America’s the greatest land of all, but it’s no country for sexually squeamish men, or women either, who are old enough to remember when dignity, decency and decorum were in season.
Bill Clinton gave everyone, young and old, a primer on oral sex, whether they wanted it or not, and Roy Moore and a procession of celebrities, Harvey Weinstein, Al Franken and Charlie Rose leading the way, have followed up with advanced studies in pederasty, rape, nudity, exhibitionism and onanism. We’re all reluctant scholars, like it or not (and who does?).
A pundit might yearn for the good old days when the most exciting subject at hand was “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative” or “Opportunity in Iceland.” Newspapers have never been so studded with minefields for the genteel, the gentle and the refined. “A family newspaper” must be kept away from children of tender years.
It’s enough to puzzle a Frenchman, who imagines that la belle France invented sex. But the French are out front, as usual, and moving in the wrong direction, as is their sometime custom. France is astir with a rape crisis, and the French minister of Justice, Nicole Belloubet, has provoked consternation among feminists and the public at large with a remarkable assertion that making the legal age for sexual consent at 13 “is worth considering.” The French, who are not easily shocked by things sexual, are shocked.
“Activists” with placard and banner demonstrated in Paris the other day to plead that the age of consent be set at 15. “For him impunity,” cried the message on one placard, “for her a life sentence.” Caroline de Haas, a prominent feminist icon, says women “want the law to guarantee that before 15 there can be no concept of consent.” Alice Collet, a spokeswoman for the National Collective for Women’s Rights, called the Justice minister’s suggestion that the age of consent might be lowered to 13 “a sign of ignorance of the issues.” Not ignorance, some might say, so much as criminal indifference.
Twice in a fortnight French courts have declined to prosecute men for rape after they had sexual relations with 11-year-old girls because authorities could not prove coercion. Public disbelief and outrage pushed the government to draft legislation to establish the legal principle that sex with children under a certain age is by definition “coercive.”
Sexual harassment allegations in the United States have focused attention on similar allegations in France, and women’s advocates have used Harvey Weinstein as an example of what the government, pushed by the public, should not any longer tolerate. “In America with the Weinstein fallout there have been legal investigations,” says Caroline de Haas, “but in France it has been radio silence from the politicians.”
The age of consent in the United States has varied widely over the life of the republic, and only in this century has it been settled between 16 and 18. On the frontier, which closed less than a century ago, children usually did not remain children for long. Boys took on man’s work early, sometimes following a horse or mules behind a plow as early as 10 or 12, and girls often married with neither shame nor reproach as early as 13 or 14. The law merely reflected reality. Delaware, for reasons known now only to the authorities of the time, set the age of consent at 7, when girls were barely of an age to start to school.
California put the age of consent at 10 when it introduced its first penal code in 1850. It was raised to 14 after the end of the Civil War, to 16 by the end of the century, and 18 in 1913.
The law usually set distinctions between male and female, and was traditionally applied only when the girl was the younger, and not until this decade were age-of-consent laws made generally sex-symmetric. As recently as three or four decades ago, many states required that the girl be of “chaste character” for her under-age sexual behavior to be considered criminal. Mississippi was the last state to abolish this provision less than 25 years ago.
Judges have sometimes waived enforcement of the law when the girl pleaded pregnancy with a swain close to her age. These exceptions were often allowed by statute, called “Romeo and Juliet laws.” Juliet was, after all, a mere child, and Romeo was not much older.
These old birds caught practicing sex now with children, and sometimes with young women barely beyond childhood, are anything but Romeos except in their own warped minds. Roy Moore is neither a beauty nor dandy. Al Franken and Charlie Rose only imagine theirs is equipment that everyone wants to admire.
It’s ugly out there, but this, too, shall pass. If we’re lucky, not in review.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.
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