''BROOKLINE HIGH teens face charges of statutory rape," read the headline in Wednesday's Boston Globe. The story below reported that two 17-year-old boys at Brookline High School -- a celebrated institution whose graduates include former Governor Michael Dukakis, Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, and CBS newsman Mike Wallace -- have been charged with statutory rape for having sex with a 15-year-old girl, a classmate who said the sex was consensual. This is the third time since February that students at the school have been accused of having sex with a minor.
The Globe story ran about 1,000 words -- roughly the length of the Page 1 report the same day on former Defense Secretary Melvin Laird's call for a gradual troop pullout from Iraq. But unlike the Vietnam-era Pentagon chief, who is almost never in the news, sex scandals involving students erupt so often they could almost justify a beat of their own.
''Scandals" is probably not the right word for them. Are you actually scandalized by news of high school kids having sex? Is anybody? Last month the National Center for Health Statistics reported that more than half of American teenagers 15 and older engage in oral sex; the story got a ton of coverage, but no one seemed terribly dismayed by the information. ''At 50 percent, we're talking about a major social norm," Claire Brindis, a professor of pediatrics at the University of California, told The
Oral or otherwise, sex among the young is clearly a ''major social norm" in Brookline. ''People weren't shocked," one Brookline High student told the Globe. ''We've heard it before." Another student agreed: ''It's like, 'Oh, my God' -- but it's also like, 'Oh, this again.' " School administrators called an assembly ''to remind teenagers about the criminal ramifications of underage sexual activity" -- a theme, students said, that has ''been drummed into them in recent months." If the girl had been 16 instead of 15, in short, there would have been no legal issue, no criminal charges, no news story: no big deal.
By definition, that's what a ''major social norm" is: no big deal. But in fact it is a big deal -- whether the grownups in their lives are prepared to say so or not -- when kids too young to lawfully buy a pack of cigarettes engage in sexual activity that most of them don't yet have the maturity or understanding to handle. In its potential to inflict internal damage or cause pain, sex far surpasses tobacco. But while kids are warned repeatedly and stridently about the dangers of smoking, school-age sex is widely regarded as inevitable. The same people who enforce ''zero-tolerance" strictures when it comes to guns and knives push a very different message when it comes to sex: Keep it ''safe" and legal, and you'll hear no complaints from us.
In a letter sent to parents and students last week, Brookline High principal Robert Weintraub described the latest incident as ''deeply disturbing." But only, it seems, because it was illegal, and because of the bad publicity it would lead to. ''Our society is highly sexualized," he wrote. ''At Brookline High, we have clear rules on sexual behavior which reflect our own values and Massachusetts law. Anyone who has sex with a person under the age of 16 is violating the law. And it doesn't matter if both people are under 16. It is against the law. Once again, the law was not a deterrent."
But is there no higher value than a state's age-of-consent law? Is that really all the guidance that Brookline High has to offer its kids as they wrestle with the overwhelming drives and impulses of sex? Shouldn't those charged with the education of teenagers push back against the relentless sexualization of the culture instead of knuckling under to it? With sex bombarding them everywhere they turn, don't kids need more than ever to be taught that sex is for grownups?
''This is such a sexualized society," Weintraub repeated, almost plaintively, when I phoned the other day. ''Just look at the Internet. Look at the music. You're fighting against the whole world. You're fighting against a society that doesn't supervise its children as carefully as it once did." On school grounds, he said, students are bound by a code of conduct that bans ''inappropriate sexual behavior, such as sexual touching, prolonged kissing, and removal of clothes."
But isn't all sexual behavior ''inappropriate" when you're a kid in high school? Isn't that what students really need to learn?
Weintraub demurred. ''Well, you're talking about a specific code of morality," he said.
There is something awfully sad about a culture in which teenage sex is condoned so long as it is ''safe," while teenage smoking is denounced as categorically wrong. Sex is now a matter of health and the law, while morality is reserved for tobacco.
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is email@example.com.