CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WBOY) — One of the issues raised during a Joint Standing Committee on Judiciary meeting in the West Virginia Senate has created some controversy among state senators.

The final issue raised during the meeting was whether or not to amend an exemption for married people in laws against forced sexual contact. Of note, forcible sexual intercourse is always illegal in West Virginia, regardless of the marriage status between the victim and the perpetrator.

The current sexual offenses law states:

“Sexual contact” means any intentional touching, either directly or through clothing, of the breasts, buttocks, anus or any part of the sex organs of another person, or intentional touching of any part of another person’s body by the actor’s sex organs, where the victim is not married to the actor and the touching is done for the purpose of gratifying the sexual desire of either party.

West Virginia State Code §61-8B-1

Monongalia County Prosecuting Attorney Perry DeChristopher spoke at the meeting in favor of passing legislation similar to the proposed Senate Bill 498, which was introduced during the 2021 legislative session. It would have removed the term “not married” from the above definition of “sexual contact.”

She said that such laws are based on the belief that in marriage, there is ongoing, implied consent to sexual acts and touching.

DeChristopher added that she was especially concerned about the exemption because of West Virginia’s marriage laws, which allow for children younger than 16 to marry, but only upon order of a circuit judge.

In reference to those comments, Sen. Robert Karnes (R, Randolph) asked her if she was aware of any 11 and 12-year-olds who are married in West Virginia, to which she said that she could only speak for Monongalia County, in which she is aware of none.

Karnes went on to say that when the bill was brought up last year, there was concern that the requirement for “forcible compulsion” to be used during illegal sexual contact was not in any of the discussions surrounding the bill. He also raised concerns that these changes could lead to situations where spouses raise allegations of unwanted sexual contact years after the fact in divorce court, even if that spouse didn’t say anything at the time.

He also said, “The ‘implied’ in a marriage contract, I assume there’s probably very few people, probably about as many 10 or 11-year-olds getting married in West Virginia, that enter into a marriage contract without understanding that sex might well be a part of it, so there is something of an implied contract there, that’s there’s going to be certain benefits to being married.”

The West Virginia Democratic Party sent a press release later Monday claiming, “Today, in the Joint Standing Committee on Judiciary, Senator Robert Karnes argued that the spouses of child brides could not be criminally charged for sexual contact involving forcible compulsion.”

That release included a statement from West Virginia Democratic Party Chair Mike Pushkin (Kanawha), who said:

Just when you think Senator Karnes can’t get any sleazier, he finds a new way to shock and disgust. Earlier this year Karnes argued against allowing exemptions to West Virginia’s abortion ban for rape and incest victims because he believes child rape victims often ‘romanticize’ their adult abusers. Now he suggests that forced sexual contact in marriage is just a ‘benefit to being married.’ I’m afraid to think of what he’ll say next.

West Virginia Democratic Party Chair Mike Pushkin

12 News reached out to Karnes asking if he had a response to the West Virginia Democratic Party’s release. He said:

Hard left minority leader Mike Pushkin’s current dishonest press release explains why Republicans just won 94% of WV state senate races. The voters of West Virginia are tired of the lies and distortions.

Sen. Robert Karnes (R, Randolph)

The meeting adjourned after the discussion.

Click here to watch the full meeting in the archives. The discussion about the marital exemption begins at around 10:10 a.m.