The Victims of Blowjobs
In 2007, the Georgia State Supreme Court released Genarlow Wilson from prison, after he had served 2 years of his 10 year sentence. The court concluded that his sentence was cruel and unusual punishment.
His crime? As a 17 year old, Wilson had accepted consensual oral sex from a 15 year old (the age of consent being 16). The irony? Having penetrative sex with the girl would have netted him a mere misdemeanor with no sex offender registration (because he was himself younger than 18 at the time). The fact that it was oral sex made it a felony with a minimum sentence of 10 years in prison. (Note that until 1998, oral sex between a married couple in Goergia was punishable by up to 20 years in prison).
That silly little detail in Georgia law (that oral sex — i.e. “sodomy” — was considered a felony while vaginal penetration was consider a misdemeanor) was amended as a result of the publicity from this case. However, the lawmakers specifically chose the update not to apply retroactively, meaning that people like Wilson would not have their conviction overturned. In other words, anyone convicted under this crazy law would still remain a sex offender for life.
Wilson got out of jail only by appealing to the Georgia Supreme Court, which determined his sentence cruel and unusual punishment, given the current status of the law. He is still a convicted felon, but at least does not have to linger in jail another eight years. Others in a similar situation have not had the same benefit of the publicity that Wilson received.
For example, Wendy Whitaker is a 29-year-old woman in Georgia who has been listed as a sex offender for over a decade because when she was a sophomore in high school, she gave another sophomore a blowjob. She had just turned 17; he was about to turn 16. Despite the recent turn-around in Georgia law, she is stuck a convicted felon, stuck on the sex offender list, because the lawmakers didn’t want to make the new law apply retroactively.
Whitaker is suing to have her sex offender status removed, on the grounds of cruel and unusual punishment. Meanwhile, she is being forced to vacate her house because there happens to be a church not too far away, and children congregate there. Because she happened to give a blowjob to someone her own age when she was a high school sophomore, she may be forced to foreclose on her house 12 years later, still haunted by the insanity of archaic sodomy laws that treat oral sex as a perversion.
Defending the Law
It’s good to see that some modicum of common sense eventually helped mitigate this tragedy for Wilson, and may finally remove the burden of sex offender status from people like Whitaker. Backwards sodomy laws are finally being amended and overturned, their insane and arbitrary puritanism being toned down to a less damaging level.
Still, I find myself in awe of comments like this one, in response to Whitaker’s story. Quote:
“I don’t have any sympathy for her. People need to get it that when you’re an adult (17 is apparently considered ‘adult’ for sexual interactions in Georgia) then you should not have sex with minors. Everyone can come up with these exceptions that are not ‘that bad’; but if you start making exceptions, then a whole bunch of people will go for the loopholes. If you are an adult in your state, even by one day, then DO NOT have sex with a minor. That means even if the minor is just under the age of consent and you are just over the age of consent. Don’t do it. Period. Forget her.” (emphasis added)
Get rid of exceptions. Ignore the complexities of reality.
Presumably this commenter would prefer us to treat a 40 year old raping a 7 year old the exact same as a 17 year old accepting proffered sexual favors from someone their own grade level in school. Why make an exception for two kids having sex together by giving a lighter sentence that reflects the lighter nature of the crime?
Maybe we should get rid of distinctions like first degree murder, second degree murder and manslaughter. Someone died at your hands, that is all that matters. To paraphrase the commenter above: everyone can come up with exceptions like manslaughter that are not ‘that bad’ (compared to first degree murder); but if you start making exceptions, then a whole bunch of people will go for the loopholes.
The absurdity here is unbelievable, because it shows how mindlessly some people will follow laws that are laid down for them, no matter how unfair or arbitrary. The commenter seems to implicitly be saying that even if he sees a difference in the degree of acts deemed criminal by the state, the punishment should not take those differences under consideration.
This is a dangerous mindset, because it threatens to reify laws until they are accepted unquestioned. People cease to see laws as administrative dictates set down by a state, presumably representing the general feeling of the populace that some act requires punishment by the state’s force, but instead see laws as absolute rules not to be questioned, adjusted or fixed.
The former view takes into account that the general feeling of the populace may change (to see oral sex as not significantly worse than penetration, for example), and thus laws can be amended to take these details into account. It’s somewhat of a realist view of laws. Keeping that perspective in mind helps us see that just because something is illegal doesn’t mean it is wrong or unethical, nor does the law’s punishment always fit the crime — laws are made by fallible humans based on the popular sentiment of the time (or a past time).
The other view, absolute acceptance of laws as they happen to stand, without considering exceptions (such as injustice in the way the law applies to different situations), ignores the complexities of reality and removes any critical thinking from the process.
Laws are absolute.
Authority is absolute.
Autonomy is dealt yet another blow.
Rules are generally context-free. I find it interesting, for example, that when you’re caught speeding a cop will ask you if there is an emergency you have to attend to. I find it interesting that I could theoretically say, “yes, my mom fell down and I have to pick her up and take her to the hospital.” Theoretically, the cop would let me go. Now, if I were black or if I were in some category that I could be prejudged negatively by the cop, I may perhaps be dealt with more skeptically.
Ambiguity in the enforcement of the law creates a bubble of power in the discretion of the enforcer. If only 1 out of every 10,000 blowjobs between 17 and 15 year olds is punished, then some other factor besides the actual crime is what you are being punished for. To be the one guy that gets caught is automatically cruel.
No kidding. That’s the weird thing about laws — how fuzzy their enforcement is.
We still have tons of sodomy laws on the books at the state level that were overturned at the federal level by Lawrence v Texas (2003). Or for that matter just a bunch of crazy old laws (the subject of joke email forwards) that someone could in fact be punished for — even if years later the courts would overturn the law as unconstitutional. It may seem like a minor thing to still have those unjust laws sitting around, but if you’re the rare sucker getting prosecuted by them (and only freed, or partially freed, after a couple years in jail), it’s not cool.
Yes, cops can use discretion to let us get off for minor infractions, like speeding 7 mph over the limit. I’m not sure I’d feel better off in a world of automatic robotic enforcement, “fair” as it might be (though at least we might be more careful about the laws we make! … or would we?). Discretion does give the cops power over us.
And the worst part is no one human can possibly know or comprehend the relation between all domestic laws that apply to them, and frankly a savvy enough cop could probably catch you in violation of *something* even if they can’t pin what they want to on you. Which is why I end up sighing and “voluntarily” giving up my civil liberties by letting a cop search my car in exchange for a warning instead of a speeding ticket I can’t afford — he has the power to coerce me into making a “voluntary” decision to give up my civil rights.
Frustrating. But I think the worst part of all is that some people don’t realize or acknowledge the arbitrary nature of the system. Or that people support any law on the books simply because it is the law. As if laws were ahistorical and eternal, rather than historical, temporary things put into place by normal people, often with not entirely good intentions.
But back on topic: you’re exactly right. It’s cruel and unusual to give extreme punishments to the one unlucky sucker who gets prosecuted for a crime that probably the vast majority of people in our society have committed.
Which begs the question why we don’t just get rid of these laws in the first place. Or at least decriminalize things like this — slap a fine and some community service onto generally harmless things (like teens exploring their sexuality together, or people using marijuana) and the societal costs, as well as unbalanced penalties, go down. But people still want to not just moralize but legalize their ancient fear of sex, etc.
Just a rant:
I remember reading about and watching the Wilson case when they finally released him from prison. I just found the entire situation completely ridiculous. The girl and her family even spoke publicly about how wrong his conviction was. Thanks for the post!
PS – Good thing he wasn’t selling sex toys in Alabama, then he’d really be screwed.
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