Girls Go Wild – Not Their Fault?

Garance Franke-Ruta, a senior editor at the liberal American Prospect, takes to the conservative editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal to decry the “Girls Gone Wild” problem and call for a nanny state solution: “It is time to raise the age of consent from 18 to 21 — consent, in this case, referring not to sexual relations but to providing erotic content on film.”

It is true that teenagers become legal adults at the age of 18, right around the time they graduate from high school. The age of consent to serve in the armed forces is also 18 (17 with parental consent), as is the minimum voting age since 1971, when an amendment to the Constitution lowered it from 21. But the federal government is already happy to bar legal adults from engaging in certain activities. Most notably, the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 raised the drinking age to 21 (by threatening to withhold highway funds from states that did not go along). In practice, the age limit is flouted on college campuses and in private homes. But it has still had a positive effect, not least by driving down fatalities from drunk driving.

A new legal age for participating in the making of erotic imagery — that is, for participating in pornography — would most likely operate in the same way, sometimes honored in the breach more than the observance. But a 21-year-old barrier would save a lot of young women from being manipulated into an indelible error, while burdening the world’s next Joe Francis with an aptly limited supply of “talent.” And it would surely have a tonic cultural effect. We are so numb to the coarse imagery around us that we have come to accept not just pornography itself — long since routinized — but its “barely legal” category. “Girls Gone Wild”–like its counterparts on the Web–is treated as a kind of joke. It isn’t. There ought to be a law.

The problem she’s trying to solve here is not all that clear. Garance is worried about the “transform[ation of] the playful exhibitionism of young women into scarlet letters that follow them around for life.” Yet, she contends that it is “socially acceptable for a freshman at, say, Ohio State — living in a dorm room in Columbus like thousands of freshmen before her — to participate in soft-core porn.” If so, where’s the scarlet letter?

Let’s presume, though, that “going wild” on video actually has not yet become socially acceptable. Indeed, I rather hope that’s the case. How old does one have to be to decide whether to buck social norms for fun, fame, fortune, or foolishness?

In expanded thoughts on her own site, Garance notes that “our laws recognize that maturity comes slowly,” with different age thresholds required for voting, drinking, serving as Representative, Senator, and President. Any “age of consent” line is arbitrary in the particular no matter how scientific it is in the aggregate. Yet we draw lines anyway.

Still, the idea that a 20-year-old woman isn’t responsible for the consequences of getting drunk and flashing her private parts for a strange man with a camera — and then signing a consent form — is hard to swallow.

For one thing, plenty of women are mothers by that age, responsible for the welfare of helpless infants. Surely, that’s a notch or two higher on the difficulty scale than remembering to keep one’s shirt pulled down? Indeed, it was not all that long ago that girls were getting married and having children at 13 and 14.

While we’re on the subject of child bearing, we should recall that girls well under 18 are permitted to have abortions every day, even without parental notification. For that matter, they’re allowed to bring their child to term and give them up for adoption. Or, for that matter, to keep the child and raise it to adulthood. Either way, those decisions will “follow them around for life,” too.

I’m not the first to point out the incongruity of people being eligible to join the military at 18 and yet deeming them insufficiently responsible to make other choices until 21. Until we abolished the peacetime draft, we routinely conscripted men into service at 18. The average age of the soldiers we sent to Vietnam was 19. Far more of the U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq were 21 or younger (974 of them as of March 24), than any other age bracket. Jessica Lynch was 19 when she was taken prisoner. Audie Murphy was 20 on the day he earned the Medal of Honor.

Ezra Klein agrees that taking freedom away from 18-, 19-, and 20-year-old women isn’t the answer but feels something must be done to protect them when they’re drunk, naked, and stupid. He suggests making it illegal to film nude women while they’re “severely impaired” or imposing “a waiting period between signing consent and making your porn so the effects of haste and intoxication are blunted.”

I suspect, however, that Ezra would be in favor of prosecuting 20-year-olds who get drunk and shoot people. Or get drunk and drive? Indeed, we have been ratcheting up the penalties for drunk driving while lowering the threshold as to what constitutes “drunk” for a quarter century now.

Perhaps we should just make it illegal for people under 21 to purchase and consume alcohol? Well, actually, we did that. During the Reagan administration.

We send 18-year-olds off to kill and risk death. We hold them responsible for crimes. Even if they’re drunk. Yet they’re deemed too immature to remember not to flash their boobies at a camera? How insane is that?

At some point, people are responsible for their own actions. I’d suggest that 18 is well past old enough to know when to keep your clothes on.

UPDATE: Jon Swift thinks GFR’s proposal doesn’t go far enough.

Can a girl of 21 really know what she is consenting to when she signs a release form for a pornographer? Does she really understand what the ramifications might be later in life? That is why I propose that we raise the minimum age of consent to participate in pornography to 65.

He fully explores the ramifications of that change at the link.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. John Burgess says:

    I suspect that if this ‘problem’ is as widespread as feared, then society will simply shift its attitudes toward the imagery. If everyone’s daughter is doing it, the opprobrium will just disappear. I’m pretty sure this is what I’m seeing happen, in fact, with young people saying, ‘what a jerk’ instead of ‘what a slut’.

    If it’s not a widespread problem, then the women will have to live with the consequences of their (poor) choices. That’s something people have had to deal with long before there were video cameras available.

    I don’t think major schemes to protect people from non-lethal mistakes is the right route to be following.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    I’m completely baffled by the op-ed. There are so many things being complained about in it: that the girls are posing (if that’s the right word for it), that the videos are purchased, that Francis makes money, that a public record is being maintained of the girls’ stupidity, that the record may follow them into later life, and the societal impact of the omnipresence of soft-core pornography (particularly with boys and girls). One can hardly judge what kind of program might be effective. Note that the underlying problem, if there is a problem, is not that there’s a guy who sees an opportunity for making a buck while skating close to the boundaries of the law it is lack of supervision for young people who clearly need more supervision.

    I find it particularly baffling that the measure that is most likely actually to end the behaviors, social sanction, is dismissed. I suspect it’s a view that readers of this blog are unlikely to share but in my view social sanction should be increased rather than diminished and applied not only to the girls but to their parents, to Francis and those who work for him, and to Francis’s customers.

    Locker room behavior is barely tolerable in the locker room and completely intolerable outside the locker room.

    Indeed, it was not all that long ago that girls were getting married and having children at 13 and 14.

    Is that really true, James? I thought, at least in the Western world, that marriage before the onset of menses hasn’t been normative for a long time and that the age of onset of menses has actually been decreasing. A century ago 14 was pretty typical IIRC.

    In my own family I haven’t been able to find a case where a young woman was married before about age 18 going back 150 or more years. Maybe we’re atypical.

  3. James Joyner says:

    In my own family I haven’t been able to find a case where a young woman was married before about age 18 going back 150 or more years. Maybe we’re atypical.

    I suspect your family is urban/suburban and relatively affluent? It was fairly common in the rural areas as recently as 50-60 years ago. Indeed, my paternal grandmother was about that age.

    Loretta Lynn, the famous country singer, is perhaps more illustrative:

    She was married to Oliver Vanetta Lynn, commonly known as “Doolittle”, “Doo”, or “Mooney” (for moonshine), on January 10, 1948, a few months before she turned 14.[2] Lynn moved to Washington, Kentucky with her husband at the age of 14. Shortly thereafter, in an effort to break free of the coal mining industry, the couple moved across the country to Custer, Washington. The Lynns had four children by the time Loretta was 17 and she was a grandmother at age 29.

    That would mean her daughter was somewhere around 14-15 when she gave birth as well, somewhere around 1963.

    There was not, as best I can tell, any shock over these facts. Indeed, under the subheadings “controversies” in her wikipedia bio, there’s no mention of this.

  4. just me says:

    I think 18 is a good age for people to be declared adults in the eyes of the law and capable of doing all things adults are allowed to do.

    I an 18 year exposes her body, then she just has to live with the consequences, the same as an 18 year old that gets married, signs a contract or decides to drink too much and drive a car.

  5. JKB says:

    It appears many on this blog have had a sheltered life. Girls getting married before 18 was quite common even in urban areas as well as rural. In the late 70s, there was a girl who married as a sophomore, for the baby. What has changed is the social pressure to marry when a girl gets pregnant. But it really doesn’t matter as many women marry and have children at 18 and 19, which is the current threshold for going wild on tape. You may have seen reports of the several girls under 18 charged as sexually exploiting a minor because they posted nude pictures of themselves on the internet. How is a life as a listed sexual predator as a social stigma?

    What the nanny staters don’t want to face is that this is a consequence of the surveillance state. Having grown up under the all seeing eye of the school and the mall security camera, many people today see no reason to not take the private public. If your always going to be seen, why not let them see it all. Not exactly what the nanny staters intended but they usually are bit by the law of unintended consequences.

  6. Bithead says:

    I make note judgments, with this, but I find it interesting that you should post this so close to the article about the Iranian ambassador a stormed out because the violinist were showing a little cleavage.

  7. John Burgess says:

    This isn’t just something spiraling around the US.

    Take a look at what Saudi women are up to!

  8. Steve Verdon says:

    Funny how the side usually associated with the women’s movement/feminism is actually portraying women and incapable of taking care of themselves and making their own decisions. Perhaps the solution is to put these women in the custody of men to make the decisions for them.[/sarcasm]

  9. Dave Schuler says:

    The answer to your question, James, is here. My family was definitely urban. I’ve researched some lines of my genealogy back nearly a thousand years and haven’t yet found a farmer.

    As to whether they were affluent, I’d say it was various. Some were quite prosperous; some were desperately poor. But as best as I’ve been able to tell family income has little to do with age or marriage and childbearing by women in my family.

  10. Kent says:

    I don’t think the reason we send 18-year-olds to war is because we think they’re old enough and wise enough to rush a sniper. I think we send 18-year-olds to war because they’re young enough and stupid enough to rush a sniper.

    When you recognize that, you recognize the fallacy of the “old-enough-to-soldier == old-enough-to-[insert favorite activity requiring maturity]” argument.

  11. just me says:

    Kent makes a point. Not a perfectly generalized one, but one I think probably with some truth, although I think in the fog of war many men/soldiers do things on instinct without thinking about the “future” or possible consequences, they just react. Sometimes it takes the hill, sometimes it gets them killed and sometimes it may do both.

    As for getting married at young ages-I am guessing that it varies some by region and family. I had family from rural KY and TN mountains, and while a lot of people got married in their younger teens, I can’t say my family tree is full of them. At least one side has the geneology done back to the 1700’s, and most of the marriages were somewhere between 16 and 20 for the women, and similar for the men.

  12. James Joyner says:

    fallacy of the “old-enough-to-soldier == old-enough-to-[insert favorite activity requiring maturity]” argument.

    I don’t disagree that soldiering is a young man’s game. My argument isn’t so much about maturity, though, as it is about lining up obligations and rights. If we demand that 18-year-olds be prepared to put their lives on the line for society, then we ought treat them as adults.

  13. NLG says:

    Back when I learned contract law, I was taught that one cannot form the necessary consent to enter into an agreement if one is in some way mentally impaired. You can’t, for example, stumble in drunk to a closing and sign the contracts to buy a house, or go buy a car, etc. I suspect that sooner or later one of these girls will hire an attorney who will successfully challenge the contractual consent form they signed on the basis that she was drunk when she signed it and incapable of providing consent. An argument that would have all the more force if shown that the person obtaining the signature on the form knew or had reason to know she was drunk.

    The last thing we need are more laws protecting yet more classes of people from doing silly, even stupid, things. If people are not free to take risks and make choices that can come back to haunt or even hurt them, there’s no reason for them to learn to exercise good judgment — we can just let the government make all our decisions for us.

    Indeed, that likely far greater than 99% of all young women in this country manage to keep their panties on when in a setting where their otherwise private acts might become fodder for the general public tells me that people still do as a general rule learn to exercise proper judgment. That only an extremly tiny minority are unable to do so is no reason to start legislating on the matter. Even if they suffer the worst of consequences in terms of lost job opportunities or whatever, the economy is not going to collapse as a result, nor does this phenomenon seem to be all that threatening to the overall moral or ethical foundations of our social fabric.

  14. submandave says:

    FYI, the “19 year-old” average in Vietnam is a myth. Assuming casualties accurately reflect the average age of the group, based upon the Combat Area Casualty File the average age of KIA in Vietnam was 23.11 and the average age of iiB MOS (infantry) was 22.55. In fact, even among E-1s the average age was 20.34.