I remember my high school sex-ed class like it was yesterday. Packed into a smelly classroom adjacent to the gym, we all squirmed in our chairs and averted eye contact as our P.E.-teacher-turned-sex-expert began detailing the horrors of being sexually active: oozing STDs, teen pregnancy and of course a tarnished reputation. “Who will want your flower if you’ve already given away all the petals?” my high school health teacher asked. Petrified, some of us took a 10th-grade vow of chastity, while others rolled the dice and hoped for the best.
Now as college students, we have a more realistic understanding of the risks associated with sex. Or at least we think we do. But what about a 10-year prison sentence? Bet your high school health teacher left that one out.
That is exactly what happened to 17-year old Genarlow Wilson of Georgia. After a wild New Year’s Eve party back in 2005, a fellow classmate accused Wilson and his friends of rape. Unfortunately for Wilson, the entire evening had been caught on videotape.
The rape charges were eventually dropped after jurors determined the sex had been consensual. Wilson, however, was far from off the hook. In reviewing the tape, jurors witnessed yet another sexual offense, this one even more damning than the alleged rape: oral sex with a minor. That same night, Wilson had received oral sex from a 15-year-old classmate. Ironically it would be that trip to third base, not Wilson’s contentious home run, that would send him to jail for 10 years.
The most paradoxical aspect of Georgia’s state law is the extra criminal weight given to oral sex. If Wilson had chosen to go all the way with this 15-year-old girl, the charge would have remained a misdemeanor. But the act of oral sex trumped up the charge to a felony, and Wilson was subsequently convicted of aggravated child molestation and shipped off to jail in February of 2005. He will also have to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. If gonorrhea and herpes are not enough to scare teens away from sex, this archaic Georgia sex law will probably do the trick.
When I heard about this case two years ago, I remember thinking there has to be some way out for this kid. There is no way a teen with no previous police record could spend 10 years in jail for consensual oral sex with a girl just two years his junior. Turns out, I’m no legal expert. Wilson’s appeal was flat-out denied last month.
The good news is that Georgia lawmakers are in the process of solidifying legislation that would classify oral sex with a minor as a misdemeanor, punishable by no more than 90 days in jail. Unfortunately for Wilson, though, it will not apply retroactively to his case. It seems that he is screwed.
The real question here is what is the purpose of Georgia’s sex law – or any sex law for that matter? To my understanding, statutory rape and other underage sex restrictions are made to protect kids from sinister adults and predators who cross the line and endanger the mental or physical health of their significantly younger partners. Underage sex laws are not in place to punish two promiscuous teens who consider themselves peers engaging in consensual oral sex at a party. Even Rep. Tyrone Brooks, the author of Georgia’s oral sex law, admits his legislation was intended to protect underage kids from luring adults, not “to police teen sex.”
Ironically, in the very same week the Wilson case was tried, a 27-year-old Georgia teacher was sentenced to 90 days in jail and three years probation for having sex with a 17-year-old student. Why the light slap on the wrists? Because the girl was over 16 and the couple did not engage in oral sex. This is the sound logic our judicial system is supposedly founded on?
And Georgia isn’t the only state missing the point of protective sex laws. Oral sex is illegal under any circumstance in 17 states. In North Carolina, an unmarried couple occupying the same bed in a hotel room is guilty of a misdemeanor. In Oklahoma, a man who promises to marry a virgin, has sex with her and then changes his mind is a felon. And in Michigan, a cheating spouse can technically get life in prison – ironic, considering Attorney General Mike Cox has admitted to having quite an extramarital affair.
I know we all get a good chuckle out of these outdated, obviously flawed laws, but it was this type of inane legislation that effectively ruined Genarlow Wilson’s young life. It’s all fun and games until someone gets 10 years in prison.
There is not much to be done for Wilson at this point beyond a website, www.wilsonappeal.com, where outraged citizens can volunteer to help his case. We can, however, push legislators to review our own state sex laws, and make sure they are both logical and effective in sending real sexual predators to jail. Leave promiscuous teenagers alone, oozing STDs are scary enough.
Whitney Dibo is an associate editorial page editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.