This week, social media and online news networks have been dominated by statuses, shares, and stories about a raunchy music award show performance in which a virtually naked girl just out of her teens had virtual sex with a much older man singing about “blurred lines” for a target audience of teens and tweens.
People were outraged. Mostly, they were outraged by the overtly sexual performance of a girl who had been in the public eye since her childhood. Those who spoke out against the much older man performing alongside her did so only in reaction to fact that the girl part of the duo was taking the brunt of the disgust. If he had been on that stage alone, I doubt anyone would have taken any extraordinary notice of his act. After all, his song about a man pushing, and pushing, and pushing a reluctant woman to have sex with him against her better judgment has been dubbed by radio stations far and wide as “the song of summer.”
Meanwhile, another story is breaking, though with much less ado. This story is about blurred lines too. Except that legally, technically, actually the lines aren’t blurred.
In this story, we learn about the sentencing of a Montana man who was convicted of legal, technical, actual rape. This man, a teacher who was over 50 at the time, had sex with his 14-year-old student — a girl who killed herself at the age of 16 while this case was still in court.
The rapist pled guilty to one count of statutory rape and was offered a deal – if he entered and successfully completed a 3-year treatment program for sex offenders and met a few other conditions, the charges would be dropped. That was in 2010. By 2012, he had been kicked out of the program for failing to comply.
His case was returned to court, and prosecutors requested a 20 year sentence with ten years suspended. The judge handed down a sentence of 15 years, suspending all but 31 days of it. With one day of time served, this convicted child rapist will be serving 30 days in jail for his crime.
This sentence is outrageous, infuriating, and yet another example of the injustice that runs rampant throughout our justice system. But it’s not the worst part of this story.
The worst part of the story is the judge’s reason for his sentence: because the girl this man raped, the child who is now dead, the child whom he never even met, was “older than her chronological age” and therefore “as much in control of the situation” as her rapist, her teacher, an adult more than three times her age.
So, in other words, according to our judge, the lines between rape and consent are blurred. If a girl – who is legally, technically a child – seems older than her years, then she isn’t actually a child.
Never mind that a person in a position of authority and trust engaged in sexual intercourse with minor less than one-third his age.
Never mind that this girl was so emotionally unstable that she eventually committed suicide.
Never mind that the case was back in court because the rapist was violating the terms of his sex offender treatment program. The victim’s outward appearance, the way she expressed herself, the way she responded to sexual overtures made her appear older than her years. The attitude and behavior of the victim were mitigating factors. It wasn’t “real” rape. The lines were blurred, and now a sexual predator will pay pennies on the dollar for his crime.
There are shades of gray everywhere in life. There are extenuating circumstances in most crimes — even in this case. This man may genuinely be ill. He may have been a victim of sexual abuse himself. He may benefit greatly from treatment and contribute meaningfully to society.
There are shades of gray everywhere, but there are also solid, defining lines. And rape is surrounded by one of those lines. Rape is rape; the person at fault is the rapist. If a woman is raped while walking alone in a dark ally, it is no less a rape because she “should have known better.” If a woman is too drunk to say no, she wasn’t “asking for it.” If a child comes off as sexually precocious, the adult who has sex with her is no less to blame because she “seemed older than her years.”
As I am writing this, I keep thinking — but everything I am saying is so obvious. Of course rape is rape. Clearly it is.
Except that it isn’t, not for everyone. It isn’t for our judge, who after apologizing for what he said in his sentencing, justified his sentence by stating, “Obviously, a 14-year-old can’t consent. I think that people have in mind that this was some violent, forcible, horrible rape. It was horrible enough as it is, just given her age, but it wasn’t this forcible beat-up rape.”
Obviously, it was a rape. But it wasn’t, y’know, a rape rape.