Although discussion has been ongoing for centuries about sex and teenagers, only recently have teen sexual issues been the focus of criminal courts. Today, teenagers can face criminal charges for any number of sexually-related actions, including graphic text message discussions, sending or receiving sexually-explicit photos, underage sex, and other actions that in the past were handled by parents. In some cases, the parents of the teens involved are not the ones instigating the criminal charges, as in some cases school administrators or the police may become involved before parents are even aware there is a problem. However, there are things that parents can do to help teenagers become aware of the potential criminal charges that may result from such actions.
Age of Consent
Age of consent laws were initially designed to protect young people from exploitation by someone older. The belief is that children under a certain age are not capable of giving informed consent for sexual activity. The age of consent varies by state, with only 12 states having a set age under which sexual consent cannot be given. For example, in Massachusetts, no person under the age of sixteen may consent to sexual activity. Other states have more complicated laws, such as an age differential between the teens, normally three or four years, or the minimum age at which someone can be prosecuted for sexual activity with a minor. It is very important for parents to not only be aware of laws in their state, but to make teens aware of those laws as well, in order to avoid the life-changing affect a statutory rape conviction brings.
Teenage Sexuality and Technology
In today’s world, sexual intercourse is not the only way that teens can be criminally charged. Many states have enacted laws that make sending sexually excplicit, nude or semi-nude photos a criminal offense, despite the fact that several surveys, including one conducted by the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital found that 81 percent of adults believe that education or counseling is more appropriate than criminal charges. According to officials, however, the fact that today’s technology allows explicit photos to spread from phone to internet very quickly, and in some cases, the spread of these photos has led to embarrassment, shame and even the death of those who initially took and sent the photo. The problem occurs when a sexually explicit or nude photo intended for one recipient “goes viral” or spreads to unintended recipients. In some states, even those who receive the photo unknowingly who do not report the incident to authorities can be charged with receiving child pornography. The laws increased throughout the United States after high profile incidents of indecent photos resulted in the suicide of the person in the photo. It is critical that parents explain to teens that photos sent via cell phone are easily sent to others, and could be posted on internet sites without their knowledge. It is also important to explain that forwarding those types of photos may result in charges of distributing or receiving child pornography could lead a teen to be treated no different than pedophiles or child rapists, as they could be required to register as a sex offender for the rest of their lives. This could also make them ineligible for employment opportunities, and, in some cases, limit where they are permitted to live.
Communication is the best way for parents to teach teenagers of criminal charges that could result due to sexual activity. By explaining consequences beyond pregnancy and disease, teens can have a better understanding of how sexual activity could affect their lives. Parents must understand, however, what the laws are in their state and be open with teens about how their activity could affect them, their goals and, ultimately, their future.