Genarlow Wilson and Irrational Sex Laws

On Monday, as has been widely reported, a Georgia court ordered the release of 21-year-old Genarlow Wilson from prison, where he is 28 months into a 10-year sentence for "aggravated child molestation." He received consensual oral sex at the age of 17 from a girl two years his junior. The state court's order that Wilson be freed should have had him home within a day or two. But then Georgia's Attorney General, Thurbert Baker, appealed the decision. So Wilson remains in prison.

I find this situation appalling on two levels. First, the specific legal absurdities of the case itself. The "victim" initiated the sex act. She says so, and so does the prosecution. No one ever claimed otherwise. Furthermore, actual intercourse in this case would have been a misdemeanor by state law, but oral sex -- due to perverse and outdated anti-sodomy legislation -- was a felony. And shortly after Wilson's conviction, the law that sent him away for a decade was changed to prevent just such miscarriages of justice, but the change wasn't applied retroactively. So he remained in prison. (More depressing details are available in this comprehensive article, written before Monday's ruling.)

Prosecutors say the letter of the law has been, and must be, followed. That means (if they are not self-contradictory people) they believe that all 16-, 17-, and 18-year-olds who have sexual contact with 15-year-olds in the state of Georgia should be prosecuted and imprisoned. Can you imagine? It would certainly be a lot easier to get into the state's universities, what with all the competition being locked up.

In short, Genarlow Wilson should be in college, where he was headed, instead of prison. No reasoning person, regarding the circumstances without malice or sexual shame/fear, could believe otherwise.

But I also find the underlying assumptions behind all such laws irrational. The law that caught Genarlow Wilson was designed to punish pedophiles, according to news reports, but if this is true, the legislators misunderstand the definition of pedophilia. A pedophile preys on, and is primarily aroused by, children. That is, pre-adolescents -- human beings who have not yet reached biological sexual maturity. At 15, just about everyone has reached the age of sexual maturity. Sexual desire for a 15-year-old is most definitely culturally inappropriate, but it's not the same thing as pedophilia. To categorize it as such in legislation seems to me a little hysterical (and has that unfortunate side effect where it occasionally ruins the life of a regular person engaging in a consensual sex act).

Also, the idea that a person who is 15 years old cannot consent to sex is wrong. At that age, a person can drive a car in many states and, under supervision, pilot a light aircraft. It's not uncommon at all -- or necessarily traumatic -- to lose one's virginity at 15. The idea that it is necessarily or almost always traumatic is a nonsensical belief held by people frightened or confused by sex. (A pretty thoughtful book on this subject is Judith Levine's Harmful to Minors.) In short: legislatively proscribing the sexual activity of a biological adult who expressly desires to engage in sexual activity is not logical. And age of consent laws as they exist are based on fearful, irrational thinking.

And Genarlow Wilson should be let out of prison right now.