If you’ve been reading the Washington Post the past few days, you might conclude that sexual abuse is the inevitable result of girls being girls. First, there was an op-ed by Betsy Karasik, in which she defends a 49-year-old male teacher who raped a 14-year-old girl (who later committed suicide) with the classic “grass on the field” justification. Then there’s Richard Cohen, in full Richard Cohen mode, trying to tie Miley Cyrus to the Steubenville, Ohio, rape. Together, the Washington Post argument appears to be that since teenage girls have the nerve to go through puberty and even dirty dance, then rape is the price they must pay. Congratulations, Jeff Bezos!
Karasik’s column uses the Stacey Dean Rambold case—in which Rambold, a teacher who raped his student and was sentenced to only a month in jail—to shrug off the severity of statutory rape. She argues that middle-aged teachers having sex with teenage girls is no big deal and that the people who make it a big deal are the problem. Her reasoning is that she heard about some relations like that as a teenager, and she is happy to speculate that it all turned out OK because none of the people she knew in high school specifically called her up later to tell her otherwise:
I’ve been a 14-year-old girl, and so have all of my female friends. When it comes to having sex on the brain, teenage boys got nothin’ on us. When I was growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, the sexual boundaries between teachers and students were much fuzzier. Throughout high school, college and law school, I knew students who had sexual relations with teachers. To the best of my knowledge, these situations were all consensual in every honest meaning of the word, even if society would like to embrace the fantasy that a high school student can’t consent to sex. Although some feelings probably got bruised, no one I knew was horribly damaged and certainly no one died.
Well, as long as no one died!
Karasik, a writer and former lawyer, goes on to imply, without a shred of supporting evidence, that the girl’s suicide in the Rambold case was a reaction to the meanie government cracking down on the rapist. She then smugly suggests that criminalizing statutory rape hurts the young ones: “[T]he indiscriminate criminalization of such situations may deter students struggling with sexual issues from seeking advice from a parent or counselor.” As opposed to, say, discouraging adults with predatory urges from acting on them.
As for Cohen—you can tell his column is going to be a wreck just from the headline: “Miley Cyrus, Steubenville, and Teen Culture Run Amok.” (Or from the byline.) Cohen is not happy that a teenage girl in Ohio was hauled around and treated like a trash can by young men, but he ultimately puts the blame on young women for, yep, not being modest enough: “But let me also suggest that acts such as [Cyrus’] not only objectify women but debase them. They encourage a teenage culture that has set the women’s movement back on its heels.” He encourages Cyrus to read The New Yorker’s long piece on “what became known as the Steubenville Rape.”
As I noted last week with the ongoing fuss over Cyrus, teenagers are going to experiment sexually in a variety of ways, from dirty dancing to singing naughty pop songs to yes, having sex with one another. None of this is an excuse to sexually assault them, minimize sexual assault against them, or indirectly threaten them by saying that sexual assault is what’s coming if they continue to play with their own emerging sexuality. Our job is to protect them by giving advice on sexual health and making sure there are safe spaces, like schools, where they can be themselves without being preyed upon by predators. This isn’t hard. We’re the adults here, and it’s time we started acting like it.