Few of us would argue against having adults involved in the sexual exploitation of children face the harshest punishments in society. Those who participate in and perpetuate child pornography, as well as those who use children for their own sexual gratification, are among the dregs of society, which is why child pornography and sex offender laws have become so draconian in the last few decades.
But, what happens when teens—probably the age group with the least amount of sense and good judgment, while also being among the most sexually curious—get caught up in laws designed to destroy the lives of true sexual predators?
The sex offender registry, which was enacted by Congress in 1996, has a major flaw in that it does not allow judges to distinguish between teens being horny and stupid and the dangerous sexual predators and pedophiles it was actually meant for.
Technology has advanced in the past 10 years at a speed never before seen in human history. Who could have imagined smart phones and all they are capable of doing? Teens have jumped on technology with their unique combination of narcissism, burgeoning sex drive, and lack of good sense, resulting in sexting. Though lawmakers in several states are working on new legislation that separates immature teen behavior from actual pornographers, at this point, teens are still getting slapped with permanent sex offender status for texting naked photos of themselves or others.
Consensual teen sex
It’s a fact that teenagers have sex with each other. They always have, and always will, and it’s most often consensual. Each state has its own minimum age for consensual sex, usually somewhere between 13 and 16. Some states also set a minimum age difference between partners. What this means is that, in most states, if a 17-year-old boy has a sexual relationship with his 15- or 16-year-old girlfriend, he runs the risk of being publicly labeled a sex offender for life. As U.S. Human Rights Watch senior advisor Jamie Fellner put it, “Registration as a sex offender is just completely inappropriate there, does nothing to promote public safety, but ruins lives.”
One man was convicted of statutory rape when, at age 16, he had consensual sex with his 14-year-old girlfriend, to whom he is now married. He’s a registered sex offender for life, essentially for the “crime” of having premarital sex with his future wife.
The consequences of becoming a registered sex offender
Being a registered sex offender comes with severe restrictions and penalties that negatively affect every aspect of life. In order to warn people about the kinds of predators who kidnap, rape, and murder children, registered sex offenders are publicly listed by name and address—though only vaguely by crime, so there’s no way to know if they are a real predator or were just a stupid teenager.
Not only do these kids end up publicly labeled forever, but they are restricted from living in certain areas due to enforced geographical buffers around places where children spend time, such as schools, parks, and day care centers. Adults who are registered cannot legally take their own children to the school bus stop or little league games. The registry also severely limits employment options and can make it extremely difficult to find a job.
Where is the line?
Currently, tens of thousands of juveniles are listed as sex offenders, though not all states keep records on how many of their registered sex offenders are under 18. Some of these juveniles are true sexual predators and belong on the registry, but most are there for sexting, streaking, or having sex with their boyfriends or girlfriends—not necessarily smart behavior, but probably not criminal behavior.
While the sex offender registry is a positive thing for keeping kids safe from true predators, legislation needs to close up the loopholes that cause teens engaging in normal, fairly common behavior to be punished severely for the rest of their lives. Until it does, teens need to be acutely aware of how their behavior may affect their future—once it was a matter of avoiding STDs and unplanned pregnancy, but now the stakes are even higher.