Former World Health Organization advisor and UCLA professor Paul R. Abramson spoke about the individual sexual rights of children and adults Monday night at Harold Frank Hall.
Abramson, a psychology professor who researches legal rights related to sexual acts, spoke about civil rights guaranteed to minors and the concept of sexual consent in the talk, entitled “Sex, Sex, and More Sex: Ensure Sexual Rights While Preventing Sexual Harm.” As the former editor of the Journal of Sex Research, Abramson has acted as the technical advisor for the World Health Organization’s Global Program on AIDS and has spent over 30 years serving as an expert witness for civil and criminal cases of sexual abuse.
At the start of Monday’s talk, which was sponsored by the Walter Capps Center, Abramson asked the audience if they believe minors have the legal right to date, kiss or take part in sexual activity without the consent of an adult guardian. For Abramson, the American legal system’s ability to guarantee such sexual rights to minors is a reflection of whether or not such rights are promised to everyone.
“From my perspective, the forefront of sexual rights is really the rights of kids,” Abramson said. “What are kids’ sexual rights? Do kids have constitutional rights? And if so, how do we implement those?”
While the American Constitution does not enumerate specific rights related to sex or procreation, Abramson said these rights are still promised to American citizens through the Constitution’s naming of the right to privacy and the Ninth Amendment’s promise of civil liberties not mentioned by the Constitution.
When addressing cases of sexual harm, such as rape and sexual harassment, Abramson said it is important to take into consideration the individual rights of those involved. However, the issue of sexual consent is more complicated since the age of consent varies from state to state. When an individual is impaired or cognitively challenged, such as someone who is mentally ill, sexual consent can be more difficult to determine.
“Consent is really a complicated construct because in order to give consent to sex, you have to have understanding of two parts of this equation — one of which you have to act with volition,” Abramson said. “That means you’re acting voluntarily. And the second part is that you’ve got to understand the knowledge and consequences of your act.”
Ahana Sarkar, first-year economics and accounting major, said the lecture highlighted individual sexual rights she had never thought about before.
“I thought it was a really interesting talk and it made me think about some things I didn’t think [about] before, like about the rights that kids and mentally ill people [have],” Sarkar said.
In addition to discussing the 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, Abramson brought up the 1967 Supreme Court case of In re Gault, which ruled that minors accused of crimes should be given the same rights to due process as adults, including the right to counsel, the right against self-incrimination, the right to confront witnesses and right to the notifications of charges.
In the case that led to In re Gault, an Arizona sheriff took 15-year-old Gerald Gault into custody without notifying his parents. During that time, Arizona law did not promise juveniles in custody access to lawyers and instead, minors had their cases heard by a presiding judge. As a result, Gault was convicted without being represented and without being able to face his accuser, and he was ultimately sentenced to six years in juvenile detention. If an adult, the crime would have only resulted in a $50 fee and maximum 60 days in jail, according to Abramson.
Later in the talk, Abramson also discussed the importance of the Ninth Amendment and its protection of sexual rights not named by the Constitution. The Supreme Court has largely ignored this amendment because it is too complicated, according to Abramson, who said this has allowed the United States to sometimes ignore sexual rights.
One example of the U.S.’s failure to protect these rights, according to Abramson, is when the WHO put up sexually explicit billboards in other countries to prevent the spread of AIDS, while the United States refused to allow these signs to go up due to their provocative nature.
The only sexual right that Americans have, Abramson said, is the right to privacy, which was the result of the 1965 Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut.
Toward the end of the talk, Abramson urged victims of sexual assault to come forward as their contributions to this dialogue could help prevent future sexual assaults.
“One of the things that I’ve also written about is the importance of truth and disclosure,” Abramson said. “You may not prevent the individual act, but you can prevent subsequent acts by disclosing … Disclosure is the critical thing you need to teach kids.”
Undergraduate assistant with the Walter H. Capps Center Alena Nelson, fourth-year sociology and global studies major, said the event is part of a quarterly series of free lectures put on by the Walter Capps Center that focuses on issues of ethics.
“We’re always looking for different speakers on important topics related to ethics because it relates to our mission statement at the Walter Capps Center,” Nelson said.
A version of this story appeared on page 3 of Wednesday, May 21, 2014’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.