Pregnant Teens And Invisible Men

IF EVERY school-age boy stopped having sex, two-thirds of the births among teenage girls would still occur.

This is just one of the shocking statistics compiled by the Washington Alliance Concerned with School Age Parents (WACSAP) to show that adult males, not teenage boys, are responsible for impregnating most teen mothers. Other statistics gathered by WACSAP from within Washington state and around the country confirm the appallingly widespread and sordid role played by adult males in teen pregnancies:

-- More than half of the nation's births to girls ages 15 to 17 are fathered by men age 20 or older, and the younger the teen mother, the older the father is likely to be.

-- Thirty percent of the births to 15-year-old girls nationwide were fathered by adult males who are at least six years older than the mother.

-- Two-thirds of the 535 teen mothers surveyed in a recent Washington state study report having previously experienced molestation, rape or attempted rape - and the average age of the perpetrator was 27.4 years old.

These and similar findings have enormous consequences for public policies that aim to reduce teen pregnancies and the social problems they create. We all know that it takes two people to make a pregnancy, but until now, the adult male has been the invisible man in policy discussions on welfare reform and teen-pregnancy prevention. This must change.

How can we justify punishing teen mothers and their children in the name of "welfare reform" while letting absent fathers disappear? How can teen pregnancy-prevention campaigns achieve their goals if the message is targeted exclusively to teens, while most teen pregnancies are caused by adult men?

We must make our policies fit the facts, and the fact is that men who are older, bigger, stronger and more street-wise than the girls they prey upon are controlling and manipulating teenagers for sex. Make no mistake, these men aren't looking for romance, and we know they won't stick around in the event of an unplanned pregnancy. And they will continue to do it for as long as we put up with it.

If we are serious about reducing the disastrous consequences of widespread teen pregnancy, then our state must take concrete steps to hold absent fathers accountable for their actions and responsible for their children. As parents and concerned adults, we all have a responsibility to talk openly and seek meaningful solutions to end this shameful situation. In our view, two steps are particularly urgent:

1. Adult men must be made to understand that impregnating 15-year-olds in Washington state is a serious crime. And if they can't be taught to respect the law, they must at least be taught to fear it. That is why we have proposed legislation to add 24 months to the criminal sentence for rape of a child, if the rape results in a pregnancy.

Our proposal has bipartisan and cross-gender sponsorship, and we hope to see it enacted into state law during the next legislative session. Those who think our measure is too punitive must remember that we are talking about older men impregnating girls who are 15 years old or younger. We believe that anyone who tries to visualize the victim and the nature of the crime will understand why we need strong penalties to send a strong message to older men who prey on little girls.

We also hope our legislation will send a strong message to prosecutors around the state. Too many prosecutors in Washington have failed to pursue indictments against adult males who impregnate young teens. This must change, and raising the stakes through stronger penalties should help make these crimes a higher priority for prosecutors.

2. We must include adult males in future media campaigns against teen pregnancy. Young girls need to be taught at home and in school how to resist sexual advances from older men. If they get their sex education in bed, it is too late.

Further, Washington should look closely at Maryland's media campaign that targets adult males with the message that 18 years of child support is a high price to pay for irresponsible sexual behavior.

We believe these policies will work well for Washington. No doubt, the citizens of our state can think of other ways to deter the sexual assault on our teenagers by older men. We hope they do. You can make a difference by calling your elected representatives and telling them to help. Your phone calls, letters and hotline messages can spur lawmakers into action. We know that strong steps must be taken, and the sooner the better.

Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson represents the 36th District, which includes Queen Anne, Ballard, Magnolia, and the Phinney Ridge-Greenwood area. Rep. Dawn Mason represents the 37th District, which includes Central and Southeast Seattle.