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The Dirty Secret Behind Teen Sex Numbers
Contrary to the common perception that teenage sex and pregnancy typically stem from two teenagers getting caught up in the heat of the moment, new research reveals that many teenage girls are being sexually exploited and impregnated by adult men.
In fact, a recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that adult men fathered two-thirds of the infants born to school-aged mothers in California in 1993. On average, these men were 4.2 years older than the senior-high mothers and 6.7 years older than the junior-high mothers.
Likewise, a review of California's 1990 vital statistics found that men older than high school age sired 77 percent of all births to high school-aged girls (ages 16-18) and 51 percent of births to junior high school-aged girls (15 and younger). Men over age 25 fathered twice as many teenage births as did boys under age 18, and men over age 20 fathered five times more births to junior high school-aged girls than did junior high school-aged boys.
Unfortunately, this phenomenon is not limited to the state of California. A recent study by the Population Reference Bureau found that about two-thirds of births to teenage girls nationwide are fathered by adult men age 20 or older. Additionally, the Alan Guttmacher Institute's 1994 report, "Sex and America's Teenagers," found that six of 10 girls who had sex before age 15 were coerced by males an average of six years their senior. The Urban Institute cites a study showing that "three quarters of females who had sexual intercourse before age 14 reported having had sex involuntarily."
Two-thirds of births to
That our culture at large has been slow to recognize this phenomenon is not surprising. At one time, the picture of teenage pregnancy did look vastly different than it does today. In 1970, seven of 10 teen births were within marriage. Today, the opposite is true -- seven of 10 teen births are out-of-wedlock . . . and many are the results of statutory rape and victimization.
In many respects, the rise in statutory rape is the tragic and predictable consequence of the larger moral free-for-all that began during the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. As sex was severed from the context of marriage and perceived barriers to personal "freedom" were torn down, the door was opened to a "liberation" in which predators were given easier access to the most vulnerable in our society.
Family Breakdown: Fatherlessness and Child Abuse
At the heart of this problem, as with most social pathologies, is the breakdown of the intact two-parent family unit.
Over the last 25 years, the change in family patterns has been dramatic. It used to be that the man in every girl's life was her father. He was her protector and provider, shielding her honor and ensuring her safety. But between 1970 and 1995, the share of married-couple families with dependent children dropped by one-third, while the proportion of single-parent families nearly doubled. In 1995, 18.9 million children lived with only one parent, compared with 8.2 million in 1970. Today, the large number of single-parent families are increasingly due to illegitimacy rather than divorce.
Fatherlessness is associated
Consequently, fewer fathers are around to protect and defend their daughters' safety. And with more girls lacking the love and attention that only a father can give, more of them are vulnerable to abuse, and that abuse leaves them willing to settle for perverse alternatives, namely, seeking intimacy with predatory adult men.
The research is clear: fatherlessness is associated with increased risk of child sexual abuse.
For example, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' National Health Interview Survey (1988) found that children from disrupted families are at a much higher risk for physical or sexual abuse than children from intact, two-parent families.
A 1993 study in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that childhood sexual abuse occurred more frequently in women from disadvantaged and difficult family backgrounds, and that their risks of becoming a victim were increased if they came from a broken home.
Furthermore, children whose parents separate are significantly more likely to engage in early sexual activity than their peers from intact, two-parent families, according to a 1994 study in Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
Dr. George Rekers of the University of South Carolina School of Medicine found that compared with girls in intact nuclear families, girls who lost their fathers through divorce were overly responsive to males, more likely to be sexually involved with males in adolescence, and more often pregnant before marriage.
David Murray, a social anthropologist, explains the effects of illegitimacy on girls this way: "For the girls, at earliest nubility comes predation by older males, undeterred by a resident father who would protect her honor and her safety."
One might mistakenly presume that the presence of a male figure, besides the father, would help alleviate the situation. But in fact, when illegitimacy or divorce results in a subsequent marriage, remarriage, or cohabiting relationship, the likelihood of child abuse increases.
According to a study by the Canadian researchers Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, preschool children in stepfamilies are 40 times as likely as children in intact families to suffer physical or sexual abuse.
Additionally, a 1994 study in the Journal of Comparative Family Studies found that, out of 52,000 child abuse cases, 72 percent involved children living in a household without one or both biological parents, even though such households comprise roughly a third of all households with children.
Not only is fatherlessness associated with child abuse, but abused children are also more vulnerable to further exploitation, particularly further sexual exploitation. Kathy Szafran, residential program director for the Florence Crittenton Homes and Services in West Virginia, was quoted in The Washington Times as saying, "It shouldn't be hard to see 'why a child who's been molested since age 7 is acting out sexually at age 14.'"
Indeed, research shows that teenage mothers whose babies were fathered by adult men are disproportionately the childhood victims of sexual assault by adult men.
A 1992 Washington state study of 535 adolescent mothers found that 62 percent of the teenage mothers had had a history of rape or sexual molestation by men whose ages averaged 27 years. This study found that, compared with nonabused mothers, abused adolescent mothers initiated sex earlier, had sex with much older partners, and engaged in riskier, more frequent, and promiscuous sex.
Preschool children in
In a recent edition of Newsweek, Joe Klein poignantly described the connection between fatherlessness, child abuse, and subsequent sexual victimization when he recounted the personal testimony of a girl whom he called Charlette. "The guy's name was Mickey. He was older, in his mid-20s. Charlette was going through a bad time: her stepfather had come home from prison, was beating her mother, was beating on her. 'I lived in the streets for a while, starting when I was 14,' she said. 'I was young and vulnerable. I had problems. He was going to protect me, teach me things, discipline my mind. But when I told him I was pregnant, he was gone. I began to ask around.... I found he had six other children, mostly with younger girls. I was naive, and he took advantage of me." Joe Klein later remarked, "As for the girls, who are inevitably fatherless, Charlette's yearning for protection -- for a father -- seems entirely comprehensible."
Fatherlessness, however, not only creates the environment for more vulnerable girls, it also helps create more predatory males. Research shows that boys who grow up without fathers are far more likely to engage in violent behavior and promiscuity than those who grow up in two-parent homes.
According to a 1990 article by Nicholas Davidson in Policy Review, 60 percent of America's rapists grew up in homes without fathers. Furthermore, a research review by Dr. George Rekers of the University of South Carolina School of Medicine found that the fatherless boys exhibit greater aggressiveness or exaggerated masculine behavior.
It is also important to note that many of these predatory adult men may have originated from fatherless families in which they, too, had been abused.
Family Breakdown: The Lack of Parental Supervision
Ensuring that children receive adequate parental supervision is already a difficult task in today's two-parent homes because the financial constraints of modern-day life make it increasingly difficult for one parent to stay at home full-time. But when parents face single-parenthood because of divorce or illegitimacy, the difficulties of supervising their children are compounded.
Research shows that teenagers who are subject to less adult supervision are more likely to engage in sexual activity. This association applies not only to homes which lack parental supervision during the day, but also to neighborhoods in which a high percentage of the adult labor force works full-time. This effect suggests that teenagers who are less closely supervised have more opportunity to engage in sexual behavior.
While the amount of parental and/or adult supervision that a teenager receives during the day is difficult to measure, researchers have often used maternal employment as a proxy for adult supervision since much teen sexual activity today takes place after school in the homes of "latchkey" children.
The effect of maternal
For example, a 1993 study published in Public Health Reports found that young males who have mothers that work full-time are significantly more likely (by 89 percent in blacks and 26 percent in nonblacks) to have initiated intercourse than are boys with non-employed mothers. Young black males who have mothers that work for pay part-time are 56 percent more likely to have started having intercourse than are those whose mothers are not employed.
The same study also found that the effect of maternal employment on early intercourse is greater for teens with mothers employed full-time than for adolescents with mothers employed part-time. Compared with non-employed mothers, part-time work is associated with a 26 percent increase in early intercourse and full-time work is associated with a 45 percent increase.
Furthermore, a 1994 study in the Journal of Marriage and the Family reported that white females whose mothers are employed outside the home are more likely to have had intercourse than females whose mothers are not employed.
This same study also found that the percentage of female labor force participants who are employed full-time in a given neighborhood is associated with an increased likelihood of premarital sexual activity among young women in the neighborhood. This effect, which is consistent in both black and white female teenagers, suggests that the deterrent effect of having a parent in the home may be undermined somewhat if the girl's boyfriend goes home to an empty house after school.
Additionally, a 1994 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that white teenage girls whose mothers work for pay full-time outside the home are more likely to lead promiscuous lives as adults (have multiple partners) than girls whose mothers do not work for pay full-time.
Erosion of Cultural Protections
While absent fathers figure prominently in this new phenomenon of child abuse, they are not solely to blame for the devastation. Cultural influences such as the media and schools have also failed to protect children.
Television and movies regularly expose children to sexually explicit images, glamorizing sex and violence. While the instances of this type of cultural pollution are too numerous to count, one particular example should be noted here. A recent (March 1996) episode of the television prime time drama, Chicago Hope, featured a storyline in which a 14-year-old girl was having sex with an adult man. The drama explored both viewpoints about why it was either permissible or impermissible for the young girl to be having sex with an adult man, but in the end, the show condoned their sexual relations because they were "in love."
In addition to the media, schools have now taken up the mantle of exposing children to sexually explicit information -- this time, in the guise of "sex education." Many school administrators have mistakenly concluded that the way to "prevent" the problem of teen pregnancy is to expose children at progressively younger and younger ages to more explicit sex education in the school, so that children can learn how to protect themselves with condoms, etc. But this scenario is a textbook case in which the "cure" is far worse than the disease.
The results of the National Survey of Adolescent Males published in the November 1993 issue of Public Health Reports show that young males who were taught about birth control were more likely to experiment with sex at an earlier age than if they had received no (formal) instruction.
Furthermore, explicit sex education can tear down the natural inhibitions and defenses of both young boys and girls, leaving them vulnerable to sexual predators. Indeed, pedophiles often use pornography to lure their young victims.
In spite of this, the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), a federally-funded, nationally-recognized organization, has issued national sex education guidelines which promote teaching kindergartners about masturbation and junior and senior high school students about the "benefits" of pornography, among other topics.
Erosion of Legal Protections
Declining cultural norms and values also have a detrimental effect on laws intended to protect children. When the culture condones particular kinds of illegal behavior, the law loses its authority to prosecute. This has clearly been the case with statutory rape laws.
Explicit sex education
Laws against statutory rape were originally designed to protect adolescent girls -- typically aged 16 and under -- from sex under any circumstance, regardless of whether there was "consent." These laws were premised on the belief that young girls were too immature to be having sex and that they could no more give meaningful consent to sexual activity than they "could consent to work nights as a stripper in a bar." But during the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, states began to change their laws to reflect more permissive cultural attitudes.
First, the age of consent for sexual activity was lowered or altered. In two states, Hawaii and Pennsylvania, 14 years is the age of consent. Many other laws were changed to say that having sex with a young teenage girl was statutory rape, but sex with a girl in her mid-teens was only considered statutory rape if the male was three or four years older than she was. In other words, a 15-year-old girl could have sex with a 15-year-old boy, but not with a 19-year-old man.
For example, in Virginia, 18 is the age of consent. However, a person can only be prosecuted for rape if the victim is under 13 years old. A lesser felony offense can be charged if a person three or more years older has consensual intercourse with a 13- or 14-year old, but it is only a misdemeanor if the offender is less than three years older. It is also considered only a misdemeanor if a person over 18 has consensual intercourse with a child aged 15 or older.
In Indiana, where the age of consent is 16, there is no longer a crime of statutory rape. Instead, the state can charge an adult with child molestation if the child is under age 14, or with sexual misconduct if the minor is 14 or 15 years old. However, the sexual misconduct charge can only be leveled at people 18 years and older. Thus, a 17-year-old who has sex with a 14-year-old could not be charged with sexual misconduct.
Although it may seem absurd that the United States allowed the age of sexual consent to be lowered at all, the example of Britain's current exploration on lowering their own age of sexual consent laws is revealing. Indeed, the arguments being currently used by British proponents of lowering the age of consent mirror the arguments that led the United States down this slippery slope. Consider the comments of Alison Hadley of The Brook Advisory Centres, which runs 27 National Health Service-funded birth control clinics for teenagers and young adults in England, Scotland, and Ulster: "Teenagers under 16 don't automatically put a brake on their raging hormones and postpone having sex just because it is decreed in law. The age of consent also presupposes that we all mature at the same time. We don't. We often see mature girls of 14 as well as 16-year-olds with plenty of growing still to do. Like it or not, many 14- and 15-year-olds are having sex."
Unfortunately, the United States knows all too well about the devastating consequences of that perverse logic.
Laws against statutory
Second, lax law enforcement of statutory rape crimes have added fuel to the fire. Few courts have given priority to the prosecution of adults who have sex with minors, especially because they are pressed with many other cases of violent delinquency and child abuse. But prosecutors say that the biggest stumbling block against bringing a case to court is the girls themselves. Many girls are reluctant, if not hostile witnesses who either recant or refuse to testify against their adult "lovers," the fathers of their children. The girls may also decline to name the father if they fear retaliation.
In addition, parents have not usually understood that they can seek legal protection through the courts. Parents may ask a juvenile court judge to declare the girl "ungovernable" and order her not to see the man. But such cases are low in priorities for courts, and a court order may not stop stubborn lovers anyway. If juvenile court sanctions fail, parents can take the next step and press criminal charges. But police and prosecutors say they're often hamstrung in these cases, by parents afraid that if the law gets involved, their daughters will run away, and by lack of evidence when lovestruck girls refuse to testify.
Third, the law has not always upheld the rights of parents to protect their children's innocence. For example, the federal family planning program -- Title X of the Public Health Service Act -- undermines parental authority in their children's reproductive health decision-making. Title X is a categorical grant program which gives federal funds to family planning clinics all around the country. Title X clinics offer contraceptives, pelvic exams, pregnancy tests, screening for sexually-transmitted diseases, and sexual health counseling to minors without parental notification or consent. However, even though the actual law specifies that family participation is to be encouraged, the federal policy guidelines state that clinics receiving Title X support must guarantee patient confidentiality, and this mandate that has been upheld by the courts.
Furthermore, Title X clinics have no provisions regarding the reporting of suspected cases of statutory rape. In fact, these clinics may be indirectly aiding and abetting the problem in at least four ways: (1) the clinic does not involve parents, even in cases where the child is very young and is admittedly "sexually active," (2) the clinic's dispensation of contraceptives can mask a problem that might otherwise be brought to light, (3) clinics will see and treat "any woman, regardless of age," even when that "woman" is 11 or 12 years old, and (4) counselors are not trained to look for cases of statutory rape nor are they required to report any suspected cases of statutory rape to local law enforcement. That omission is especially horrendous in light of the current data which show that two-thirds of all teenage births are fathered by adult men.
Renew Efforts to Prosecute Statutory Rape
The most direct way to address the problem of statutory rape is through the law enforcement system. California Governor Pete Wilson has cracked down on statutory rapists as part of his state's campaign against teenage pregnancy. Last summer he allocated $2.4 million to a pilot program for 16 counties to begin prosecuting men who engage in sex with underage girls, and in January 1996, he pledged $6 million more for a statewide crackdown.
The California State Assembly also recently passed a bill which would add penalties of up to five years in jail for statutory rape when a minor becomes pregnant. This penalty can be sought in addition to civil and/or criminal suits for statutory rape.
Few courts have given
In Florida, state legislators will soon consider a "Teen Predators Act" which would create a new child abuse felony in cases where a man older than 21 impregnates a girl under 16. A conviction would result in mandatory prison time. Another bill seeking consideration in Florida is nicknamed MAMA, which stands for "Make Adult Males Accountable." This bill would allow some statutory rapists to be prosecuted under child-abuse laws, which would have the beneficial effect of requiring medical facilities, day-care centers, and schools to report statutory rape as they would any other incident of suspected child abuse.
Efforts must also be made to change the rhetoric and perception under which minors are viewed as mature decision-makers. For example, in the Alan Guttmacher Institute's 1994 report, "Sex and America's Teenagers," adolescents girls who have been exploited by adult men are repeatedly referred to as "sexually-experienced women." The Alan Guttmacher Institute, Planned Parenthood, and other proponents of aggressive marketing of contraceptives and abortions to minor children have consistently refused to use language that reinforces the need for special protection for teenage girls and boys -- especially that provided by their families.
Title X clinics have
The use of "women" in this context serves the purpose of fostering an egalitarian drive to repeal parental rights statutes, but masks the emotional and psychological immaturity that makes sexual activity at this stage of life especially risky.
Finally, states should seriously consider raising the age of sexual consent laws to mirror the age of marriage laws. Currently, 16 is the age of sexual consent in most states, but the minimum legal age of marriage in most states is 18. (A few states have higher ages for marriage, but no state's marriage law is below the age of 18, except with parental consent.) This action would not only allow states to legally prosecute the statutory rape cases which occur during the later teen years (ages 16-17), but it would also help to relink sex to its proper context within marriage.
Strengthen the Family
While public policy can directly address the problem of statutory rape through legislative means, its ability to impact the root cause of statutory rape -- family breakdown -- is only indirect at best. After all, the law cannot -- and should not -- dictate to families how to raise their children, but the law can and should encourage behaviors which help strengthen the family through the use of incentives and disincentives.
For example, in order to discourage illegitimacy, public policy makers have sought to implement a "family cap," a measure which would halt additional welfare payments to mothers who bear further illegitimate children while on welfare. Public policy makers have also sought to overturn no-fault divorce laws and/or elevate marriage from a "contract" to a "covenant" relationship in order to support the permanency of marriage. Furthermore, laws which provide tax relief for families as well as policies which provide employees with more flexible work hours and/or work-at-home arrangements may help to increase parental supervision of children.
While the aforementioned policies are sound and can be very helpful, they alone cannot break the cycle of illegitimacy and divorce, especially because the scourges of illegitimacy and divorce are transferred through generations. That is, children whose parents are unmarried or divorced are more likely to also one day bear illegitimate children or have their own marriages end in divorce. Thus, other non-public policy means of prevention must be encouraged as well.
States should seriously
One effective method of prevention which should not be overlooked is the impact of religion. Indeed, a large body of research shows that religiously committed individuals are less likely to divorce or separate from one's spouse. Teenagers with high personal religiosity are also less likely to engage in premarital sex or cohabit. Another study found that adolescent males who went to church more often at age 14 were less likely to have early intercourse.
The current trend of adult men impregnating teenage girls is a natural consequence of family breakdown and its subsequent effects on culture and the law. But what children need now is what they have always needed -- for adults to protect their innocence. They need fathers and mothers who will love and supervise them, laws that punish statutory rapists, and a culture which values and upholds the sacredness of marital sex, the permanency of marriage, and the authority of parents.
-- by Gracie Hsu
("Statutory Rape: A Look at Laws State by State," USA Today, March 28, 1996, p. 2A. As cited from source, State penal codes collected by National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse and National Center of Child Abuse and Neglect.)
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