It's a crime


BEFORE A Baltimore judge last week sentenced Dwayne Cedric Raysor to prison for rape, the 31-year-old tearfully explained that he didn't know sex with a willing 12-year-old was against the law. If you find his excuse shocking, you might be more disturbed to find that sexual relations between underage girls and older men are not isolated occurrences in Baltimore. Young boys can be equally vulnerable. These relationships can have devastating consequences for both partners.

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy says her office has prosecuted more than 30 cases of second-degree rape involving girls age 14 and younger who had sex with a man at least four years older - often referred to as statutory rape. City Health Commissioner Peter L. Beilenson cites similarly disturbing statistics. A review of births from 1995 to 1999 to girls 14 and under found that 29.7 percent involved fathers who were at least five years older than the mothers. And those statistics represent only a segment of girls who are sexually active at that age.

A 2004 report on sexual attitudes of black urban youths, conducted through focus groups in Baltimore and eight other cities, found that young girls become involved with older guys because of the financial and social independence they provide. Conversely, young girls may be preferred because they are considered "pure." But these relationships are not exclusive to poor urban youths.

No child under age 14 can legally consent to have sex under Maryland law, and anyone who relies on the "yes" of one so young should know better. A partner who is four years older can be charged with second-degree rape, which carries a 20-year penalty. A person 21 or older who has sex with a 15-year-old can be charged with a sex offense. A conviction carries with it a spot on a national sex offender registry - a designation that would follow a person for life and has been shown to impede efforts to find a job or a place to live.

The public health consequences for girls sexually involved with older boyfriends can be as life-altering. Although studies by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy show that most sexually active teens have sex with peers, an age difference of even three to four years can have a negative impact on girls, and it grows exponentially. Dr. Beilenson says girls under age 14 who are sexually active are more likely to contract a sexually transmitted disease than older peers who are having sex. The girls are less likely to use condoms and more likely to get pregnant and be abused.

An older boyfriend isn't cool; he's a health hazard. A younger girlfriend isn't sweet; she's a potential crime victim.

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