I recently posted my personal rule for my kids when it comes to having boyfriends or girlfriends sleep over: they have to be dating for at least one year. If that happens to be at the age of 16, then so be it. If they’re going to have sex, I prefer they do it in the safety of our home. But when I spoke with an American friend of mine about this the other day, he said that in the United States, I could be put in jail for that. I was shocked. He explained that in the U.S, there are laws that, for example, make it illegal for two 17-year-olds to have sex, and who if caught in the act, could be arrested. After finding out that for a simple blog post I could be considered an accessory to this crime, I wanted some more answers. I asked Maria Frick to help me research the topic, and she found that apparently U.S law has stayed true to its Puritan roots, though what Americans do behind closed doors, or on Spring Break vacations, is another story.

No one denies the fact that the United States has paved the way for many of the democratic principles used in the developed world today, and that freeing oppressed countries and spreading “liberty and justice for all” is as American a pastime as baseball. But the politics back home, at least those laws dealing with Americans´ sexual freedoms, are surprisingly old-fashioned. With such revered traditions as the wet t-shirt contest, and an insatiable demand for porn, it’s hard to believe that the US government still has the power to referee the sex lives of its citizens. A bit ironic? I think so.

And while 18 states and Puerto Rico can impose a sentence of up to ten years in prison for certain sexual acts such as sodomy, oral sex and paraphilia, are these laws really upholding the “strong moral backbone” of the United States? When couples need to ask the Supreme Court´s permission to have sex, maybe that´s a sign that something is wrong.
An example of the power of these laws is the court case “Lawrence and Garner vs. Texas.” When Houston police were called to the home of John Lawrence in 1998 on a neighbor’s false report of a “weapons disturbance,” they found Lawrence and his male partner Tyron Garner having sex, arrested the men, held them overnight in jail and charged them $200 dollars each for violating the “Homosexual Conduct Law” of Texas. The couple brought their unfortunate case to the Texas Appellate Court, then to the Texas Criminal Appellate Court without luck. Finally the case reached the Supreme Court and in 2003, judges decided that the men had been treated unfairly and that they had the right to act as they wish in their own home. Since then, the majority of U.S sodomy laws have been deemed unconstitutional.

Taking into account that many of these sex laws were created to protect people from sexual abuse and rape, and that the rules vary greatly from state to state, I was still surprised by the severity of sex laws for minors in the United States. The statutory rape law, in theory, would penalize an 18-year-old girl for having sex with her 17-year-old boyfriend. In some states, it’s even considered illegal for two people under age 18 to have sex. The argument? In a country where teens can earn a license to drive a car at 16, lawmakers reason that kids under 18 are unable to consent to sexual acts; that they are too immature to decide for themselves if they are ready for sex and with whom. That said, the majority of American teens are sexually active by the time they graduate high school, and statistics show that they start earlier than kids in other Western countries. I wonder: Could the strictness of these laws actually be a cause of such sexually active young people?

And when states like California attempt to combat teen pregnancy with harsher statutory rape laws, it seems a much simpler and less invasive technique would be to boost the quality of sexual education classes and make condoms and other contraceptives available to young people. Then teens would be informed enough to decide for themselves if they’re ready for sex, and if so, know how to protect themselves.
In many ways, the United States is a pretty liberal country. And I think it’s safe to say that I am more pro-American than the average European, after I, as my readers know, lived there for 18 years. But with time, instead of advancing it seems the USA is taking steps backwards when it comes to such social issues. In Spain we’ve got gay marriage while Americans need a lawyer present before they take their partners to bed.

Follow Martin Varsavsky on Twitter: twitter.com/martinvars

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