A women attend the so-called 'SlutWalk,' Saturday, Aug. 13, 2011, which organizers described as a demonstration against those who blame the victims of sex crimes. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
Last year, a defense attorney called an 11-year-old gang rape victim a “spider” luring men into her web. When the New York Times covered the case, they reported that she “dressed older than her age,” wore make up and hung out with teenage boys. It wasn’t a new framing; when young girls are raped—especially young girls of color—they’re frequently blamed for “enticing” adult men or painted as complicit in the attack because of their supposed sexual maturity. From the criminal justice system that re-traumatizes assault victims to a media that calls rape cases “sex scandals” or insists statutory rape isn’t “rape rape”, we are failing young sexual assault survivors every day.
One young woman we have failed is Cherice Moralez. When Moralez was 14, she was raped by her 49-year-old teacher. She killed herself a few weeks before her seventeenth birthday. Last week, a Montana judge sentenced Stacey Dean Rambold—who admitted raping Moralez—to just thirty days in jail. Judge G. Todd Baugh said Moralez was “older than her chronological age,” and was “as much in control of the situation” as her rapist. Baugh also said the assault “wasn’t this forcible beat-up rape.”
While state prosecutors are seeking to appeal the sentence and the case has generated justifiable outrage, some believe the thirty days was too much. Former lawyer Betsy Karasik, for example, used the case as an example to argue for the decriminalization of student-teacher “relationships” in The Washington Post. Karasik insisted that no one she knew who had sex with teachers was “horribly damaged” and that “many teenagers are, biologically speaking, sexually mature.”
But biological maturity or “acting” mature is not the same thing as being an adult. Roxane Gay writes, “People often want to ‘complicate’ the statutory rape conversation by talking about the sexual empowerment of adolescents and this and that. These exercises in intellectual masturbation are pointless.”
“I was a teenager, we were all teenagers and we all felt empowered in our youthful seductions. We maybe were and we probably weren’t. We like to tell ourselves we know exactly what we’re doing, even when we don’t.”
When I was a sophmore in high school, my social studies teacher—who was his 60s or 70s—asked me to come to the board because “everyone wants to see how you look in that shirt.” I stopped going to class, too ashamed to return. Before the semester ended, the teacher cornered me in the hallway and told me if I gave him a hug, he would give me a 95 in the class. I did it.
At the time, I laughed with my friends about the “pervy teacher who gave me an awesome grade.” I reacted the same way when I was 17 and a man in his 30s who had been my teacher since I was 13 years old called my home the week I graduated to ask me out. Because that’s what teens do—deflect pain with humor.
I thought my blasé reaction made me mature, but the truth is that it epitomized my immaturity—a testament to the fact that I didn’t know how to handle unwanted advances of much older men.
Teenagers can act unhurt over sexual harassment and abuse for all sorts of reasons, including trying to reclaiming agency from an abusive situation. That does not mean what is happening is not abuse, or rape, or assault. And no matter how grown teens act, it’s the responsibility of teachers and adults to remind us that we’re not adults, not to lasciviously bolster a myth that says otherwise or worsen it with blame.
Sexualization of young girls is not just something that happens as part of abuse, it’s something that’s part of their everyday lives. A report from the American Psychological Association shows that even the personal relationships girls have with peers, parents and teachers can contribute to this sexualization through daily interactions:
Parents may contribute to sexualization in a number of ways. For example, parents may convey the message that maintaining an attractive physical appearance is the most important goal for girls. Some may allow or encourage plastic surgery to help girls meet that goal. Research shows that teachers sometimes encourage girls to play at being sexualized adult women or hold beliefs that girls of color are “hypersexual” and thus unlikely to achieve academic success.
For girls like Moralez—who are depicted as “troubled” or deserving of the abuse done to them because of racism and their perceived sexuality—the consequences are acute. One study, for example, showed that Latina girls are likely to stop attending school activities in order to avoid sexual harassment—a survival technique that is more likely to result in a label of deliquency than victimhood.
Cherice Moralez deserves more justice than thirty days. She deserves more humanity than being fodder for an intellectual argument that supports rape. And no matter what she looked like or acted like, she was a child.
As Cherice’s mother Auliea Hanlon told CNN, “How could she be in control of the situation? He was a teacher. She was a student. She wasn’t in control of anything. She was 14.” Cherice was described as “gifted” by her teachers. She loved poetry. She was 14.
Reproductive rights debate should include everyone, including the most marginalized.