When the D.C. Council voted on a sexual assault reform bill, it was not supposed to be a momentous occasion. It was legislation that, among other things, would have expanded the city's statutory rape law to protect the 50 percent of D.C. youth now unprotected -- similar to laws in 34 states. Yet our meeting was covered by national networks, the Christian Broadcasting Network, local television and radio stations, both dailies and a roomful of confused but concerned citizens. In the end, the more protective provision was defeated with each of us saying, quite genuinely, that we did not wish in any way to encourage teen-age sex. Why all the furor? It had more to do with press coverage of the legislation than with the legislation itself.
First the background: three years ago, when the congressionally created D.C. Law Revision Commission filed many recommendations for reform of the District's basic criminal code, it called for a change in the sexual assault laws. The purpose of the proposal was to enable prosecution of serious sexual abuses not now prosecutable as such. The proposal included provisions to permit prosecutions in cases where the victim is too intoxicated or physically disabled to withhold consent to a sexual act and in cases where a relationship, such as that between doctor and patient or custodian and ward, is misused in order to procure sexual favors. Currently, none of these abuses are prohibited by the District sexual assault laws. The proposal further recommended modernizing the law regarding certain conduct between adults, but it clearly distinguished these provisions from those regarding youth.
The proposal also addressed the statutory rape law. Such laws are designed to protect children from adults by treating any sex, even consensual, as rape. The D.C. law currently prohibits sexual intercourse by a male of any age with a female under 16. While the law protects females, it does not protect young males, although the Children's Hospital Child Protection Unit reports that over a quarter of the sexually abused children are males.
The commission recommended adoption of a model used in 34 jurisdictions. It would define as statutory rape a sexual act by a person of either gender with someone under 16 unless the two are within a certain age of each other. The proposal would simply have changed the criterion from gender to age and, by extending its coverage to males, would have resulted in far wider protection that the current law.
After eight hearings in Congress, the commission recommendations were introduced into the council by five members in 1979. Thousands of notices were sent out by the judiciary committee, more than 100 meetings were attended by council members or staff, and 10 more committee hearings were held before a committee markup was conducted. In all of the testimony, the only issue ever discussed regarding statutory rape was by what criteria to charge someone.
Despite repeated invitations to the media, no coverage was given to the bill until six days before the vote, at which time The Post announced to the city and nation, with a blaring headline, that the purpose of the bill was to "legalize teen-age sex."
To label as legalizing teen-age sex a proposal the net effect of which was to expand, not restrict, the protections of the District's statutory rape law was sensationalist, alarmist, misleading and basically untruthful. The story claimed a purpose of legalization that did not exist. The story also characterized the age differential -- which operated to give greater protection to younger children than to older ones -- as somehow lowering an "age of consent" to 12. Readers were left with the totally false impression that the council was about to permit sexual activity between teen-agers and adults.
Wire services, following The Post lead, told the nation that the District of Columbia was considering some type of teen-age "sexual rights" bill. Calls and stories came from across the nation. tIndicative of the confusion, many inquiries came from jurisdictions that were using the same approach as the council was considering. The Post's editorial page and local broadcast media later tried to clarify things, but by that time the damage was done.
The Post Metro staff, however, exacerbated the sensationalism. In a follow-up story, it interviewed teen-agers to ask whether they supported sexual liberty, a non-issue considering that the official record was full of support from the Children's Hospital Child Protection Unit and the D.C. Commission for Women (now chaired by Alice Tompkins Davis, who was recently named Mother-of-the-Year) -- hardly teen-age sex advocates -- and addressed the real issue of whom to charge for statutory rape and when.
Five years ago, when the Maryland Assembly enacted a similar measure, there was a two-paragraph mention in a Post story with no front-page screaming headline or claim of teen-age sex licensure. The difference between the treatment of the District and Maryland shows either a conscious purpose to sensationalize or a patronizing view of the D.C. community or both. To tell our citizens that a bill that would expand the coverage of a law rather than limit it was "legalizing teen-age sex" was a disservice to them as well as to their legislature.
In a flash, the council was branded as the champion of "teen-age sex." The council never has and never will advocate teen-age sex. But the coverage created a perception, and, as a result of it, the council retained the current statutory rape law with all its inequities. It may be amended to be equitable on the face of it, but it will be difficult to work with if both parties take the Fifth Amendment. Thus the difficult questions that were posed before the controvery remain and will have to be answered at some time in the future. Unfortunately, as we have been taught by past experience, these answers will have to be able to withstand whatever image the media choose to cast upon them.