Where Fundamentalism and the Law Meet Somebody is Headed to Prison

Legislators in Virginia are contemplating changes to the law in response to MacDonald v. Moose (4th Cir. 2013), a case that struck down Virginia’s law that prohibited non-genital sex generally. Specifically, legislation has been introduced that would make it a felony for an adult to engage in non-genital sex with a minor between age 15 and 17, while vaginal intercourse is a misdemeanor. Vaginal sex among 15-17 years olds is perfectly legal, while non-genital sex would be a crime. Prostitution would be a misdemeanor as long as the prostitute and the john engage in vaginal intercourse; any other type of sex would be a felony.

In Georgia, we draw equally if not more draconian distinctions between genital and non-genital sex. For instance, public indecency covers “an act of sexual intercourse” in a public place. That crime is a misdemeanor under O.C.G.A. § 16-6-8. However, the offense of sodomy in a public place is a felony punishable by not less than one and no more than 20 years to serve in prison. Bowers v. Hardwick struck down Georgia’s sodomy law, but only to the extent that it applies to that sexual act in a private place. Public acts of sodomy are still illegal. See Mauk v. Ga. A few years ago, I was unsuccessful in an 8th Amendment challenge to a 10 year (without parole) sentence for a young man who was convicted for a voluntary act of non-genital sex with another teen.

Professor Volokh writes this about proposed changes to the law in Virginia:

I realize that some people … view nongenital sex as immoral — but even those people, I assume, are uninclined to outlaw things (unkindness, dishonesty, not honoring your father and mother, coveting your neighbor’s wife or property, and the like) just because they are immoral. Indeed, even people who view premarital sex generally as immoral tend not to be inclined to pass new laws banning all fornication. What is there about nongenital sex that makes it more properly subject to outlawing, especially given the perverse incentives that such a prohibition would create?

If the legislation passes, then Virginia, like Georgia will treat non-genital sex with a harsh sentencing scheme versus acts of vaginal sex. It is unclear why the legislature would incentivize teenage intercourse at the risk of unwanted pregnancy and the spread of disease, other than that such a scheme is an expression of the fundamentalist religious beliefs of individuals in power (welcome to our little red state). Of course, it’s difficult to justify the lengthy incarceration of teens based upon the decision to violate the religious sensibilities of state representatives and senators. Nevertheless, in a moment of passion between teens or between adults in certain situations, the message from our wise legislators is that the actors had better “go all the way.”

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