Last week, news broke that a Wyoming state senator “had a relationship” with a 14 year old girl when he was 18. The politician released a statement where he called it “like the Romeo and Juliet story.” Newspapers across the country described the relationship as the man “impregnating a 14 year old when he was 18.” In Florida, where this incident happened, it is a second degree felony for a person aged 18 or older to engage in sexual activity with a person between the ages of 12 and 16 years of age.
This story brings up several important issues. Perhaps most importantly, it raises a question about how the media describes these types of “relationships.” While the law in each state is different, it is generally illegal for an adult (anyone aged 18 or older) to have sex with anyone under a certain age. In Pennsylvania and in many other states, the age of consent is 16. If an adult engages in sexual activity with a minor under the age of 16, it considered a crime. Headlines and articles describing these situations should reflect this reality and use the proper terminology: rape or statutory rape.
Each time this type of case hits the news, journalists, pundits and everyday people use outdated, misleading language to describe what happened — like saying that it was a relationship, or that the adult “had sex with” the child. Choosing this wording, instead of more accurately describing what occurred as rape, helps to perpetuate harmful notions - like the idea that a child can consent to have sex with an adult.
Age of consent laws may seem like a technicality, but they exist for a reason. According to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (PCAR), “age and experience create a power imbalance that make it impossible for the younger person to freely give consent.” At the same time, teenagers often lack the maturity and decision-making ability that adults have — which impacts their ability to consent.
Of course, teenagers can (and do) consent to sexual activity with each other. That is why most states (Pennsylvania included) have exceptions to their statutory rape laws that allow for sexual relationships between teenagers. However, these laws typically set an age below which teens cannot consent to sex — and specify the maximum age gap between the teens. For example, in Pennsylvania, children under the age of 13 cannot consent to sexual activity at all. Teens between the ages of 13 and 15 cannot consent to sexual activity with anyone who is 4 or more years older than they are. Under these laws, a 15 year old can consent to sexual activity with an 18 year old - but not a 19 year old. These limits may seem arbitrary, but they serve an important purpose: protecting kids from people who would prey on their youth and inexperience.
The way that the media talks about statutory rape impacts cultural attitudes towards this type of crime. Significantly, news outlets only seem to avoid using the legal term for crimes of sexual violence — while they accurately describe other crimes. For example, if a person is accused of arson, the headline will typically say just that, instead of “fire started while person was there.” By contrast, when a person is accused of statutory abuse or child sexual assault, the headline often states that a person “had sex with” a minor — even when that person has been charged with a crime.
When we discuss statutory rape, it should be with an acknowledgment that children cannot consent to sexual activity with adults — period. Using phrases like “relationship” or “had sex with” minimizes the crime and the harm caused to the victim. By more accurately describing statutory rape, we can take an important step towards changing how we view it — and ultimately, eliminating this crime.
As always, if you need help, we are here for you. Our hotline is available 24 hours a day at 1-888-832-2272. Calls to our hotline are free of charge and can be anonymous.