Pervy Franco faux pas passes too quietly

By Associate Editor

Instead of making headlines for a movie or TV show, actor James Franco gained national attention for an Instagram scandal after he propositioned a 17-year-old girl to grab a hotel room with him. When the girl exposed Franco’s pervy side, he did little to address her complaint but said that he learned his lesson during an April 4 “Kelly and Michael” appearance. He also appeared in an April 12 “Saturday Night Live” skit with Seth Rogen that mocked the ordeal. Franco’s blunder revived arguments regarding age of consent laws, but the arguments on both sides of the debate remain murky at best.

The disparities in each state’s approach to age of consent are overwhelming. There is no national standard, but rather 50 different sets of laws and enforcement guidelines, some of which are simply ridiculous. In Kansas and Indiana, 16-year-olds are considered mature enough to engage in sexual activity with adults, while California and Arizona have set their age at 18. Here in Illinois, the age of consent is 17.

In states that enforce a younger age of consent, 16- and 17-year-olds can legally have sex with adults but are still legally considered adolescents, raising legal questions of whether teens in those states are more emotionally and mentally mature than 16- and 17-year-olds in other states, but the answer is obvious: They aren’t. Those children just happen to live in states that have imbued them with too much responsibility and consequently put them at a greater risk for experiencing the negative effects of sleeping with someone considerably older.

A large age gap between sexual partners can be emotionally damaging, especially when one partner is younger than 18. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, victims of sexual abuse—which includes statutory rape, an instance in which an adult engages in sexual acts with someone too young to give legal consent—are more likely to have negative sexual experiences as adults, suffer from depression and anxiety and contract STDs and STIs. These consequences usually manifest later in life when people reflect back on the trauma, according to RAINN.

The effects of statutory rape need to be addressed. A national age of consent is unlikely to be passed by Congress, but that doesn’t mean states should not revise their own laws. All states should raise the age of consent to 18 to protect young people from being taken advantage of. 

The current system for enforcing age of consent laws is reactive, but it should be protective. Too often, law enforcement is confronted with age of consent violations brought forth by a parent or guardian who decided to file charges on behalf of their child, as evidenced by the dozens of cases in which individuals slightly older than 18 are prosecuted for having sex with their high school-aged partners. High school seniors are often 18-year-olds, so to better protect them from undeserved statutory rape charges, school officials and parents should be required to report suspicions that students have engaged in a sexual relationship with an older person and leave decisions to press charges to law enforcement, similar to the handling of suspected neglect and abuse cases.

States that slap violators with harsh punishments—such as 20-year convictions and required registration as a sex offender—use what are known as Romeo and Juliet laws, statutes that reduce punishments for sexual encounters between people on either side of the age of consent barrier who are close in age. For example, if an 18-year-old has sex with a 16-year-old, the older participant would likely be immune. Every state needs to implement a similar statute to protect age-appropriate couples because the issues with age of consent are not about people sleeping with slightly younger people. Age of consent laws are meant to stop emotionally immature teenagers from having sex with significantly older adults, who should know better than to sleep with minors. At 36 years old, Franco should have known better than to solicit a girl 18 years his junior, as the cliché “age is just a number” does not hold true. People who prey on younger people should be aware of the failings of their inexcusable behavior.

Statutory rape offenders should not only be marked as predators but should also be sentenced according to the severity of their crimes. In Utah, for example, perpetrators face prison sentences as short as five years, which is unacceptable. Rather than punishing offenders with brief jail sentences, statutory rapists should be treated the same way as offenders in molestation crimes. For the purpose of protecting the young, it is only responsible. 

Statutory rape is not something to joke about, despite Rogen’s and Franco’s SNL skit. It is a serious issue that requires national attention. Franco’s indifferent response is indicative of society’s flawed approach to enforcing consent laws and understanding, which is why states need to raise their age of consent to 18—society’s standard for adulthood.