What makes an adult in America?

You may disagree with Susan Estrich, a journalist who writes on FoxNews.com, but she writes with insight and that demands serious consideration of her points. I take note of her column from yesterday titled, “Is Teacher-Student Sex OK if the Student is 18?”  She’s talking about a very specific topic, I realize, but a larger issue is at play here and I believe she is well on the wrong side of it.

The opening salvo of the article is straightforward enough and I can’t think of any better way to phrase it, so here’s what she said:

Should it be a crime for a public school teacher to have sex with one of her students?

Is that a hard question?

For me it isn’t. The answer is yes.

It’s a particularly easy question where the state, in this case Texas, has passed a simple and straightforward law that makes it a crime, without regard to the age or gender of the student.

But don’t tell that to some of my friends on the panel last night of Fox’s “On the Record,” where I was all alone with host Greta van Susteren in being willing to enforce the law against a 25- year old former beauty contest participant who had sex with one of her students.

What got into my fellow panelists?

Right off the bat there’s constency problem here. The question she asks is “should it be illegal” but then she castigates her opponents for not being “willing to enforce the law” where a law already exists. Is the question a matter of “should the law be enforced” or “should there be such a law?” These are very different questions and it’s perfectly OK to say “yes” to the first and “no” to the second. In fact, as responsible citizens, it might be just as OK to answer “no” to the enforcement of a law if we conclude that the law is harmful to fellow citizens or that the law was passed too swiftly for the public debate. The books are rife with examples of laws that got passed but were not enforced while their validity was being discussed. That usually happens in a court of law, of course, which is where this one should land.

So, to the point: should it be illegal? For me, the question isn’t hard, either. The answer is absolutely, categorically no.

The relationship between student and teacher is, as Ms. Estrich points out, one of trust and power. The teacher wields considerable power over students and those students are supposed to be able to trust their teachers to be on the level with them. Adding sex into that relationship drastically changes the relationship. Ms. Estrich points out, correctly, that “[t]rue love can wait until the end of the term.” Quite so. It’s unethical to not do so. But the question isn’t whether its ethical, it’s whether it should be illegal. That’s where her stance doesn’t pass the standards.

According to Ms. Estrich it is to be considered quite appropriate to send a teacher to jail for up to 20 years if that teacher engages in a sexual relationship with me, a 43-year-old man, if I happen to be taking a class this teacher is teaching. That’s clearly ridiculous. As an adult I am supposed to be considered by our society to be liable for the consequences of my actions. I am accorded the trust by society that the decision I make and the relationships I enter into are those I deem to be valid and in my interest. If I’m wrong, that’s my problem and I take the heat for it.

Everything changes if, instead of being 43, I’m 13. I’m not an adult in the eyes of society and the law. I cannot be held liable for the consequences of my decisions at that age, barring truly extraordinary circumstances. A teacher that engaged in a sexual relationship with me, as a 13-year-old, would have not a single leg to stand on, legal, ethical, or moral.

Something happens somewhere between 13 and 43 that changes how society is supposed to view my decision to hop into the sack with someone, legally. That something is this: I’m an adult and it’s none of your business. Sure, you may think it’s not appropriate but that’s your opinion. You’re entitled to it. You’re not entitled to toss someone into jail because, in your opinion, some adult citizen of this country shouldn’t be going horizontal with another adult citizen. I would suggest that Ms. Estrich wouldn’t sit too still for someone telling her that her judgement about who to engage sexually shouldn’t be trusted because of her age. Once she was considered an adult, that kind of assessment is hers to make.

The real question is who we consider to be adults. Adults are to be given the respect to make their own decisions, right or wrong. Adults are to be held accountable for the consequences of those decisions. Adults do not blame others for the consequences that accrue as a result of their own decisions. So, if a 13-year-old isn’t an adult but a 43-year-old is, when did the line get crossed? 40? 35? 30? In the 20’s somewhere? No, the answer to that is already on record. It’s 18. At 18 years of age a citizen of this country is considered an adult in the eyes of the law. That person can enter into contracts without the permission of anyone else. That person can sign legally binding documents that require them to pay for something (a house, or the balance on a credit card), that require someone else to pay them (an employment contract), and to engage in the defense of this nation. In fact, the only thing an 18-year-old citizen can’t do legally that I, as a 43-year-old citizen, can is walk into a bar and order a beer.

That’s another discussion, by the way.

Ms. Estrich’s stance would have you believe that our 18-year-old fellow citizens should be trusted to know when they can buy a house, when they’re getting a good deal in signing a work contract, and to understand the ramifications of signing up for military service but that they can’t be trusted with their own intimacy. I find that stance to be entirely condescending and completely subjective to the age of the observer. These are not qualities of a good law and it should never have been passed.

I believe that it should, however, be enforced. It is, after all, the law. The enforcement of such a law would enable those directly affected by it to bring that law into the courts on appeal and get it struck down as it should be.