Virginia Battles Statutory Rape

NEW YORK “Isn’t she a little young? ” People have been asking Calvin Klein that for years. Now the Virginia Department of Health is asking it of 18-29-year-old men.

The state is breaking an outdoor and print campaign this month in an effort to reduce the number of statutory rapes. “Sex with a minor. Don’t go there,” state the ads, which will appear in Northern Virginia, Richmond and Roanoke, Va., and in 150 restaurants, bars and retail establishments. Some 255,000 postcards, posters, coasters and napkins will feature the tagline, printed in bold pink-and-white letters against a black background.

“When we started talking to people, 69 percent of folks knew someone who was dating a minor,” said Robert Franklin, outreach coordinator for sexual violence prevention at the Virginia DOH. “People knew it was wrong and illegal, but they didn’t know how wrong.”

The state reviewed studies last year showing that in 1999 and 2000, men over 18 were responsible for 219 births involving 13-14-year-old girls in Virginia. By state law, sex with a child under the age of 14 is a felony.

“Men are swayed by pop culture,” Franklin said, noting that nationwide statistics show men older than 21 are three times more likely than junior-high-school boys to have children with junior-high-aged girls. “Women are told, ‘You should be a sexual object.’ Young females are the epitome of youthful sexiness. Men might think that’s cool.”

Franklin also said men might be inclined to have sex with young girls because they are “sexually clean.” “They might think, ‘Now I don’t have to wear a condom,’ ” he said.

The American Institutes for Research-Prospect Center in Silver Spring, Md., created the $85,000 campaign.

The goal is not to scare men with the legal implications of statutory rape. For now, the DOH simply wants to create awareness. “I don’t know why people break the law,” Franklin said. “If we knew that, we could write a book on it. The billboards will start the process of getting men talking. We want to involve men as allies and use peer pressure to change this norm. It’s going to be a long road.”

The billboards will be up until the end of summer. Following the awareness campaign, Virginia health officials will implement a training video for professionals who work with youths and begin to speak directly with young teens on responsible sexual decisions.