Friday, June 15, 2007

Punishment to Fit the Crime

In the last decade or so, increasing attention has been paid to crimes that involve non-consensual sex of various categories. While this is a good thing in regards to forcible rape and the molestation of children, the media and the legal/court system has not been as careful in distinguishing between the various types of offenses and what kind of appropriate legal responses should apply. Because sex offenses tend to be an emotional issue for many people, a good bit of hysteria has ensued, with many people losing sight of how the system of justice is supposed to work.

In addition to stepped up efforts to prosecute forcible rape and to stop pedophiles, more attention is being paid to "date rape" and consensual sex between young adults and teens. Unlike with cases of violent rape and the molestation of children, where the offense is clear and unambiguous to everyone, the other categories mentioned above can be tricky to define and devise proper legal responses to. Rigid, "one-size-fits-all" responses to such offenses often end up with laws being absurdly and unfairly applied, as the case of Genarlow Wilson clearly shows.

"Date rape" many times turns into a he said/she said deal in cases where no force was used. It's also not agreed upon whether a woman remains responsible for her own actions when she is intoxicated or high. Likewise, it's also questionable whether a woman who is psychologically manipulated into having sex has completely given up her responsible part in the matter. The "date rape" charge has also been sometimes abused by women who have had sex willingly enough at the time, but later decide that it wasn't such a good idea, after all, and then press rape charges.

Lastly, and perhaps the most problematic, are the cases that involve boyfriend/girlfriend situations where the sex is entirely consensual. This involves underage teenagers having sex with a young adult, usually with fewer than five years age difference between them. In most cases, it is the girl who is younger. Unlike years ago, when parents dealt privately with their daughters having relationships they didn't approve of, nowadays many parents turn to the legal system to take over their role in such matters. Despite generations of teenagers doing what comes naturally, doing so nowadays can ruin the futures of many young men who have nothing in common with real pedophiles. These young men arguably may not be exercising the most mature judgment, but this doesn't necessarily make them criminals.

We all agree that violent, forcible rape of someone of any age is unambiguously a serious crime. Likewise, no one doubts that preying upon pre-teens and young children is an unspeakable offense. But it's a big mistake to lump date rape and consensual sex between young people close in age with the more serious crimes, tarring all offenders with the indelible label of "sex offender".

I think the key to handling date rape and, especially, consensual sex between young people is flexibility; using discretion on a case by case basis. To handle these types of offenses in the same fashion as those of violent rape and true pedophilia only feeds hysteria and impedes the rational and fair exercise of justice with punishments that actually fit the crime.


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