The headline on a June 19 Herald-Leader news story got it right: “Fayette County school employee accused of raping student resigns.”
This perpetrator is appropriately charged with rape because under Kentucky law, a child under 16 cannot consent to sex. Even if the student had been 16 or 17, it would still be considered statutory rape because the perpetrator was a teacher.
Unfortunately, the article went on to describe a consensual act instead of a crime.
Why not just call it what it is: rape?
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Words matter — especially to jury pools — and this isn’t a case of being politically correct or parsing words. Using words that imply consent, like the teacher is “accused of having sex with …” is problematic in all sexual assault cases. It minimizes the traumatic nature of a crime and makes it easy for perpetrators to try to blur the lines of consent and/or shift the focus to the victim’s behavior.
Words implying consent are particularly troubling and problematic in cases of sexual assault against children … and teenagers are children under the law. Far too often these crimes are described in consensual terms.
For instance, the June 19 story references evidence on the perpetrator’s cell phone of a “relationship” with the “former student.” That sentence ought to read something more like, “Police discovered predatory text messages from the perpetrator to the victim,” which would more clearly describe the behaviors of a rapist.
Consent is the pillar of lawful sex. It centers around voluntary decision-making. We know from a sound body of research into brain development that a teenager’s brain is significantly underdeveloped compared to the brain of someone in their mid-20s.
The part of the brain that guides rational decision-making is the last to fully develop and renders teens vulnerable to exploitation by adults who intend to hurt them and who bear the responsibility for not engaging in criminal sexual activity with children.
It is past time to educate everyone about the true, horrific nature of sexual assault. Society has started to recognize that we need to change our victim-blaming culture.
The first step toward that is to stop using words implying consent to describe traumatic crimes.
Eileen Recktenwald is executive director of the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs.
At issue: Herald-Leader article, “Fayette County school employee accused of raping student resigns”