When will the world stop telling rape victims that they are victims of their own behavior?
For the last several weeks, consent has been weighing heavily on my mind.
It started with Betsy Karasik’s misguided and, frankly, misinformed Washington Post op-ed about statutory rape involving teachers and their students. To Karasik, the “utter hysteria” surrounding Montana high school teacher Stacey Dean Rambold’s 30-day jail sentence for raping a 14-year-old female student—and Judge Todd Baugh’s callous defense of it—is not so much about protecting children as much as it is about feeding our need to feel as if “we are protecting them.” Sure, Karasik writes, all teachers who “engage in sex with students, no matter how consensual” should be fired, but that’s it. Predatory teachers shouldn’t be criminalized. Rather, just removed from their posts, only to return after they can prove they’ve been rehabilitated.
Why? Because she was 14-years-old once and so were her friends. In the 1960s and ‘70s—when sexual boundaries between adults and teenagers “were much fuzzier”—her friends had consensual sex with their teachers (as far as she knows, by the way), both when they could not and could legally consent. And while “some feelings probably got bruised,” no one “was horribly damaged and certainly no one died.”
(That last bit refers to now 49-year-old Rambold’s victim, Cherice Morales, who committed suicide at age 16 in large part due to her rape, her mother said. While Karasik claims on Twitter she found the suicide “tragic,” her WaPo piece actually infers that she found it “tragic and deeply troubling that [the suicide] occurred” during criminal proceedings—not that the suicide occurred, but when it did. There’s nothing nuanced about punctuation.)
Particularly, she writes:
…There is a vast and extremely nuanced continuum of sexual interactions involving teachers and students, ranging from flirtation to mutual lust to harassment to predatory behavior. Painting all of these behaviors with the same brush sends a damaging message to students and sets the stage for hypocrisy and distortion of the truth. Many teenagers are, biologically speaking, sexually mature. Pretending that this kind of thing won’t happen if we simply punish it severely enough is delusional. If anything…the indiscriminate criminalization of such situations may deter students struggling with sexual issues from seeking advice from a parent or counselor.
Needless to say Karasik received a lot of (rightful) backlash for her piece. And, as if to outdo itself, WaPo published a distasteful opinion piece by Richard Cohen a few days later linking Miley Cyrus’s sexually-charged VMA performance with the gang-rape that happened in Steubenville, Ohio. You see, Cohen suggests, Cyrus’s performance—and ones like it—objectify and debase women. “They encourage a teenage culture that has set the women’s movement back on its heels.” Apparently, they fuel the behaviors that cause teenagers to rape and gang rape, and for bystanders to sit back and watch—because, you know, rape and the lack of intervention among young adults and teenagers is totally a new phenomenon (it’s not).
Consent’s residency in my mind also wasn’t helped by how awful that week was in rape, as so bluntly put by Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick, who gave a rundown of all the recent cases in the United States suggesting we’re headed into a worrisome legal future regarding sexual assault.
It was Karasik’s piece, though, that was most traumatizing for me. It was particularly traumatizing because she accepted consent as something clearly defined—as if non-consent is the underage victim’s burden of proof. In her piece, she fails to consider uneven power dynamics, manipulation, and other damagingly pervasive behavior on part of the predator that may inform the victim’s “consent.” Karasik failed to realize that sometimes consent is not consent at all.
For the last 14 years, I have struggled to come to terms with that realization. I struggle with it because I’ve been taught—which Karasik confirms—that consent is always black and white. That “yes means yes” and “no means no.” If it’s not forced, it’s not rape—and if you’re considered old enough to know better, then you’re not a victim.
They are misguided and disproven viewpoints I disavow for everyone else. But for myself, victim-blame is forever internalized.
Since 1999, I’ve played the same story over and over in my head about my experience: I was 16, I should have known better. What occurred is stripped of all other factors—that my predator was 35 years old; that he was my employer; that, despite trying to talk my way out of it, I felt forced to comply; that there was manipulation, religious coercion, and an imbalance of power involved; that I wasn’t the only one and I knew it; that I had no safe space to turn; and that I felt so alone in the world, I so desperately wanted to feel affection from someone.
I ignore that my bones rattled sickeningly, even when I thought I was enamored. I discount the reality that I knew in my gut it was wrong—that he was preying on my age and my emotional weakness. I push aside that, for years after it happened, I would run away every time I saw him in the streets—and that, to this day, I still freeze up every time I see someone who resembles him even though I live two states away now.
One of my best friends—the first person I ever told about what happened—put a label on my experience: molestation. But that word, a decade later, is bitter in my mouth. I am not a victim of sexual misconduct. I can’t be. It doesn’t matter if he had 19 years on my 16. It doesn’t matter that I still have nightmares. It doesn’t matter if it’s a secret lodged in my chest, haunting me almost every waking second. I wasn’t a victim because I was legally old enough to know better. I wasn’t a victim because I consented…right?
Wrong. And I know that’s wrong. But even after all this time, I still refuse to call myself a survivor, a victim, or anything remotely related to validating that sexual misconduct took place. I live within the walls constructed by rape culture that says sexual assault or abuse only happens when these particular boxes are checked—that you have the right to call it sexual assault if and only if it was obvious (and even then, a victim is still questioned, still criticized, still blamed). I want to stop living within those walls.
The rape apologism soaked in Karasik’s and Cohen’s pieces does nothing but reinforce that victims are always victims of their own behavior and/or of the world around them. They do nothing but traumatize and victimize survivors once again. They do nothing but silence them once more, forcing those who are already struggling with defining their experience back into their dark hole.
While writing this piece, my body shook with chills. My legs felt weak, and all I wanted to do was vomit. Putting to paper even the vaguest details of what happened sickens me. It sickens me because, while I thought letting go of this secret in public would free me of its ghost, I am terrified of the strangers who’ll confirm what I already feel—that it is my fault, that I’m the damaged, contemptible one.
It’s a weight I carry because of the Karasiks, Baughs, and Cohens of the world—and because of the Karasiks, Baughs, and Cohens surely to come.
That’s a burden no survivor should bear. Rape apologism needs to stop.
M. Lani Thompson is the pen name for a veteran writer living on the East Coast.