Join the debate. Vote Now on the Dear Abby Poll of the week.

by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: My husband's brother and his wife have been through a month of pure hell because of something their son unwittingly did. He thought it was OK to have sex with his 17-year-old girlfriend because she consented. ("Joe," our nephew, is also 17.) They had been dating for a year and seemed to be very much in love. Their first sexual encounter was three months ago.

To his horror, he learned the hard way that it is a felony in California for a minor male to have consensual sex with a female who is under the age of 18 and is not his wife.

Our society has been teaching sex education and preaching safe sex. Young people have been lectured on the danger of contracting AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases, but educators and parents forget to reinforce the fact that sexual relations are against the law in some states if either party is underage -- even though both parties have agreed to it.

Abby, all it takes to land a young man in criminal court is for a girlfriend to become angry and seek revenge by crying rape, or for her parents to become irate and file a complaint. The boy can then be sent to juvenile hall, the boys' ranch or even the California Youth Authority.

We need to rethink our sex education programs to include the legal ramifications as well as the emotional and physical pitfalls. -- AUNT OF GOOD BOY IN TROUBLE IN CALIFORNIA

DEAR AUNT: I agree; the legal consequences of sexual relations should also be taught in schools.

DEAR ABBY: Please print this. I have a long history of major medical problems, plus more hospitalizations than I can count.

Last week, for the first time in my life, I signed myself out of a hospital. I just couldn't take it anymore. Let me explain:

I had a medical emergency, went to the ER, and had to wait for three hours for a room in the hospital. I was exhausted by the time I got to my room at 2 p.m. Then I had to endure my roommate's reciting her medical history a dozen times to her endless stream of noisy, rude visitors. By 8 p.m., there must have been 20 people in the room. Not one of them had a thing to say that was worth listening to.

I couldn't get to the bathroom because it was on the other side of my roommate's bed, which meant I'd have to walk through (or pass) the crowd in a gown that opened in the back.

I was so exhausted that all I wanted to do was go home where I could get some rest. I insisted that the nurse remove my IV so I could leave.

A word of advice for people who visit friends or relatives in a hospital: First, figure out what you want to say, say it, and leave!

I'm sure that patient's family perceived themselves as wonderful, warm, supportive family rather than the rude, selfish jerks they really are. -- EXHAUSTED IN TACOMA

DEAR EXHAUSTED: It would have been better had you asked the nurse to limit your roommate's visitors so that you could rest. You could also have insisted that visiting hours and visitor limitations be enforced. (Most hospitals have limited visiting hours and usually allow only one or two visitors at a time.) Or, you could have asked to be moved to another room. If you are hospitalized again, don't just lie there and take it. Assert yourself and make your needs known.

To order "How to Write Letters for All Occasions," send a business-sized, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $3.95 ($4.50 in Canada) to: Dear Abby, Letter Booklet, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, Ill. 61054-0447. (Postage is included.)

4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600