expert legal recommendations. The American Bar Association’s Center on Children and the Law recommends that all state laws should protect minors through age 15 from "consensual" sexual intercourse with adults 20 and older.

Thankfully, it looks as if the Hawaii Legislature may be poised to act on that recommendation, raising the statutory-rape age to 16. The Honolulu Advertiser reported Jan. 14 that 56 of the 61 legislators responding to The Advertiser’s survey said they favored raising the age from 14 to 16. We’re hopeful that kind of bipartisan, overwhelming consensus may actually produce results in 2001.

We’re grateful that Senate President Robert Bunda and Keiki Caucus co-chair Dennis Arakaki will again be introducing legislation to better protect Hawaii’s minors from this adult sexual exploitation.

The narrowly tailored legislation is designed to specifically address the issue of adult/minor sex. It will not criminalize teenage sexual activity. It will not affect the age of consent for birth control.

If you hear these diversionary responses, ask yourself why someone would want to protect the rights of adults to have sex with 14- and 15-year-olds over the rights of 14- and 15-year-olds to be protected from adult sexual exploitation.

And if you’re like most people who probably can’t believe what you’ve just read, please contact your legislators and express your views. It’s the only way Hawaii 14- and 15-year-old minors will ever be protected.

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