Some men chat online with underage girls (or boys), hoping after an extended conversation to meet them in real life for sex. Society hates them with a passion. It devotes considerable resources to police officers posing as underage girls, hoping to lure them to an encounter where they can be arrested. Laws have been changed so that they are guilty of a crime for expressing the intention to meet for sex, even if there is no real child involved but just a police officer impersonating a child. <Whole TV series> have been based on the appeal of nailing men who commit this crime.
I won't argue that this ought to be legal, but I will argue that the typical case should be a minor crime. Its investigation does not warrant significant police resources, and conviction does not warrant a hefty prison sentence.
Seto's <Internet Sex Offenders> gave some significant factual support to my intuitions about this (pp92-94).
First, Seto notes that the real children involved are hardly ever below the age of 12. In one study (Wolak et al, 2008) there was not a single one. We are not talking about true pedophiles here. There may be some hebephiles, but the majority of these men are attracted to mature women.
Next, he notes that there is remarkably little deception. Only 5% of the men pretended to be teenagers. While some of the rest may have represented themselves as younger than they were, they admitted they were adults. Also, "they might have exaggerated or lied about their interest in long-term romance or lied about their physical appearance or social or relationship status", but there was no lying about their intentions -- the girls knew they were meeting for sex. Apparently many found it rewarding, since 73% had repeat encounters.
Let's remember why we condemn sexual relationships between adults and young teens. If the adult is known to the child and part of their social network, there is awkwardness and the potential for abuse of power by explicit retaliation if the child says no. If the child complains to parents about unwelcome advances, she or he is likely to be met with incredulity and hostility. If the abuser is a close family figure such as a brother or step-father, reporting the abuse risks incredulity on the one hand, and on the other ripping apart the family. The betrayal of trust when it involves a close family member is often devastating.
None of these things applies to a young teen online. If she discovers that a person online is a man who starts turning the conversation in sexual directions, she can simply block him. He has no power over her. Sometimes he will get her to send suggestive or pornographic pictures -- indicating a sexual interest on her part. Some men use these pictures to coerce her into sending more explicit pictures or meeting for sex, threatening to publicize what she has sent him. That is terrible, but there is a name for that crime: blackmail. If police wanted to pose online as teens to catch men committing blackmail, that would at least be more sensible than their current way of operating.
I noted in my last post that some young teens are interested in sex -- these girls clearly are. She is interested in sex (and possibly love), and of her own free will responds to online sexual suggestion or actively searches for it. Although young teens are not legally adults, they in practice have a great deal of autonomy. We know teens with these same desires will often engage in sex with peers. They will sometimes go to bars or other similar places to meet adult men for sex, perhaps lying about their age. If they approached men who whistle at them or leer, they might soon find a sexual partner. In my view such men are guilty of the same minor crime as an online sexual solicitor. While society will often prosecute these men if they are caught, there is much less chance of that. Online interactions are unique in leaving a trail of evidence that can support an airtight prosecution.
Such teens use their autonomy outside of the sexual realm. They can stop studying. They can use dangerous drugs. They can become chronic shoplifters. They can run away from home. They can become involved with gangs. The world is full of dangers and opportunities for them to make bad decisions.
The crime is having sex with a teen who is actively looking for sex. How does the harm from this compare to other crimes? Buying alcohol for someone underage is similar in one key respect -- it is an adult colluding with a minor to break laws. Consider drunk driving, robbery, burglary, or beating someone up in a fight. They are rarely punished with a long prison sentence for a first offense. It is grossly unfair to punish this internet solicitation crime with a lengthy jail term and years more on a sex offender registry.
I have argued repeatedly that pedophilia is unjustly viewed as a thought crime. But these men aren't even pedophiles. It is a delusion to think it is sick for a man to find a sexually mature 13-year-old attractive. Making sexual remarks to strangers or wolf-whistling is highly repugnant. But if we figure that men only do that if they find a girl attractive and that only some men will be rude enough to do it, I think 13-year-olds would estimate that a lot of men find them attractive. In cultures where girls were routinely married off at age 13, I don't believe anyone ever accused the husband of being a pervert if he enjoyed consummating his marriage.
Perhaps these men online are more attracted to 13-year-olds than 21-year-olds, but it seems a minor difference in emphasis. Perhaps some find women their own age intimidating and feel more confident with young teens. This might earn derision from those inclined to be judgmental, but to make it the basis of vindictive criminal penalties is profoundly unjust.