Readers respond to Ayelet Waldman's column about the complexities and inadequacies of statutory rape laws.

Published April 27, 2005 6:09PM (EDT)

[Read "Raped by a Statute," by Ayelet Waldman.]

Ayelet Waldman hit the nail right on the head when she mentioned class, race and gender preference in the sentencing of these statutory crimes. People don't really care if their sons and daughters are having sex, as long as it's "normal." White girls with white boys of their own class, sure, and black girls with black boys. But nothing the Bible calls "unnatural." As long as these parameters are met, kids can have all the sex they want, unless they get pregnant, in which case all bets are off. But no talking about contraception, because ... then they might have sex.

No wonder kids are confused these days.

-- Susan Buckner

Ms. Waldman's article wisely pointed out the paternalistic and conservative view of sexuality found in most states' criminal statutes. As a criminal defense attorney I have seen firsthand the unimaginable damage that a mere accusation of sexual misconduct can bring to a young person's life. Unfortunately, the line has to be drawn somewhere. The old saying "15 will get you 20" is directly on point. Limon had sexual relations with a 14-year-old boy. As an "adult" he should not have been allowed to sleep in the same dormitory as a juvenile. A more interesting angle to the story is the fact that a developmentally disabled young person is given a lengthy sentence. We may no longer execute the mentally retarded but we do throw them in prison for a long time.

-- David Thorn

In her columns Ms. Waldman has explored several facets of being female. While some have found her writing discomfiting, I have always identified with the honesty of her emotions. In her latest piece she speaks about a story much like my own.

Being taken advantage of by an older man while I was still a young girl made me who I am today, but being able to talk about it has never been easy. I have spoken to therapists, I have changed the terminology I used to discuss the incident in my life, and now I have no words left for it. I am glad to hear Ms. Waldman's words. In the reading of like experiences, I can find myself.

My own daughter is far from adolescence, but she will be 13 when I am 31, and I wonder if I will still be unsure of what to tell her and what to hope for her then, other than that she has the words to define and to determine for herself what she is willing to allow, and what she does not want. Thank you for helping, Ms. Waldman.

-- Kay Rose

While I am horrified at the situations Ayelet Waldman describes -- and yes, the justice system has clearly differentiated -- I think the author's broader concern about statutory rape laws is a red herring. Ayelet's daughters are nearing adolescence and her loving concern is warranted. My beautiful daughter is 14 now. She is the product of one such statutory rape that left me pregnant at 14 by a 30-year-old "creep" who, like the Israeli soldier of the author's experience, went on to systematically conquer other naive, troubled girls like myself.

I had a positive experience in the court system (relatively -- it's a traumatic experience all around) because these laws made it clear that this man was committing a crime and the statutory rape laws articulated the injustice in a way my 14-year-old, pregnant self could not. I deserved to be protected -- by parents, by society, and by this man who should have known better. These laws are necessary both practically and psychologically for the victims, and though they have a nasty gray area that only a wise and rational court can navigate, I would never want to leave young women and men vulnerable to "creepy" adults just to avoid having to deal with that gray area at all. Just like so many parts of the justice system, it goes wrong when personal prejudice enters into the outcome. But for myself, and for my 14-year-old daughter, I am grateful for the compassionate lawyers and judges who, in my case, made it clear that even though my body looked the part of a maturing woman, a man should treat me like the child I was.

-- Name withheld by request

I enjoy Ms. Waldman's columns very much but was disappointed in this one. While the law should certainly not discriminate based on gender, race or sexual orientation when addressing issues of consent, and while the developmental abilities of the boys in this instance may have been a mitigating factor, I found Ms. Waldman's ambivalence about statutory rape laws themselves to be disturbing. Most such laws make allowances for teens who are near enough in age, such as an 18-year-old and a 16-year-old, because it is understood that the line drawn for legal majority is more arbitrary than the maturity level of individual teens. Two years is generally considered the limit. There is no doubt that an 18-year-old having sex with a 14-year-old, however, is committing a crime. There is no comparison between a junior high student and a high school graduate -- that is rape, no matter how consenting a deluded eighth- or ninth-grader thinks she or he may be. As a parent, Ms. Waldman will probably realize these developmental differences very soon.

-- Mariah Boone

Reading Ayelet Waldman's "Raped by Statute," I was left saddened beyond belief. As a 43-year-old gay man, I hate to imagine having my life ruined by a blow job. There is enough danger in trying to find your true self without unevenly applied laws that punish you further. I was 21 when I first had sex with another man (but that was in Alabama, so a repressed social system much like that in Kansas, I'm sure, "protected" me from giving in to my gay urges for a few years longer).

As sexually innocent as I was at 18, I still fiddled around with girls, thinking I was supposed to because I had been trained by a straight worldview. It's true that at that age I wouldn't have been able to handle sex with either gender very well, but the idea that my partner could have gone to jail for it seems unconscionable and detrimental to the "sinner," not the "sin". But, of course, these guys had two strikes against them already. Not only were they engaging in "gay conduct," they were developmentally unable to be "smart" about it and not get caught. Now Matthew Limon is buggered by our "moral" society -- locked away, out of sight, to be buggered by his fellow inmates. Too bad he can't click his heels three times to get back home.

-- Darryl Moland

What is the final message of Ms. Waldman's article, other than Kansas has homophobic application of the rape statutes? Well, whatever it is, I have an opinion on two points:

Yes, Kansas and many other states need to have an equal application of the rape statutes, regardless of the gender of the perp and the victim. Period. I think that all areas (and I mean all) of law need to be examined for partiality to a sexual orientation. That is to say, if the leniency or severity a law gives to a perp depends on the sexual orientation of the perp or the victim, then it definitely needs to be corrected. No exceptions.

Mentioning that the perp and victim were only three years apart gives the impression that they had virtually the same maturity level and therefore should not be looked at as a predatory situation. That's just plain wrong. Go to any high school and it isn't very hard to figure out who are freshmen and who are seniors. The years between 14 and 18 are one of our greatest periods of growth. Virtually every aspect of society recognizes this fact and functions around it. Most 14- or 15-year-olds are just beginning to battle the forces of puberty and have out-of-control hormone levels that tend to make them highly susceptible to anything remotely sexual. By the age of 18, they have gained just enough experience and strength to know how to better control these impulses. However, by the age of 18, having already gone through the worst of puberty, they also have a better understanding of what the areas of susceptibility are for someone still battling puberty. In other words, the temptation for seducing someone more vulnerable than themselves also begins around the age of 18.

While I think that the sentence given to Mr. Limon is too harsh and does more to damage society than help it, I do believe that children below the age of 18 need to be protected by the law. Adolescence is still a very impressionable period when one can be damaged easily and left with scars that may never heal -- at least not without some professional help.

-- Reuben L. Owens

Several extremely important issues -- how American society legislates adolescent sexuality; the way our society's homophobia is reflected in punishing young, sexually active gays; and the need for more careful monitoring of true sexual predators -- are practically obscured by Waldman's detour into her own adolescent sexual experiences.

My rape, which occurred when I was a teenager and which was my very first sexual experience, was a genuine rape. Unlike Waldman's so-called rape, it was absolutely non-consensual, forced, violent and brutal. I find myself trying to temper my anger at Waldman's casual explanation for why she would name her first experience "rape." But then I ask myself: When I have struggled with the fallout from my rape, which includes depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation, for over 10 years; when it has taken me this long to be able to say, "I was raped" without crying; when it has taken years of therapy and medication to help me deal with flashbacks; when most of the women I know have been raped, molested or sexually harassed, why should I temper my anger?

In the end, Waldman just provided another disservice by not more fully and adequately exploring our society's conflicted obsession with adolescent and gay sexuality.

-- Joy B. Davis

Ayelet Waldman's column today was her strongest by far. The writing is tight, the logic strong, and the emotion honest, rather than insistently sentimental. To my taste, specific personal experiences and opinions are most compelling when the writer applies them to broader questions. Here, Waldman invites her readers to engage with her, not to stare at her. She is challenging us to think about her words, not provoking us to accept or reject her self.

-- judy b.

I found Ayelet Waldman's description of her back-and-forth stances on statutory rape enlightening, especially considering how both liberals and conservatives are quick to call a bungled attempt at sex "rape." However, she commits the same sin that she accuses the Kansas Legislature of -- that "one blow job can make you queer."

Waldman gives no evidence to show that either boy was gay, beyond the fact that they were experimenting, but she repeatedly calls the boys "gay" and "boyfriends." Apparently, even for liberals, one blow job does make you gay.

-- Name withheld

Once again, Ayelet nails it. Another great article. Sex always makes us squeamish -- and when it's outside the conventional, even more so. But experimentation doesn't make one gay, and we should treat it all equally. All teenagers are created equal, so the penalties should be the same across the board.

-- Stephanie

Ayelet Waldman seems to have learned nothing from her adolescent experiences; she is not acknowledging that she made her decisions then with her best judgment at the time, however much she might regret them now. She glorifies her middle-aged ex post facto hypothesizing over what "should" have happened over the reality that making decisions as an adolescent is not the same thing as making decisions as an experienced adult -- that is the point. Adolescents are inexperienced. They gain experience through making -- and learning from -- their own decisions (and yes, mistakes), not from the decisions adults wish to foist on them because they would feel much more comfortable if teenagers would only do as they say as adults, not what they as adolescents themselves, once did.

This is the real trouble with adolescent sexuality in this society; once we grow out of adolescence we adults often wish we had a more ideal sexual initiation experience, and therefore feel justified in doing what we can to prevent other adolescents from going through the confusing, awkward, sometimes painful and occasionally dangerous process of learning to identify their own values, find their own voices -- and -- "drive" their hot-rod bodies, sometimes simultaneously.

Like it or not, Ms. Waldman's soon-to-be-adolescent daughter will likely find the attentions of older men reassuring, empowering and perhaps intoxicating. Like her mother she will probably eschew the awkward fumblings of boys her own age, unimpressed with their cracking voices, pipe cleaner arms and habit of running in scuffling packs. In her hurry to grow up, she will look for affirmation in the eyes of men who seem to recognize and appreciate her for what she desperately wishes to be -- a sophisticated young woman -- and not what she actually is, which is an awkward, insecure teenager faking what she can. The fact that her mother will disapprove of the attentions of older boys and men and feel comfortable with the pipe cleaner boys will place her firmly at odds with her budding daughter's budding vision of herself, thus increasing the likelihood that she will be deflowered by someone her mother considers "inappropriate."

In her desire to "shield" her daughter from bad decisions, Ms. Waldman is upholding the time-honored tradition of denying women the full proprietorship of their bodies and sexuality. Indeed, based on her comments, Ms. Waldman seems to be as uncomfortable with the sexuality of her daughter as the judicial system is uncomfortable with the sexuality of young homosexual men. However, while she considers her "concern" (to stop her daughter from having an inappropriate sexual interaction with an inappropriate partner) to be valid, she rejects the court's selfsame argument behind Limon's penalty  to wit, punishing him for having an inappropriate sexual interaction with an inappropriate partner. In Limon's case, the "concern" is clearly bigotry; in her daughter's, it is just "hindsight." Both reasonings are faulty, and the result to the young people -- restriction of liberty and suppression of sexual identity -- a matter of degree.

Rather than try to control the who, what, when and where of her daughter's coming of age, Ms Waldman would be better occupied to spend her time instilling in her daughter the values of confidence, self-respect, self-restraint and an understanding of the concept of behavioral consequences. In other words, equip her daughter to deal with her emerging sexuality in a way that reduces risk to herself and gives her real power -- the power of garnering her self-esteem and self-respect from having/understanding her own values and making decisions accordingly, rather than confusing the sexual attentions of potentially predatory men with her self-worth.

Then, having done her best, she must sit back and watch her daughter live her own life; she can hope her daughter does not have any experiences that cause her lasting physical or emotional harm; she can hope that her daughter's decisions will lead her, as Ms. Waldman's did, safely out of adolescence and into her maturity, prepared to not just regret but learn from her mistakes.

-- Sandra Miller

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Yes, 17 years is too long a sentence. Yes, the disparity between how same-sex and opposite-sex offenders are treated is just plain wrong. Yes, Limon got screwed by the State of Kansas. But Ayelet Waldman leaves out some important information in her piece on statutory rape: this was Matthew Limon's third conviction, and he had, in the intervening period, been repeatedly warned by the home where he lived.

The previous convictions, which are sealed, were for crimes committed on the same day when Limon was 14. Since the record of those convictions is sealed, we can't know whether Limon was screwed, so to speak, in those cases as well, but there's more to the story than Waldman reveals. With the additional information Limon sounds more like the creepy predator soldier Waldman laments than a hapless Romeo.

I'm writing not to defend Kansas, but because I think that liberals need to be armed with all the facts when we go to battle over a cause.

-- Jim Stoicheff

Ayelet Waldman responds: Letters to the editor have pointed to information that I should have included in my column about Matthew Limon. Matthew had two juvenile convictions for sexual assault. Because juvenile records are sealed, we have no information about the incidents. I did not refer to those convictions for two reasons. One, because they were committed when he was very young, and the records were sealed. Secondly, I made no mention of them because in my view they were not relevant either to Matthew's adult conviction or to the injustice of his sentence. A heterosexual young man with an identical juvenile record would have received no more than a 15-month sentence, not the 17 years Matthew received because the consensual conduct he engaged in was homosexual. However, in failing at least to mention those juvenile convictions I left part of the story untold, and that was an error.

By Salon Staff

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