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Friday, August 25, 2000

Girls for sale

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Kelly Hill is one of the founders of Sisters Offering
Support, a peer-counseling group for women leaving
the sex trade. Hill says Hawaii's low age of consent
does have an impact on the number of teen-age prostitutes.

Hawaii’s age
of consent is too
low, advocates say

State law was intended to
avoid criminalizing teens that
choose to engage in consensual sex

Third of three parts
Day 1 | Day 2

By Christine Donnelly

Hawaii's age of sexual consent is 14, the lowest in the United States, and that makes it easier for predatory older men to exploit young teenagers, says a national legal advocate for children.

"It's quite illuminating that other states have upgraded their statutes in the past few years, but Hawaii has not," said Howard Davidson, director of the American Bar Association's Center for Children and the Law. "There is a piece of law reform work to do there."

Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia provided criminal penalties for having sex with teen-agers under age 16, especially if the defendant was older, according to a 1997 report by the Washington-based center. The next most common age of consent was 18, held by 14 states, followed by five states at 17, two states at 15 and one state -- Hawaii -- at 14, according to the report.

Davidson said some states may have changed their laws since the report, but none lowered the age to 14. "If anything, the trend has been to raise the age," he said in a telephone interview.

Past attempts to raise Hawaii's age have been met with opposition from medical and social workers who feared such a change could criminalize consenting sex between teen-agers, labeling them as sex offenders if convicted and deterring them from getting birth control, abortions, prenatal care or treatment for sexually transmitted diseases.

But Davidson said other states have avoided that problem by including "age differentials" in their sexual assault laws, targeting defendants who are much older than their minor sex partners. For example, in several states listed as having the age of consent at 16, criminal penalties are provided only if the defendant is several years older than the minor, he said.

State Sen. Avery Chumbley, co-chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he has unsuccessfully pushed bills to raise Hawaii's age of consent for the past four years and would try again next session. A roundtable of experts from law enforcement, healthcare, social services and the legal profession are discussing the issue now, he said.

"You're not going to be able to stop teenagers from having sex with each other, that's not what it's about,"Chumbley said. "But we should be able to do more to help that certain segment of the population that is being exploited by a much older adult."

Kelly Hill, founder of the peer-counseling group Sisters Offering Support, which helps prostitutes leave the sex trade, said Hawaii's low age "does have an impact on the girls being lured into the sex industry."

One way pimps get young teen-agers into the sex trade is by dating them first, earning their trust by making them feel loved and then exploiting and abusing them, she said.

"It usually starts with (girls) dating older men, not in their teens, but in their 20s or 30s, even 40s and the girls' parents have no legal recourse to stop it," Hill said. She said raising the age would give parents more legal leverage and likely inhibit some of the men.

But others said increasing social services to at-risk teen-agers is at least as important as strengthening the law, and that legislators should examine the application and effectiveness of other states' laws before changing Hawaii's.

"We really come from the place of wanting to protect vulnerable teen-agers from exploitation," but the question is whether that is best done through tougher laws or by providing more social services, said Adriana Ramelli, director of Honolulu's Sex Abuse Treatment Center.

She noted that statutory rape cases are notoriously hard to prosecute.

"A lot of times, the girls are very reluctant witnesses,"Ramelli said. "In her eyes, it's not a sex crime, it's a love relationship. That leaves juries with lots of reasonable doubt."

Others said existing laws, such as contributing to the delinquency of a minor or promoting prostitution, could be used in some cases that don't qualify as statutory rape. Still others voiced fears of selective enforcement, citing mainland research that found the girls themselves and men who are ethnic minorities were historically the most common targets of complaints.

Davidson said those concerns could be addressed while also doing more to prevent sexual exploitation. In doing its own survey, the center cited studies showing the younger a girl starts having sex, the larger the age gap between her and her partner, the more likely the sex is to have been forced, and the more likely it is to result in pregnancy.

The center's survey found that girls with troubled home lives were particularly vulnerable to destructive sexual relationships with older men, something SOS's Hill has seen in her teenage clients in Honolulu.

Absent a stricter law, Hill tries to help them understand that while attention from an older man may seem flattering at first, "most of the time ... they're dating them not because they're special ... or they're beautiful but because they're easier to control and manipulate."

Changing laws
to protect teens

Here are some ways states have changed their statutory rape laws in the past few years, according to a legislative handbook created by the American Bar Association's Center on Children and the Law and the U.S. Justice Department's Office for Victims of Crime.

Bullet Raising the age of the minor protected under the law: North Carolina and Pennsylvania raised the age of sexual consent to 16. North Carolina did so by creating different offenses based on the age of the minor and the age gap between the minor and the defendant.

Bullet Age gaps or differentials: Numerous states now take into consideration the age difference between the sex partners. For example, in North Carolina, if the minor is above a certain age, sex is a crime only if the defendant is five years older than the minor. The age gap is four years in Pennsylvania and seven years in Florida.

Bullet Targeting defendants who are much older than the minors they have sex with: Delaware increased the possible sentence when the defendant is 10 or more years older than a minor under 16, and Georgia increased the prison sentence to a mandatory 10 years when the defendant is 21 years old or older. Florida outlawed people age 24 and up from having sex with anyone under 17.

Bullet Additional penalties: California has fines ranging from $2,000 to $25,000 for statutory rape. The amount depends on the age of the defendant and the age gap between the defendant and the minor.

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