Renewing the idea of 'jail bait'

February 09, 1996|By Ellen Goodman

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- In the past, politicians outdid each other in their praise of motherhood. Today they outdo each other in laments about teen-age motherhood. From the feminist left to the religious right, they have found common ground worrying and sermonizing over girls who become mothers before they become women.

Now at last, the same disparate collection of policy-makers are turning their attention to the partners in this terrible tango: adult men.

In California, which has the highest rate of teen-age pregnancy in the country, Pete Wilson, a governor who tacks from right to center with impressive sailing skills, has issued a warning to adult men who impregnate under-age girls.

''It's a crime''

In his state-of-the-state address last month, he told these men, ''I have this message: That's not just wrong, not just a shame. It's a crime, a crime called statutory rape.''

Governor Wilson has allotted $150,000 to each of 16 counties to go after men who go after girls. It's an idea whose time has come back. And not just in California.

The renewed interest in statutory-rape laws comes out of startling research showing that the babies of teen-age moms don't necessarily have teen-age dads. Half the babies born to mothers between 15 and 17 had fathers who were over 20.

Remember the 14-year-old girl who had a baby in Texas last week and her 22-year-old ''boyfriend?'' Across the country, 20 percent of the fathers are six or more years older than the mothers. The younger the girl, the greater the age difference.

In Washington state the average age of men who impregnated girls between 12 and 17 was 24 years old. And two-thirds of the girls had been sexually abused in their lives.

President Clinton's brand new National Campaign to Reduce Teen Pregnancy wants to cut teen pregnancy by a third by 2005. Half the impregnators are adult men. Any rational discussion of this issue has to include these men.

In California, one of Governor Wilson's goals is, surely, to collect child-support money by threatening imprisonment.

An ''off limits'' sign

But the other goal is to post a protective sign -- ''Off Limits'' -- around young and vulnerable girls. This is where the support for dusting off these laws is growing -- out of a renewed concern about exploitation and abuse, sexual pressure and predators.

In early America, the age of consent for a girl was 10. Then in the 19th century, a movement made up of feminists and moralists and reformers of many stripes raised the age as high as 18 or 20 for the explicit purpose of protecting young females and their ''virtues'' from men and their ''vices.''

A generation ago, in the wake of the sexual revolution and the women's movement, the social pendulum swung from protecting females to liberating them. Statutory-rape laws seemed to stereotype both sexes while giving the state the right to decide who could and couldn't consent to sex.

Most of the laws were put into mothballs. As a result, Michelle Oberman of DePaul University says, ''Modern criminal law has turned girls from 'jail bait' to 'fair game'.''

''Liberating'' children

Now, we are concerned again that we have abandoned the responsibility to children. In the real world, ''liberation'' left girls more vulnerable, and the reform did little to right the power imbalance of age and gender.

I'm not in favor of these laws if they are used to prosecute the 18-year-old boyfriends of 17-year-old girls. Not every 17-year-old girl is a victim, nor is every 18-year-old boy a predator. The law is no substitute for that best contraceptive: a future.

But this is one way for society to draw a line. This is one way for society to right the power imbalance. It's time to say again that adolescent girls are not ''fair game.''

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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