Let's make an honest woman of her

September 13, 1996|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- At least nobody in Orange County, California, can say that marriage is a prison anymore. Instead, it's becoming a kind of alternative sentence.

An adult man who has impregnated a teen-age girl in that county may still have his options open: He can either be a jailbird or a groom. He can have a record or a wedding band.

Talk about your glamour makeovers. Over the past year or so, more than a dozen men have been transformed from accused sexual offenders, even child molesters, into desirable husbands.

Not so long ago, men were either invisible sperm donors or

deadbeat dads in the debate over teen-age motherhood. All the attention and all the opprobrium was focused on the girls.

Americans have only recently begun talking about the other half of the problem: males. We have learned the startling facts about the much-older partners of many teen-age mothers.

We know that 400 teen-agers are impregnated by men over 25 every single day. We know that 20 percent of the fathers are six or more years older than teen mothers. We know that in California, which has the nation's highest per-capita rate of teen-age pregnancy, as many as half of all teens who give birth are prior victims of sexual molestation or rape.

On third thought

So we have revised the portrait of teen-age mothers. Maybe they are not just sexually immoral or calculating little economists having babies for welfare checks. Maybe they are young and vulnerable.

An alliance of progressives and conservatives has turned its attention to men and agreed that it is time to dust off the statutory-rape laws. Last winter, Gov. Pete Wilson warned men who had sex with minors, ''That's not just wrong, not just a shame. It's a crime, a crime called statutory rape.''

But in Orange County, some judges and social workers are trying to solve the concerns of unwed motherhood and statutory rape by marrying the two together. That is, by allowing the pregnant girl to marry the statutory rapist.

During the last year, a 22-year-old man arrested for having sex with a 14-year-old girl was given court permission to marry her. Six weeks ago, a pregnant 13-year-old legally wed her 20-year-old boyfriend/child molester.

As for the 10 or so other couples who got help with their nuptials? No one knows their ages, but some of the men are said to be in their 30s.

Not surprisingly, this attempt to make a marriage out of a misdemeanor and a family out of a felony has created a furor. In the county's social-service agency, some supervisors and social workers believe that girls will be better off with fathers for their children. Others believe as one wrote, that the men ''should in fact be arrested, not rewarded with their girls' hands in marriage.''

The head of the agency, Larry Leaman, maintains that the marriages are approved only under careful circumstances. In each case, it is said, both parties want to wed. Indeed, the girls have refused to testify against their older partners.

Moreover, officials try to screen out the men who only want to wed to avoid prosecution. As Mr. Leaman said, they look for ''a man who is standing by the teen-age mother, wanting to do the right thing, ready for a family, willing to support it.''

In fairness, the alternative to this marital sentence -- he may go to jail and she may go on welfare with a child -- is grim. If marriage doesn't promise much hope, neither does the state. The revival of this kind of ''shotgun'' marriage may be a testimony to the frustration and defeat of social programs.

Even at 13, the most vulnerable girls may see men and motherhood as the best of their limited options. And they are already on the way to motherhood.

But the role of Orange County in child-marriage brokerage is on a collision course with its role as a child protector. Statutory-rape laws are based on the notion that a girl below a certain age isn't mature enough to legally consent to sex. How then, is she old enough to consent to marriage? Do we only care that a girl is unwed? Or that she is unprotected?

It's hard enough to ask a judge to decide which suitor should end up behind bars and which suitor should end up at the altar. It's impossible to ask the police to arrest a man as a sexual offender, even a child molester, and then attend his wedding to the victim. Pretty soon they stop enforcing the law.

Orange County may hope to find a handful of husbands and providers for a handful of unwed mothers with children. But in the process, it weakens the message to men and cracks the slim defense for a whole generation of girls.

For the men, marriage may mean freedom. But for the state, it looks an awful lot like the old ball and chain.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/13/96

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