in Massachusetts - Nita starts to shush her daughter, but realizes the not-quite-2-year-old has gotten over the dreaded H-I-J-K hump and is rushing through L-M-N-O-P. This is no time for shushing. "That's good!" she enthuses. "Q-R-S ..." Deena picks it back up and finishes out the song, with her mother's help. "Now, go and look at a book until I'm done, okay?" The toddler leaves the small bedroom to join her grandmother in the living room. Nita (not her real name) stands and closes the door. "Her father is here in the neighborhood," says the 17-year-old Massachusetts girl. "I guess I've known him for years. When I was 13, he started paying attention to me. I thought it was cool, kind of exciting, you know? I told my friends, this older boy is interested in me!" That boy was 23 at the time. "What did he want with a 13-year-old?" Nita asks now. "Why didn't he have a girlfriend his own age? I don't know why that didn't occur to me then. He didn't have a job, he didn't have squat, but he was an older man. I was young and stupid and easy to manipulate." He began flattering her, inviting her over to play video games at his mother's house. He told her he loved her, that someday they would get married. She found out that he already had two illegitimate children, but she says that didn't bother her. They talked about having a baby together, and by the time she was 14, she was pregnant. Her family pressured her to abort the baby, but when she saw the mangled remains in a stainless steel dish, she determined to have another. And within a year, she did. She was in the hospital, in labor with Deena, when she learned the baby's father already had another girlfriend. "I guess that's when it started to hit me," she says now. "I had in my mind that we'd be a perfect, happy family. I didn't know what all he was taking away from me." Jonell Johnson, the stout nurse-manager of the Boston-area crisis pregnancy center where Nita found help, lowers her voice to make her point. "There's an old-fashioned word for that: seduction. And there used to be laws against it; remember the word jailbait?" That word could find its way back into common usage in the commonwealth; Massachusetts is the latest state dusting off its old statutory rape laws as part of an effort to reduce teen pregnancies. As its legislature convenes this week, it will consider a new set of laws strengthening its statutory rape laws and setting aside funds to help prosecutors go after statutory rapists. Statutory rape is defined as sex with a minor, who, in the eyes of the law, cannot consent to sexual acts with an adult. In the eyes of society, though, the issue has often been seen as no big deal. Five years ago, Jerry Seinfeld was able to ignore criticism about his relationship with a 16-year-old girl (he was then 37). And just two years ago, Michael Kennedy (son of the late Robert Kennedy) got away with an ongoing affair with his baby sitter, even though the affair began when she was 14 and he was 34. But news from several states indicates that attitudes may be changing. Thought it's still too early to predict a national trend,the signs are at least hopeful. In contrast to the collective shrug of years past, recent months have seen a rash of high-profile statutory rape convictions:
- A youth roller hockey coach in San Diego pleaded guilty to statutory rape of a 15-year-old girl. Paul Daniels, 35, also admitted he gave her marijuana.
- A Missouri broker was busted for allegedly having sex with a 13-year-old girl he "met" in an America Online chatroom. Mark Schmitz lured the girl to his house by telling her he owned a modeling agency.
- In Fayetteville, N.C., a woman was sentenced to six months in prison for having sex with two boys, ages 14 and 15. Laurie Rehrer, 33, was a teacher at the boys' school.
- And in Alameda County, Calif., sheriff's deputy Karl Arndt, 32, was charged with unlawful sex with a minor (his state's term for statutory rape) after his 16-year-old neighbor told her parents and investigators she had four encounters with him. Mr. Arndt was arrested, but not before the girl's father went after him with a baseball bat. The teen pregnancy problem is inextricably linked to statutory rape. "You can't address the one without addressing the other," says Matt Daniels, who heads the Massachusetts Family Institute. "We know that two-thirds of the babies born each year to teenage mothers are fathered by men age 20 or older. That's a crime, and we must treat it as such." Four years ago, WORLD reported that a few states and counties had begun enforcing statutory rape laws again. Based on their successes, other jurisdictions are following suit. "Statutory rape is just another name for child abuse," says Mr. Daniels, whose family policy group is urging the state legislature to toughen its laws further. "We have the data and statistics to show how damaging it is, but this is about more than statistics and bringing down the teen pregnancy numbers. It's about protecting our children." He points to California and its four-year-old program to prosecute "predatory sex." It was in California, in fact, that researchers first confirmed the link between statutory rape and teen pregnancy. In 1993, the University of California at Irvine studied 46,500 births to school-aged mothers. Researchers found that two-thirds of those babies were fathered by "adult, post-school men." On average, the fathers were 4.2 years older than senior high mothers and 6.7 years older than junior high mothers. Such pairings cost the state about $140 million annually. Gov. Pete Wilson decided to act, budgeting $8 million to help counties prosecute statutory rape cases. The program was part of his Partnership for Responsible Parenting Initiative, and El Dorado County deputy district attorney William Houle was one of the first to begin taking the cases to court. "A lot of the boys laughed at first," Mr. Houle tells World. "We would go out to the schools, make presentations. Lot of kids said they didn't know it was a crime." But after a few successful prosecutions, "word got out," he says. "You had a few guys sitting in the county jail for six months, a year, even in a few cases getting sent to state prison. Men started taking it seriously again." California's laws did not themselves need toughening. Since 1872, intercourse with a minor under the age of 18 has been a crime-a felony if the adult is more than three years older than the child, and a misdemeanor otherwise. But enforcement had to be beefed up, and Gov. Wilson provided both leadership and money. Largely on the basis of California's example, other states have reinvigorated their statutory rape laws as well: 0In Florida, a 1996 package of legislation called Make Adult Males Accountable (MAMA) allowed the state to prosecute statutory rapists under child abuse laws, which carry higher penalties. Florida also cleaned up the old statute, which made sex with a minor illegal only if that person was "of previous chaste character." 0Delaware's Sexual Predators Act of 1996 doubles the penalties for adults who have sex with minors 10 or more years younger than they are. 0In Connecticut, a public-relations campaign in 1997 warned men, "Rob the cradle and get yourself a brand new crib." Connecticut law says that sex with a girl under 16 is a felony. The state's attorney has formed a special statutory rape unit to help prosecutors with these cases. There's one image that seems to be constantly in the background of this issue: the image of a father. Evidence, both anecdotal and statistical, shows that most of the girls victimized by older men are fatherless. Nita, the Massachusetts teen with a toddler of her own, shakes her head when asked about her father. "He's not around," she says simply. "And I don't know; I don't know if I thought of the boy that way, like a father figure. But I do think if I'd had a father around, this wouldn't have happened. I'd have been more scared of fooling around, maybe. I wish I had been." John Ensor, who runs A Woman's Concern crisis pregnancy centers, says an absent father is almost always part of the story in these cases. "Most of the time, we're talking about fatherless communities," says Mr. Ensor, a thin, pleasant Yankee in a big sweater. "That's not to say a girl with an intact, suburban family can't be the victim of this kind of crime, but fatherless girls are more vulnerable. They have no idea what non-sexual male affection looks like." Mr. Ensor often finds himself stepping into that role, he says. "I sit them down, I give them a fatherhood speech," he grins. "I tell them, here's what your dad would say if he were here. I tell them they need time to be a kid. These girls don't want sex; they want a dad. They want to be protected." And protection is exactly what these laws were designed to give, says MFI's Mr. Daniels. "Statutory rape is an especially grievous crime because there is so little the criminal can do to provide restitution," he says. "Who can restore lost innocence or a stolen childhood?" The image of a father also comes up as one of the few objections to reviving statutory rape laws. If the father is in prison, some argue, he won't be able to pay child support or be involved in the life of the child. "We do hear that objection sometimes," Mr. Daniels admits. "But first of all, no one wants a statutory rapist involved in the life of a child. And these guys-these rapists-are not the kind of men who are paying their child support every week." Efforts to toughen enforcement of statutory rape laws face other problems that may not be so easily dismissed. First, there's tepid (at best) support from women's groups and, often, social workers. And second, there's frequently a lack of cooperation from the girls, who may still think they're in love. At first, feminists led the charge on the issue of statutory rape. In early 1996, Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman wrote that in "the wake of the sexual revolution and the women's movement, the social pendulum swung from protecting females to liberating them.... In the real world, 'liberation' left girls more vulnerable." But feminists seemed to back off when they saw the strange bedfellows who became their allies: family policy groups, welfare reform advocates, Republican governors. Suddenly the motives of reformers became suspect: One California defense attorney said Gov. Wilson's efforts were "political posturing" designed to please the right wing, and a San Francisco attorney called the effort "reactionary morality legislation dressed up as a solution." Politically correct groups like the National Organization for Women have been strangely silent on an issue which, after all, hurts women more than anyone else. A search of NOW's archives shows that out of 2,270 papers and articles, not a single one addresses statutory rape specifically. A call to NOW's offices elicited the response, "We're obviously against all forms of sexual violence" and "nonconsensual sexual acts." And there's the key: consent. If there's no coercion or violence, then apparently there's no problem in NOW's estimation. "There are some people who think if the girl was consenting, what's the big deal?" acknowledges Santa Clara County (Calif.) prosecutor JoAnne McCracken. But minors, by definition, can't consent, Mr. Daniels points out. "A minor girl can't buy cigarettes, she can't buy liquor, she can't sign a contract, she can't sign a mortgage." And Kevin Ryle, prosecutor for Middlesex County, Mass., argues that age of consent laws are only right. "Kids have to be protected, even from themselves," he says. The overwrought emotions of teenaged girls lends credence to his view. Mr. Ryle says his cases have often fallen apart when a victim changes her mind. "If she still thinks she's in love with this guy, or he's convinced her he loves her, then we're the bad guys, not him," he says. "That happens frequently. A kid comes to me and says, 'I don't want to do this, I don't want to testify.' And we can't go forward." Despite the obstacles, there are good reasons to revive the old laws, Mr. Daniels says. "Politically, it's smart," he explains. "As a rule, we conservatives wait for the liberals to come out with a new evil and then we take a stand against it. I think that's unbiblical-Jesus had a positive agenda." And he who frames the debate usually wins, Mr. Daniels points out. "We are losing badly in the social debate, so we have to find ways to reframe that debate," he says. "The statutory rape issue allows us to do so. It puts us on the side of women, on the side of children. It puts the other side on the defensive. It lets us say, 'Shame on you for letting girls be pushed into something they're not prepared to deal with.'" For her part, Nita says she didn't know just how unprepared she was until she was already a mother. "It was like I was playing house," she says. "He was nice to me, he wanted to be with me, so I thought that meant we would be a family. I would skip school to be with him, and sneak out of my window at night. That wasn't real life; that was playing." But reality kept encroaching, she says. "When I started dating this older guy, my friends were all impressed-until they got mad that I was always stuck in the house, being an ol' pregnant lady." She's still "stuck at home," she says, because she can rarely afford the $145-per-week daycare for Deena. She took some classes last year and got a certificate that allows her to arrange hair in her home; later this month she'll begin taking GED classes. "I'm gonna tell Deena, 'Just look at me. Look how hard it can be,'" she says. "If she ever looks at an older boy, ... scare her, that's what I'll do. Scare her bad. So she'll know how dangerous it is."