Opinion writer March 11, 2013

Melissa King’s trial-by-Internet seems to be ending. Last week the media were all over the story of the former Miss Delaware Teen USA, said to be “disgraced” by the revelation of an adult video she allegedly made in 2012, shortly after her 18th birthday. A hard-core Web site reportedly paid her $1,500.

King forfeited her title — and endured worldwide ogling, ridicule and moralizing. “[M]any wonder if the girl next door was someone else entirely behind closed doors,” ABC News intoned.

Charles Lane is a Post editorial writer, specializing in economic policy, federal fiscal issues and business, and a contributor to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

Yet no one has asked: Why is it even legal to cast an 18-year-old in a sexually explicit movie?

Eighteen is, for most purposes, the age of majority. You can vote, serve in the military and so on. When Congress set 18 as the minimum age for porn “actors” in 1984 and, four years later, required producers to document performers’ ages and identities, lawmakers’ goal was to fight child pornography — by defining it precisely.

Still, I would think that having sex with a stranger for money and on camera belongs on the short list of risky behaviors that one can’t legally engage in before age 21. That list includes: buying a handgun from a federally licensed dealer; gambling in most casinos; working as a stripper in a bar; and smoking pot in Colorado. Porn-acting’s first cousin, prostitution, is legal in 11 Nevada counties, but nine don’t license anyone under 21.

Heck, Carnival Cruise Lines won’t even let under-21s book a stateroom. (That’s a contractual limitation, not a law, but the courts apparently enforce it.)

And, of course, the drinking age is 21. In Delaware, Melissa King isn’t old enough to enter a liquor store.

Such rules reflect the sensible judgment that some choices can’t be fully entrusted to men and women still transitioning to adulthood. If you doubt this wisdom, consider King’s explanation for doing the film: “I thought it would be fun, and . . . I needed the money.”

When Congress set the porn-participation age at 18, three decades ago, it took a significant investment to make, distribute and store porn — mainly on paper, film or videotape.

This was before cellphone cameras, before social media, before Kim Kardashian. Nowadays, mistakes like King’s are much easier to make but much harder to erase.

To be sure, adult media enjoy some constitutional protection, as they should. Forcing 18-year-old would-be porn stars to grow up three more years might limit freedom of expression — for them and for those who make not only money but also some artistic or political point by exhibiting films of 18- to 21-year-olds engaged in sex acts.

But we’re talking about a justifiable regulation of speech, which the Supreme Court has upheld, not censorship. If Congress raised the porn-participation age, I doubt the courts would favor the marginal First Amendment interests on the other side.

The commercial porn industry attracts its share of free spirits but also exploits more than its share of damaged ones. Linda Lovelace, the unhappy subject of a new Hollywood biopic, began her journey to the set of “Deep Throat” in a troubled home.

News stories about King noted that she was in foster care between the ages of 12 and 18. Not spelled out was the fact that Delaware law prescribes foster care for children whose parents abused them sexually or physically, or neglected to provide them food, clothing and education.

We don’t know exactly why authorities separated King from her parents. (Her lawyer, J. Gregory Hannigan, declined to comment.) The fact that they were never reunited implies a pretty serious problem. Nor do we know whether King suffers from post-traumatic stress, as foster children do at a disproportionately high rate. It’s a fair guess, though, that she suffered a lot in the first two-thirds of her life — and that all the tiaras in the world could never compensate.

“Boxes of filled up journals from when I wrote everyday,” she mused on Twitter, “not once have I been able to open up and reopen those times nor let them go.”

If there’s a scandal here, it is not King’s conduct but that roughly 25,000 foster children, like her, turn 18 each year without being adopted. They “age out” of state care and fend for themselves.

Such youth face “higher risk for homelessness, unemployment, illness, incarceration, welfare dependency, and sexual and physical victimization than their peers,” according to a 2008 report by the National Association of Counties. The federal Foster Care Independence Act funds scholarships and services for foster care “alumni” ages 18 to 21. But their needs often remain unmet.

Strange, isn’t it? One federal law recognizes the immaturity and vulnerability of some 18- to 21-year-olds, but another — the law setting the porn age at 18 — does not. Congress should change that.

Read more from Charles Lane’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.