Social Response to Age-Gap Sex Involving Minors: Empirical, Historical, Cross-Cultural, and Cross-Species Considerations

Article excerpt

Social response to age-gap sex involving minors has become increasingly severe. In the US, non-coercive acts that might have been punished with probation 30 years ago often lead to decades in prison today. Punishment also increasingly includes civil commitment up to life, as well as scarlet-letter-like public registries and onerous residence restrictions for released offenders. Advocates and the general public approve, believing that age-gap sex with minors is uniquely injurious, pathological, and criminal. Critics argue that public opinion and policy have been shaped by moral panic, consisting of unfounded assumptions and invalid science being uncritically promoted by ideology, media sensationalism, and political pandering. This talk critically examines the basic assumptions and does so using a multi-perspective approach (empirical, historical, cross-cultural, cross-species) to overcome the biases inherent in traditional clinical-forensic reports. Non-clinical empirical reviews of age-gap sex involving minors show claims of intense, pervasive injuriousness to be highly exaggerated. Historical and cross-cultural reviews show that adult-adolescent sexual relations have been common and frequently socially integrated in other times and places, indicating that present-day Western conceptualizations are socially constructed to reflect current social and economic arrangements rather than expressions of a priori truths. Analogous relations in primates are commonplace, non-pathological, and not infrequently functional, contradicting implicit assumptions of a biologically-based "trauma response" in humans. It is concluded that, though age-gap sex involving minors is a significant mismatch for contemporary culture-and this talk therefore does not endorse it-attitudes and social policy concerning it have been driven by an upward-spiraling moral panic, which itself is immoral in its excessive adverse consequences for individuals and society.

Keywords: age-gap sex with minors, moral panic, historical, cross-cultural, cross-species

In the United States and Great Britain in particular, but also increasingly in other Western nations, mobilizing against and punishing sex offences involving minors has changed from an occasional, unsystematic effort some 40 years ago to a consuming obsession today. To many, this change is welcome, based on the belief that age-gap sex with minors is uniquely injurious, pathological, and criminal. By this thinking, harsh measures are often seen as justified. In the U.S. (on this issue, the trendsetter for the rest of the world), adults involved in non-coercive sexual episodes with minors, who might have been punished only with probation in the 1970s, or even not punished at all, today often receive extremely lengthy prison sentences. Recently, a Texas man was sentenced to 4060 years in prison for non-coercive, ongoing sexual relations with teenage girls, and a Texas woman was sentenced to 23 years even though her 16-year-old male partner enthusiastically participated. Adults involved merely in para-sexual behaviors (those involving no actual sexual contact, or even no actual victim) are similarly subject to harsh treatment. An Arizona man received a 200 year sentence for possessing 20 pornographic images of boys, while a Virginia man got 20 years for downloading cartoons depicting sex between men and girls. Increasingly, sex offenders who complete lengthy prison terms are subject to civil commitment that can last for life, and those who do return to society often face permanent shaming via public registries on the internet, exposing them to attacks, threats, harassment, property damage, and loss of housing and employment. More and more they also face onerous zoning restrictions that exile them from communities and force them, for example, to reside in trailers outside of town or under bridges. Restrictions are so extreme in San Francisco and Los Angeles that registered sex offenders can no longer move there (Heller, 2011; Hubbard, 2011; The Economist, 2009a, 2009b; Zilney & Zilney, 2009). …