It comes as no surprise that America’s laws regarding teens and sex are bonkers and a half. The subject of sexuality in people under the age of 18 is still considered taboo by many Americans, and is simply unfathomable to others. The lack of effective legislation where minors and sex are concerned becomes glaringly obvious in the case of sexual assault, a lesson that those on the receiving end of this violence learn the hard way.
This week, Newsweek related the story of Savannah Dietrich, a 16-year-old high school student from Louisville, Kentucky who burst into the public consciousness when she took to Twitter to lash out against the two boys standing trial for sexually assaulting her. Dietrich had been ordered by the court to keep mum not only about the proceedings of the trial, but about the very fact of her sexual assault as well.
Outraged by what she felt was a violation of her free speech, Dietrich quickly tweeted a barrage of messages condemning her attackers and reclaiming her own narrative. As a result of Dietrich’s action, the boys’ lawyer attempted to have her held in contempt of court. Had that motion been upheld, Dietrich would have spent more time in jail than her attackers.
The punishment that is doled out to those found guilty of sexual assault is often shockingly light. This is especially true when both parties are under the age of 18 when the crime occurs. Oftentimes, a teenage defendant will walk away from a sexual assault trial with nothing but a batch of community service hours and the promise that his crime will be expunged from his record at a later date. For some victims of sexual assault, such a paltry punishment is not even worth the pain of rehashing their ordeal in court.
It would be false, however, to say that young women are the only victims of faulty legislation when it comes to teen sex. Just last year, The Daily Beast ran a story about an 18-year-old man from Michigan who was jailed for six years for sleeping with his 14-year-old girlfriend after the girl's father caught them in the act. Ken Thornsberry and his girlfriend Emily Lester both swore before the court that their sexual relations had been consensual, but because Lester was under the age of consent in Michigan, her testimony was dismissed, and she was labeled as a victim.
Why are American teenagers so consistently failed by the legal system, when sex is part of the picture? A lot of the murkiness surrounding teen sex laws has to do with the fact that the age of consent varies from state to state. A sex act that’s legal in North Carolina may be forbidden in North Dakota. Similarly, the fact that minors are considered to be legal adults come their 18th birthdays means that a 17-year-old and 18-year-old could commit the same sex crime and wind up with wildly different sentences.
It goes without saying that we need legislation that protects minors, particularly when it comes to sexual assault. The tricky part about drafting laws for teen sex is that people do not develop according to a government-issued timeline. Emily Lester felt comfortable having sex at 14, other girls might not. Savannah Dietrich was so frustrated by her lack of subjectivity in her own sexual assault trial that she nearly got herself thrown into jail. There has to be a way for America to orient itself to the idea of teen sex that is not based on a generalized age of adulthood or sexual maturity. In matters of sexuality and sexual assault, where nuance and detail rule the day, why should our laws be so single-minded?
Photos via Robyn Twomey and Austin Koester for Newsweek