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Gracias Papi: Talking About the Unspeakable

Yaneth is 14 and looks 18. David is 29 and could pass for 20. David works for Yaneth's father. David's on the make, and Yaneth is more than a little interested.

The story has all the elements to make a steamy, sleazy telenovela on Spanish-language TV. But it's a comic book produced by Virginia's health department, part of a bold and refreshing effort to put aside politically correct language and confront a real cultural difference, one that clashes with American law and social standards.

The comic book, an online version of which is here, will be distributed across the state next month. It's the latest step in a campaign that Virginia began in 2004 called "Isn't she a little young?" Designed to raise awareness among Hispanic youth about statutory rape laws and give Latino girls some tools with which to say no to older guys, the campaign is aimed at kids who have come to the U.S. from countries where older men date girls fairly commonly.

The comic book is the work of Robert Franklin, an outreach coordinator for the state health department who realized that Virginia's efforts weren't reaching Latinos. Franklin checked hospital records in the state and found that more than half of Latina teen mothers had been sexually active with older men.

Nationwide, Latinas lead in teen births, with a birth rate twice that of the national average for teens ages 15 to 19. Federal numbers show Mexican and Puerto Rican girls are at the highest level of risk. In Virginia, while the overall teen birth rate has been dropping steadily for both blacks and non-Hispanic whites, the rate shot up by 50 percent for Latin teens from 1990 to 2003, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy told the Associated Press.

The fotonovela--a comic book with live actors in the place of drawn characters--is not exactly a naturalistic performance. The dialogue is stilted and will elicit a fair amount of groans from kids who might read it: "I'm texting David," Yaneth announces, as if to a technomoron. "Quien sabe? I'd meet him anywhere!"

Still, it's a neat little morality play, if overly optimistic--in real life, not too many Davids would back off so graciously when confronted by the dad, not enough dads would react as calmly and wisely as this one, and not enough Yaneths would recoil at some sweet-looking guy's "What does that short skirt mean?" and demand to be taken home.

Virginia's government gets so much grief for insisting on tucking the state's collective heads in the sand on social issues, so it's a pleasure to see the state out front on a touchy issue such as this.

By Marc Fisher |  March 22, 2007; 7:50 AM ET
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I was not aware that the practice of older men dating girls was common in Latin American countries. I did know that in the US, a huge percentage of teen mothers were impregnated by older men, and the phenomenon is by no means limited to the Latin community. I condemn the phenomenon in any culture - these men do not really love those girls, but are simply using them because they can easily dominate them. They do not have the strength of character to treat a woman as an equal. I suspect many of them have probably been rejected by women their own age who refused to be dominated.

Posted by: Tonio | March 22, 2007 8:46 AM

Sticking heads in sand? Not here in Richmond. I've seen the "Isn't she a little young?" billboards and signs on buses aimed at teen girls saying "Having his baby won't make him stay." It's a little unsettling from the perspective that it's taking an effort from the state to get this message out, but I hope it's working.

Posted by: 23112 | March 22, 2007 9:14 AM

"from countries where older men date girls fairly commonly."

Doesn't this open the program up to the charge that it's attacking legitimately-held values of another culture? Remember, the age of consent in Virginia is 15, so for most of the teens at issue, statutory rape is not an issue. Apart from cases of genuine coercion, which should of course be criminally punished, why is it the state's business to try to change commonly-held Hispanic attitudes toward relationships and child-bearing?

Posted by: Tom T. | March 22, 2007 11:22 AM

The easiest way to make the case is if the state (and by extension, you the taxpayer) gets left supporting the young mother and baby and the older gentleman disappears.

As I understand it, it's not necessarily trying to stop legitimate relationships between two people of different ages, it's trying to educate young women who might get duped into an unhealthy relationship, get pregnant, and get left without any means to support the child.

I would agree that this is a message that probably needs to be put out across cultures, but if the Commonwealth has determined that it is currently affecting the Latin community disproportionately, then it's certainly not a bad place to start.

Posted by: OD | March 22, 2007 12:30 PM

Tom T.: Your comment "Doesn't this open the program up to the charge that it's attacking legitimately-held values of another culture?" is interesting because it seems to require the U.S. to change OUR laws when people come here from other countries.

The fact of the matter is, if you come to THIS country you obey OUR laws, regardless of what you were allowed to do back home.

If this is unacceptable to you, go back where you came from.

The citizens of the U.S. can be very understanding and accept peoples from many cultures. I agree with this and encourage it. However, that does not mean we have to change our laws so you feel like you fit in.

How anybody can wordsmith a discussion to justify 29 year old men having sex with 14 year old children amazes me.

Posted by: SoMD | March 22, 2007 12:42 PM

Tom T.: the age of consent in Virginia is 18, unless both parties are under 18, in which case it's 16.

It's really sad that this has to happen, because this is something everyone should understand: leave the kiddies alone! But the fact that Virginia is willing to support this kind of thing is refreshing.

Posted by: bamagirlinVA | March 22, 2007 12:43 PM

Why aren't the police called when a 14 year old gives birth, and the hospital collects information on the father for the birth certificate and it clearly shows that he is in his 20s or 30s? It's statutory rape, right? Hospitals are required to report concerns of child abuse...why is this any different? Start enforcing the laws and people will start obeying them!

Posted by: Curious | March 22, 2007 12:56 PM

"attacking legitimately-held values of another culture? Remember, the age of consent in Virginia is 15, so for most of the teens at issue, statutory rape is not an issue"

By that logic we should embrace teen pregnancy and avoid encouraging kids to stay in school through graduation.

Posted by: -D- | March 22, 2007 3:11 PM

SoMD: Don't you think your comments are extremely culturally insensitive? It is true that other countries - and in fact other states in the US - have lower ages for marriage, consent, and child-rearing. How can you lable all of those states and cultures per se wrong? This is not to mention many countries that allow practices which are illegal in many states - such as gay marriage, gay service in the military, poligamy, etc. - would you agree that those cultures are simply wrong while your state/country is always right?

You wrote: "The fact of the matter is, if you come to THIS country you obey OUR laws, regardless of what you were allowed to do back home. If this is unacceptable to you, go back where you came from."

This smacks of the rhetoric of the Minutemen and the far right who want to declare English our official languange and close our borders.

Remember, we all have to live together and accept our diversity; Don't Judge!

Posted by: ConcernedinArlington | March 22, 2007 3:19 PM

SoMD, I couldn't agree with you more! Come to Land of the Free, Home of the Brave but leave your laws at the door. This is our country with our culture and I am just a little sick and tired of hearing about how I should embrace other's culture, how about you embrace ours! And all that means is that you come here legally and you don't have sex with MINORS!

Sex with children is called raped, period. I agree, the police should be called to the hospital, but the reality is that these girls would stop going there to have them and that could be a problem.

Posted by: Anonymous | March 22, 2007 3:23 PM

SoMD says to Tom T. "If this is unacceptable to you, go back where you came from." What is wrong with people? Tom T. didn't say it was unacceptable or that it was OK in his country or anything like that. I think some people need to learn how to read or chill out or stop being so defensive. Tom T. just asked about another aspect of how the "Latino" comment made by Fisher might come across. I'm not saying I agree with Tom T., but I do think SoMD's reaction is unbalanced and overboard.

Posted by: Anonymous | March 22, 2007 3:24 PM

It is the states job to change the attitude because they are in the state. Again, this is Amercan values and here we have decided that 18 is it. Period who cares where you are from. You can come here for work, edcuation, freedom...bring your food, your dress, your religion, but don't for one minute believe that our entire system has to change because you are from another country and that's the way you do it there. So? This is the way we do it here. When I was in the military and travelled to countries that "didn't" drink, we didn't drink, we followed their rules. How come people don't want to do that when they come here? Oh, I know, because we must be racist or bigots or judgemental if we want our values and laws upheld.

Posted by: Anonymous | March 22, 2007 3:42 PM

If these older men thinks it's ok to have sex with younger women, do people really think that they will only have sex with young Hispanic girls? No young girls will be safe around them.

Posted by: Anonymous | March 22, 2007 4:19 PM

SoMd's point is a good one. Right or wrong in another culture -and I make no judgment- there are certain rules in this country. You don't like them? Leave!

I'm no minuteman or right winger. I'm very liberal, actually. And, I don't think the US is right on every issue. But, I have to say that I'm tired of the view that the legal residents and citizens in this country have to conform to the immigrant cultures. Ummm, no we don't. It's the other way around, actually. And, while I'm willing to accept/tolerate . . . however you want to describe it . . . some cultural differences things like this (adult men having sex with minors or young teens or in your example marrying young girls to older men) I am simply not. And, frankly, I'm not going to apologize for that.

I'm also amused by your plea to "don't judge." That's exactly what you're doing.

Posted by: To concerned in Arlington: | March 22, 2007 4:31 PM

I don't think I would make the judgement that it's part of the Latino culture that older men date younger women. At least not in their country. A lot of this has to do with immigrantion patterns and a number of older men coming to the States alone and then finding very few women of their age but finding many younger 2nd generation girls. Regardless, I think it is great to educate all young women about the dangers of being in an unequal relationships, especially young Latinas who may have parents working 2 or 3 jobs and who may not have as much parental oversight as others.

Posted by: Washington, DC | March 22, 2007 5:02 PM

Reservation: the statistic Mark mentions uses is birth rates rather than pregnancy rates. The birth rate could reflect a rejection of abortion as a solution to early pregnancy. He also doesn't prove the assertion that Latino girls' babies are more likely than those of other groups to be fathered by adult men--I think that idea is being extrapolated for Virginia from research done in California.

"It is true that other countries - and in fact other states in the US - have lower ages for marriage, consent, and child-rearing. How can you lable all of those states and cultures per se wrong?"

While early childbearing is acceptable in less economically developed cultures--as it was in our own country a century ago--it doesn't work well in an area where it costs (according to one recent study) $80,000/per year to support the average family.

"If these older men thinks it's ok to have sex with younger women, do people really think that they will only have sex with young Hispanic girls? No young girls will be safe around them."

True, but the statistics are being interpreted to suggest that Latino girls are less likely--perhaps for cultural reasons--to realize that something hinky is going on when an adult male is giving them sexual attention. Perhaps it seems normal to their parents, as well, so they don't instruct their daughters about what's OK in this society.

Not that it's unusual for men born in America to be sexually interested in girls who are too young to make genuine partners, or that middle-class Americans always teach their daughters to recognize inappropriate behavior. Hence the statistic that most victims of sexual assault know their attacker.

Once when I was a teenager growing up in Montgomery Co., my friend and I were sent to the grocery store to get cardboard boxes. As usual, the store manager directed us to the produce department. When we asked guy back there if he had any boxes, the exchange went like this:

Manager: "What're you offering?"

My friend, puzzled (they're charging for boxes?) and tending to be naive, "What are you asking for them?"

Manager: "Why don't you come back here [into the dark warehouse area] and we'll see what you've got."

Had the manager been in his early 20s or younger, this would been teasing and I would have let my friend do the flirting when she caught on. (No going in the back, though.) But he was well over 30--which was why my friend didn't understand what he was saying--and it seemed WAAAAY off to me(especially the warehouse part). I grabbed her by the arm and marched her out of the store. (Similar to my mother's reaction when I was 14 and the house painter tried to engage me in conversation about the interesting articles in least he wasn't quite so old.)

My friend reminded me of this incident a few years ago--we're in our 40s now--while we were discussing how often she saw men ogling her young teenage daughters. She said she never had figured out what the guy said that spooked me, although she'd always trusted my judgment that it was wrong.

Posted by: GJ | March 22, 2007 6:50 PM

Wow. So we need to educate these young girls that they don't have to succumb to older men. The ones that I've seen have been pretty happy to be seen with their "older men". Go to Home Depot or any other home improvement store (go figure) and you will find young girls dressed in blouses and pants that are two sizes too tight, high heels, and makeup that would put Dame Edna to shame. AND, they don't look like they are being "forced" to be with their men.

Posted by: Observation | March 22, 2007 8:07 PM

Observation doesn't know much about observing human nature. Have you ever thought that maybe...just MAYBE...these girls wore the tight clothes, makeup, and high heels becuase the older MEN liked to see them dressed like that? Believe me, those clothes aint worn because they're *comfortable*! See...nobody implied that they are being "forced" to be with anyone, unless you consider "cultural coersion" to be force. That was the whole freakin point of the article. *These relationships are unacceptable in American society so we need to tell this to Hispanic immigrants, who may consider it normal and unremarkable* DUH!

Posted by: petunia | March 23, 2007 7:38 AM

Observation and Petunia, much has been written about the critical role of fathers in the development of young girls. According to one hypothesis, girls who mature early (both physically and socially) are unconsciously seeking out the male attention that they did not get from a father figure when they were younger. Seen in this light, the older men are really twisted versions of surrogate fathers.

If it's true that Latin American culture regards older men-teenage girl relationships as normal, then perhaps the underlying cause is a belief that childrearing is "woman's work." I don't know enough about the culture in those countries to know if my supposition is accurate. In this country, the phenomenon of de facto absent fathers can be found to a certain extent in all groups, such as fathers who spend long hours after work drinking with friends.

Posted by: Tonio | March 23, 2007 9:12 AM

To ConcernedinArlington:

Yes we all have to live together.

No, we don't need to change the laws because you moved here.

Sex with minors is JUST PLAIN WRONG.

Those people who think I am being judgemental or going overboard ... tough.

Like I said before - and most of you have ignored - the citizens of the U.S. can be very understanding and accept peoples from many cultures. I AGREE WITH THIS AND ENCOURAGE IT. However, that does not mean we have to change our laws so you feel like you fit in.

I might add: If you didn't like the way of life in America, why did you come here?

FYI: I was raised in San Diego, Ca from the age of seven and the family next door was hispanic. Great people. The kids were some of the best friends I ever had. But, if ANYBODY even tried to lay a hand on Maria (the oldest daughter) the planet would not have been big enough to hide.

How anybody can say a 29 year old man having sex with a 14 year old child is acceptable in hispanic cultures is beyond me. I saw first-hand a hispanic father raising his daughter and can type from experience. ;)

Posted by: SoMD | March 23, 2007 10:05 AM

If that's their culture, fine. They can move back to Mexico and do whatever they want down there. Ship them all back!

Posted by: Anonymous | March 23, 2007 5:56 PM

Slightly off-topic, I recently ran across a bit of ProIllegalImmigration propaganda that our host wrote, and in searching for the truth I ran across J. Scott's comment here:

Has Fisher ever addressed the issues questions in that comment?

Posted by: LonewackoDotCom | March 23, 2007 10:33 PM

Unbelievable that the state of VA is using tax payer dollars to publish a comic book to educate citizens on the law regarding sex with a minor. It's been my experience that parents and religious leaders provide that education as a matter of course.

Is there any chance that those dollars could be redirected to solve the incredible traffic problems that turn a 20 mile drive in Fairfax County to a 90 minute commute? Those of us who have to get to work on time would be most grateful!

Posted by: March 29 2007 | March 29, 2007 5:19 PM

If you read the fotonovela (the pictures/captions may seem cheesy but this is a common and popular format in many Latin American cultures) there is a discussion between the dad and mom regarding the "cultural issue." She says "but their age difference isn't much bigger than ours" and he replies "yes, but we get married much younger in our country, and besides, he didn't behave respectfully."

This is really the issue - dating between older men/younger girls is common in a cultural context where marriage and/or parental supervision is more the norm, and these patterns are then transposed to the US where casual dating is more the norm. This transposition tends to leave the girls holding the short end of the (pregnancy test) stick.

Re: young girls dressing sexy: Yes. Every so often - and I know it's hard to believe - teenage girls do stupid things that aren't in their long-term best interest.

I'll step back for a minute to let the shock subside.

Posted by: Erica | April 4, 2007 3:13 PM

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