Everything about the recent arrests of 11 young men on charges of second-degree rape and one on second-degree sodomy in Jacksonville is awful. The stench is unavoidable. It is a dirty, trashy pit of accusations and alleged crimes and questionable behaviors. I’m unsure how it ends.
Authorities charged two more men Monday in connection with a series of alleged rapes on or near the Jacksonville State University campus.
It is about youth and sex and consent — or, in a legal sense, about adult men and underage girls and university culture and the courtroom fact that consensual sex with anyone under 16 in Alabama isn’t legally possible.
It is about parental oversight and guilt and blame and Facebook sleuths who have turned this case into their personal episode of “48 Hours.”
It is about lives damaged and, perhaps, lives destroyed.
And — here’s the filthy part — it is about alleged deception and alleged lies and dorm sex in the heart of the Bible Belt South, where young people are so often taught to save themselves for their spouse and consider virginity a virtue to protect. It is about sin, about premarital sex. Even if untrue or embellished, the sleaze is astonishing. And it’s captivated some of us, many of us — a news story of titillation that should make us recoil, not gawk.
I’m unsure how it ends.
Bible Belt values aren’t absolute; they can fail. All teenagers are imperfect and not immune to the human desires of sex and the pressures to drink and dabble in drugs. Peer pressure and addiction and hormones and anxiety are real, young men with macho thoughts and young women subjected to the modern world’s unrealistic messaging about their bodies and their appearance.
That’s another of this case’s gawk factors, this parental notion that “my children” would never do this, that they wouldn’t have sex, that they wouldn’t lie, that they wouldn’t engage in illegal or immoral or unbecoming behavior. Parenting is the ultimate test — not of patience but of teaching young people which path to take, all the while knowing immaturity and impulsiveness perch like twin devils on their shoulders.
If a young person’s misdeeds are ironclad referendums on the worthiness of parents, mine were failures. I made it so.
I’m not sure how much of that Alan Dershowitz, the renowned Harvard Law School emeritus professor and Fox News regular, considered when he famously theorized that the age of consent for statutory rape charges should be lowered. I know how that sounds, given that Dershowitz served on O.J. Simpson’s defense team and this year he has been linked to financier Jeffrey Epstein, who committed suicide in prison after being arrested on federal charges of sex-trafficking underage girls. But bear with me.
In 1997, Dershowitz wrote an op-ed for The Los Angeles Times (“Statutory Rape is an Outdated Concept”) in which he claimed the age for consent should be lowered to 15, regardless of the age of the sexual partner.
Forgive me, but here’s part of what he wrote:
“Any cutoff age, of course, will be somewhat arbitrary. And yet a line must be drawn. Nor would it be practical to have a cutoff based on individual maturity rather than age, since maturity is so subjective a criterion. Moreover, puberty is apparently arriving earlier, particularly among some ethnic groups.”
“It is doubtful whether such sanctions should apply to teenagers above the age of puberty, since voluntary sex is so common in their age group.”
Except, it’s not. Not anymore, at least. The National Center for Health Statistics reported two months ago that the U.S. teenage birth rate is at a record low (18 births per 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19), and the Pew Research Center has attributed that decline to “less sex, use of more effective contraception and more information about pregnancy prevention.”
Dershowitz isn’t backing down with his slime. This summer, The Boston Globe noticed that the Harvard professor was defending his 1997 op-ed on Twitter by writing that his argument was “constitutional (not moral)” — a harkening to “Romeo and Juliet” laws — and that “the issue presents a constitutional conundrum worthy of discussion.”
Don’t be surprised by Dershowitz’s claim. His latest book, out next month, “Guilt by Association: The Challenge of Proving Innocence in the Age of #MeToo,” sounds just as revolting as his thoughts on statutory rape and the age of consent.
The tie-in with the Jacksonville case is the repulsiveness of these related conversations — that someone with Dershowitz’s national platform advocates for consent to be linked to puberty, and that the lurid details of a teenage girl allegedly having multiple sexual partners and duping them into believing she was of age is now front-page news.
It’s all awful. And yet, we can’t look away.