03.19.09

The Teen Rape Double Standard

After a 17-year-old boy had sex with his 14-year-old girlfriend he was charged with a felony for statutory rape. When a 17-year-old girl in the same town commited the same crime, she was charged with far less. Was the boy the victim of gender bias?

After a 17-year-old boy had sex with his 14-year-old girlfriend, he was charged with a felony for statutory rape. When a 17-year-old girl in the same town commited the same crime, she was charged with far less. Was the boy the victim of gender bias?

Alan Jepsen was playing videogames at his home in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, when the cops came knocking on his door. He was handcuffed in front of his sister and thrown in jail. In the words of his attorney, Jeffrey Purnell, “This child, this 17-year-old high-school kid, had to spend a week in jail—they locked him up and they put him in jail with grown-ups.”

His crime: Having sex with his 14-year-old girlfriend. And, perhaps, being a boy.

“These are kids,” said Purnell. “It’s ridiculous. Lawmakers criminalize common behavior among children, and it’s frustrating, really.”

The day after Alan's arrest, Sheboygan authorities arrested Norma Guthrie, also 17, for having sex with her 14-year-old boyfriend. Norma, however, did not have to spend a single day in jail. She was released immediately, on signature bond, while Alan was held on a $1,000 cash bond, which his family could not afford. Sheboygan County Assistant District Attorney Jim Haasch is handling both cases.

The disparity in the punishment of these 17-year-olds, both accused of having sex with the 14-year-olds they were dating, goes much deeper. Haasch charged Alan with a Class C felony, which, according to court records obtained by The Daily Beast, carries a maximum prison sentence of 40 years. Norma, on the other hand, was charged only with a misdemeanor, which carries a maximum sentence of nine months in jail.

The cases caught the attention of the local press, generating a heated debate over whether Alan is being given harsher treatment simply because he is a boy. “After all,” said Purnell, “this isn’t one district attorney in Tennessee and one in New York deciding how to charge these cases. This wasn’t even one district attorney in one county in Wisconsin and another county in Wisconsin. No, this was the same guy who charged these two cases.”

The district attorney’s office refused to comment, but experts say it would not be far-fetched to assume that Alan has been the victim of bias. According to Dr. Marty Klein, author of America’s War on Sex, “the double standard is not unusual. It is unusual to find such an extraordinarily clear example of it, but the philosophy behind the phenomenon is very common.”

Last month, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that a 14-year-old high-school freshman accused of statutory rape was the victim of gender discrimination in a case involving him and three girls with whom he had been sexually active. Two of the girls were 12, and one was 11.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Margaret Marshall pointed out that even though both the boy and girls involved were under the age of consent, “the boy was the only child charged with statutory rape, or any offense, as a result of the incidents alleged, and he was the only male among the four children.” Furthermore, she added, “the district attorney affirmatively declined to bring charges against the female children where the facts described by the girls could be viewed as contravening those same laws by them.”

While Suzanne Goldberg, who teaches sexuality and gender law at Columbia Law School, acknowledged that “every case has to be dealt with individually,” she said she believes “a state would be inclined to punish young men more harshly than young women because young men are often seen as aggressors in adolescent sexual contact.”

According to Dr. Klein, however, the double standard emerged from the historical treatment of women as the property of men. “Women were not considered to be sexually autonomous beings,” he said. “Their sexuality was never considered to be a weapon. It was never considered that it could damage somebody else’s property. But men have the ability to damage another man’s property with their sexuality by violating their daughter or by violating their wife. So just bring that system of thinking forward into the present day and you get 17-year-old boys that are still considered to have the potential of damaging something with their sexuality, while it’s much harder for people to imagine a 17-year-old girl causing harm with her sexuality.”

That seems to be what District Attorney Haasch had in mind when he charged Alan and Norma. There is nothing in the record to explain why Alan should be treated so severely. The difference in age between Norma and her boyfriend, for example, is actually greater than that between Alan and his girlfriend. Although both perpetrators were 17 and both victims 14 at the time of the alleged abuse, Norma is two years and 11 months older than her boyfriend, whereas Alan is two years and four months older than his girlfriend. Court records also show that Alan admitted to having had sex with his girlfriend “two or three times,” while Norma said she and her boyfriend had sex “somewhere between 10 and 15 times, but she was not exactly sure.”

Alan’s 19 year-old sister, Kathy Jepsen, has a simple explanation for the charges. “It’s bullshit [is] what it really comes to,” she said in an email, adding that “our court system is messed up in Sheboygan.” Asked if she believes young men deserve harsher punishment, she responded: “No, I don’t believe that; we should all take responsibility for what we do, whether you’re a boy or girl. We are all human, but where the law is concerned we are not equal. They should change that.”

According to Kathy, Alan's girlfriend told him she was 16. The criminal complaint against Alan confirms this, and reveals that his girlfriend lied to the police, as well. She was at Alan and Kathy’s apartment at the time of the arrest, and told the officers twice that she was 16. One of them “then advised [his girlfriend] that if she was not truthful with the officer, she possibly would be arrested for obstructing if she lied about her age, at which point [his girlfriend] looked down at her feet, looked back at the officer, and said she was 14. Immediately when the defendant [Alan] learned of this, his body tensed up and he got a scowl on his face.”

At that point, said Kathy, “I was pissed off and wanted to hit her, but there were three cops in my apartment, so I couldn’t.”

Kathy’s anger is understandable. “This issue has embarrassed our family,” she said. “I mean, how can you give somebody your name, or face your co-workers? People look at you different.”

Purnell shares her frustration, and points out that the root of the problem is not the double standard, but the fact that Alan or Norma could be prosecuted to begin with. “These are kids,” he said. “It’s ridiculous. Lawmakers criminalize common behavior among children, and it’s frustrating, really.”

Dr. Klein agrees. “What is fundamentally not fair,” he said, “is treating consensual sex between teenagers as a crime in the first place. Once you criminalize sex between teenagers, then it’s only a matter of how much harm you’re going to cause; how much destruction you’re going to bring into people’s lives. In the case of the 17-year-old girl, you’re bringing in a small amount of destruction into her life. In the case of the 17-year-old boy, you’re bringing a lot of destruction into his life.”

Alan has not yet been convicted, and his lawyer is negotiating a plea agreement. In the meantime, as Norma and other 17-year-olds look forward to finishing high school, Alan is left wondering if he will be able to come back for his senior year. He might be in prison by then.

Constantino Diaz-Duran is a writer living in Manhattan. He has written for the New York Post, the Washington Blade, El Diario NY and the Orange County Register.