Measuring Words

-At what age can a child be considered as “consenting” to an adult sexual act?

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Please be forewarned that content might include
details of abuse and potentially triggering language.
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Language and context can be life-altering–making or breaking a relationship, sales pitch, or political campaign.  “He said what?” one might hear about a vocal faux pas committed by an otherwise viable candidate.  In a moment, his career, or the hope of having one, is over.  Fortunately, with the advent of smartphones and the instancy of social media in the last decade, hot-mic moments — including behind-the-scenes banter of a demeaning or objectifying manner — can be picked up on and called out.  And Twitter?  A minefield of grenades thrown out by those with a toxic combination of impulsiveness, strong opinions, and no filter. 

Since Spotlight, the 2015 film about The Boston Globe’s report on child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, media increasingly covers news of that genre.  Although I’m grateful that the topic is being addressed, I believe that some journalists might need to tweak the terminology that they employ.   For example, I recoil when I see a headline stating that a teacher and a child — be he or she a ten, twelve, or sixteen-year old student — “had sex”.  The teacher possesses an inherent position of power and ultimately is violating and victimizing a weaker party.  When people “have lunch” together, it isn’t one person manipulating the other to go to a restaurant or force feeding that other person once they get there.  “Having lunch” and “having sex” both imply something that people willing do together.

When an adult beats on a child, do we say the two were “having a fight?”  No!  This example is even more extreme and clear when the child is a baby.  Far too frequently on the news, we see a parent, boyfriend, or other adult facing jailtime for having shaken or beaten an infant to death.  We might hear, “The baby woke me up” or, “it wouldn’t shut up,” as lame excuse from the abuser.  

So tell me, if I was raped (penetrated, anally), from the time I was an infant (which I was), would you say at that time I was “having sex” with the other person?   It’s repulsive to me to even consider it with those terms.  Mercifully I don’t think any newspaper in the country would describe a baby rape as two parties “having sex.”

Let’s push it further.  When I was a toddler, and they flipped me over (having prepared me from infancy by inserting a phallic stretching object), was I now “having sex” with the man violating me?  I was, after all, older, stronger, and bigger than when it started.

Or was it when I entered grade school, at six?  By that time, I imagine I was a few inches taller than a standard kitchen counter, and therefore more than half the height of my six-foot-four-inch tall father.  Is that close enough in size, relatively speaking, to say I was “having sex” with the perpetrator?  Is it an issue of physical stature being comparable?

By the time I turned twelve years old, I measured as equal to the average petite woman. I could have passed for an adult–if dressed the part and you were forty feet away. Maybe. Any closer and you’d have seen the braces on my teeth. Inside, underneath an almost full-grown shell, I was still a cowering child. A decade plus of “grooming” had conditioned me to respond as a reflexive robot submitting to the abuser without question. My will had been quashed.

“Although adolescents have ‘developing capacity,’ they are not consistently the functional equivalents of mature adults. Their ‘consent’ is more like assent or acquiescence which carries no presumption of legal capacity.” 

-Jennifer Ann Drobac, “Wake up and Smell the Starbucks: How Doe v. Starbucks Coffee Confirms the End of the ‘Age of Consent’ in California and Perhaps Beyond.” Boston College Journal of Law & Social Justice

At sixteen, legal age for consensual sex in most of the nation, my father and his people were still violating me.  I maintain that the pattern of victimization set in motion from birth precluded any potential for even implied consent.  I never had a choice.  “Having sex?”  The ability to choose, my dignity, and so much more had been stripped from me long before my body looked mature.  An aspect of me — perhaps lingering in the emotions of childhood — cannot comprehend why people would see the victim in any sense as a willing or viable “partner” to some pedophile’s crime. Let me add, in my not-an-expert, just also-abused opinion, that it doesn’t matter if the grooming process begins at infancy, pre-school age, or adolescent/teen years. The result is the same: the child gets sucked in and entrapped by the manipulating perpetrator.

Playing devil’s advocate, at least where semantics are involved, I can understand how the term “have sex” could apply in the singular.  After all, a man could “have sex” with a blow-up doll or some other inanimate object.  For some reason, that argument doesn’t give me any comfort.  If I had a voice, or were asked, I guess I could concede to media using that phrase in the singular, “He had sex with (a baby, teen, or other child.)  Honestly though, that language downplays the criminal nature of what he did.  Back to the example of the teacher and the student, personally, I always feel terrible for the poor teen – who’d probably been groomed way before the age of consent anyway– being portrayed in the media as some available and willing “equal” partner in (again) someone’s crime.

I do see it as progress that the problems of sexual abuse and pedophilia are finally being brought to the light–discussed in media and in general. And there are a lot of good journalists out there who do understand the issues and cover them with sensitivity. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt with a disclaimer saying that perhaps some of the insensitive, if not inaccurate, headlines I’ve stumbled over were merely click-bait. Yet I still look forward to leaps and bounds of more growth in public education and awareness of the issue’s impact on us all.

Aug 18 update:

After having written this post, I came across an excellent article (proof that there are some good journalists out there)

“The Myth of the Underage Woman, One more shameful truth Jeffrey Epstein symbolized: a culture that continues to write girls out of its stories”

by MEGAN GARBER