Thursday, December 21, 2006

Free Genarlow?

This story has been getting a lot of press lately: A young man in Georgia has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for engaging in consensual oral sex with a 15 year old girl when he was 17. Georgia law states that anyone engaging in oral sex with an underage female is committing a crime. There's more to it than that, though, even though "Free Genarlow" has become the rallying cry.

The whole thing went down like this:
Someone threw a really awesome party -- the kind you want to go to when you're 15, and the kind your parents don't want you going to ever. People were drinking, smoking up, and having sex -- and there was a video camera. Genarlow Wilson, the young man in question, was caught on tape having sex with a 17 year old who appears very drunk, or at least very sleepy. Later, he and several other young men are seen receiving oral sex from a 15 year old young woman, who says she wasn't drinking that night and that the acts were consensual. The next day, the 17 year old brought rape charges against Wilson and several others. Under Georgia law (and that of many other states), an intoxicated person cannot give consent, so sex acts occurring while a partner is drunk can be considered rape if that person later feels she has been violated and taken advantage of. Wilson was charged, went to trial, and found not guilty of rape in this instance, but found guilty on charges of aggravated child molestation for receiving oral sex from a 15 year old.

So, despite the fact that Wilson was an honor student, high school track and football star, and homecoming king, he wasn't exactly a prince, and there were social factors at play here -- not just the age of the young woman involved, but also her relative social status and the power-dynamics involved there. These factors contribute to sexual manipulation (of people of all ages and genders, although young women are particularly vulnerable) on a daily basis. It isn't surprising that he was charged, given the context in which the sex act took place; because of the way the law was written, the proof that he had in fact received oral sex from a 15 year old (the video, that is) meant that the jury had no choice but to find him guilty. Although he was acquitted of the rape charge in the case of the 17 year old woman, I'm still willing to go out on a limb and say: ew. I don't care if he wasn't convicted, what happened to the 17 year old was absolutely disgusting and a poor decision on his part. It speaks volumes that this part of the story is being swept under the rug by the media and Wilson is being painted as a hometown hero wrongly accused.

Jessica of Feministing is quite right in pointing out the incredibly sexist implications of the law that Genarlow Wilson, the young man, broke:
Consent laws are overwhelmingly enforced to "protect" young girls, even if some of them don't need protecting. I find it pretty insulting that any teen girl who has sex is an automatic victim.
She also points out that charges may not have been brought at all if it had been the young man performing oral sex, and not the other way around. Regardless of the fact that many are manipulated and violated, this particular young woman has not said she felt that way. Law states that she could not legally give consent (because she was 15 at the time), and that law denies that she, as a young woman, is capable of making decisions about her body and her life.

Back in the day, when I was a majorly sexually active minor, the idea that either myself or my partner were doing something illegal was inconceivable. What I was doing was punishable in the court of My Mother's House, sure, but in a court of Law? According to this article in The Sunday Times (UK-Scotland edition), many young people are startled to learn their randy behavior is punishable by law:
When Paul lost his virginity to an older girl, he never thought he might be committing a crime. Emma, his first girlfriend, was a year older than him at 15 and already sexually experienced. But when her parents discovered the nature of their relationship, it was 14-year-old Paul who was threatened with the law.
For the record, Paul was not charged, but under Scottish law he could have been.

In Georgia, Wilson recently lost his appeal. Meanwhile, Georgia lawmakers are in the process of rewriting the law under which he was convicted to match that which applies to intercourse. Under the new "Romeo and Juliet" law, teens within 3 years of each other in age will not be able to be charged for oral sex (unless, of course, it isn't consensual, but that's a whole other law).

In the meantime, a recent study by the Guttmacher Institute found that 9 out of 10 US citizens have engaged in premarital sex. I wonder how many of them were committing a crime at the time? In any case, the study provides ample evidence that abstinence only until marriage might not be the wisest of choices when it comes to sex education.

Wilson's Attorney Answers Questions
NY Times Op-Ed: Free Genarlow Wilson Now
Why is Genarlow Wilson in Jail?
Interesting Debate in the Feministing Comments


Anonymous said...

You'll probably hate this, but you are too young to appreciate the wrong of statutory rape (although certainly not the other kind).

I felt more or less what you have expressed when I was your age. Let's see how you feel at 35 or 40. Sorry, not even your intimidating brain can stand in for the perspective of age.

Amanda said...

My intimidating brain, eh? I thought a lot about this post in the days after I wrote it, because I realized I hadn't made my position on the matter clear. Largely that's because I hadn't entirely thought the situation through. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to come back to it.

I do not think Wilson is the hometown hero the media and many positive sexuality outlets have made him out to be. I think he's pretty scummy, and (unfortunately) fairly typical. I think he took advantage of his age and his gender and his status in the high school community and abused his power over at least one of the women at that party, even if the charge was dismissed. I'm glad that he's being punished, but I think he's being punished for the wrong charge. The fact is, that young woman felt the sex was consensual, and Wilson was only a couple of years older than her. Plenty of 15 year olds have consensual sex with 17 year olds, in all kinds of settings. The vast majority of them will never be charged, nor should they be if the only factors at play are their age and sexual activity. Maybe you're right and my feelings on the subject will change when I'm older, but I hope that when I'm 40 I'll remember the time that that I was 15 having sex with a 17 year old and bear in mind that if anyone was doing any coercing, it was me.

I've also been wondering how she must be feeling about this whole "Free Wilson" campaign. She says the sex was consensual, but she may on some level feel as though she was taken advantage of. Even though it was essentially created by her own assertion that the sex was consensual, the way the press (and Wilson's lawyer) are treating it may be making her feel as though she isn't justified in feeling that she was taken advantage of. I can certainly recall instances where I've felt that I was taken advantage of, even though the sex was consensual. If someone went around "poor him"-ing that guy, I'd feel really lousy about myself.

Anonymous said...

In your opinion you tend to forget that the boy was found not guilty of the rape charge of which you are accusing him. He may not be a prince, but spending 10 years in prison for consentual oral sex is an atrocity.

Anonymous said...

I don't think this case is about the act, I think it is about the sentence. Remember the teacher in the same state of Georgia (white female) who had an affair with a student (much different dynamic in age and relationship)received only 90 days.