In Defence of Statutory “Rape”

In Defence of Statutory “Rape”

Obvious trigger warning is obvious

The geek blogospheres blew up a little this past week when Glee basically ripped off Jonathan Coulton’s cover of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back”. This has a host of its own problems, which have been covered extensively elsewhere. (Seriously, did they just expect JoCo to be small enough that people wouldn’t notice the unoriginal cover?)

Apart from the plagiarizing douchenocity of this episode, there seem to be other questionable things happening in the plot that Elyse brought up over on Skepchick. You’ll want to read that article, since this is a response to what she said and not the music stuff.

I’ll go ahead and say that I’ve never watched Glee–obsession with that show made me lose respect for someone a long time ago, and it just never sounded fun. The whole ‘covering music with a choir of kids’ thing was already tacky back when we had Kidz Bop commercials between our cartoons. So, I know very little about the show, and basically everything I do know I learned from reading Elyse’s article and doing some minimal background research. This amount of information should suffice, but don’t get mad at my guesses.

Diluting the storyline as far as possible, Kitty the High School Student is flirting with Puckerman the High School Graduate. My understanding is that Kitty is about 15-16 and Puck is 18-19 (see that awesome research?). If seasons work like years, Puck has graduated since the beginning of the show and he’s a pretty fresh adult. The dialogue and mood of the show tell us that these characters end up having sex.

We define ‘rape’ as sexual contact that occurs without consent of one of the parties involved. Elyse says several times that this sexual encounter is bold-faced rape because Kitty is unable to consent to sex due to her age. To address the strictly legal aspect of this argument: If we assume that Kitty is 16, she is legally able to consent to sex in the state of Ohio, as well as 29 other states. If she’s not yet 16, we may be more likely to consider this statutory rape, but I don’t think we should be calling this ‘rape’ at all.

One of the phrases we like to use is “enthusiastic consent” when we’re referring to what should be ideal in terms of consensual sex. Based on the dialogue of the show, Kitty is absolutely enthusiastic about the encounter. This is someone she seems to be familiar with, that she probably knew before he was an adult. They may have been classmates. The age gap is not big enough to warrant a huge fuss over how old her partner is, and she seems to know what she’s getting into.

At what point, exactly, does someone’s consent become valid? Kitty is consenting all over the place. There is not a magic wand that waves at midnight on someone’s birthday, suddenly granting them the power to decide what things to put in their orifices. If we use the blanket standard of ‘you can’t consent to sex until you’re 18′, following that logic would mean that a 17-year-old woman engaged in sex in the moments leading up to her birthday would be being raped from 11:57 p.m. to 11:59, but would suddenly be having consensual intercourse at 12:00 a.m. and beyond.

Following that logic, the majority of times I’ve had sex, I was being raped. I’m 18 and I became sexually active when I was 14, two of my partners were over 18 while I was a minor. However, I’ve never been the victim of sexual assault and not a single one of those encounters was rape. This is just one example, but there are probably a substantial number of young people who engage in completely consensual sex with their peers, give or take a few years.

Back when my husband and I first met and were hanging out as friends, he was very recently 18. Very shortly into this friendship, my mother wildly threatened to “have him thrown in jail” for statutory rape. Thanks to that, I kept my sex life a complete secret from everyone for the duration of my “childhood”, even though I was and have always been a pro-actively sexual person and have never had sex without mutual consent. Someone else’s (particularly my mother’s) power to overrule my consent and have my partner arrested plagued me for years.

It’s incredibly insulting to make the blanket statement that someone is incapable of consenting to sex until they’re 18. 16 is fairly understandable, but this isn’t something that can be easily diagnosed based on the number of star-revolutions you’ve lived through. Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand being incensed about the exploitation of children. But how we define “child” is seriously a problem.

If we in the skeptic, atheist, feminist, social justice communities truly value young people and want them to be interested in our causes, we have to give them more consideration and more credit than this. It’s extremely condescending and off-putting to have your right to bodily autonomy thrown under the bus by the people who are supposed to understand sexual freedom and support informed decision-making.

Featured image from www.glennsacks.com 

By Lux
Lux is a female genderqueer weirdo, writing from Kansas. They happily identify as a militant atheist(+), feminist and liberal. Their time is consumed with Doctor Who, reading, and playing WoW with a cat on their lap. If you're lucky, you might catch them smithing jewellery or cleaning something.

19 Comments

  1. Great post Lux. I completely agree. Statutory rape laws are meant to keep total pervs away from 16 year olds. When I was 15 I had sex with a 38 year old man I hardly knew and now I intensely regret it. However, less than 1 year later I had sex with a 19 year old and we ended up being a happy couple for nearly 3 years (and i’ve never regretted any of that). People like this 38 year old man are predators looking to take advantage of young and easily impressed girls. The circumstances and age gap of the incident with the 38 year old were definitely grounds for statutory rape… but definitely not with the 19 year old.

    Plus, depending on where you live, there are Romeo and Juliet laws that make exceptions to sex that may fall under “statutory rape”… because sometimes young people really do want to have sex with older people.

    It actually outrages me that people do what Elyse has done. For people who have experienced rape…Does it not feel borderline insulting to call this rape? Because it does to me.

    • I’m sorry to hear that, Katie. <3 So glad you're okay.

      I hadn't really considered that end of it, but yeah, it's definitely insulting to rape survivors to have completely consensual sex labelled as ‘rape’ when there are true victims out there.

      Generally, it’s a conflation of terms that were bandied about. I suppose it’s easy to do that since we’ve all been talking about sexual assault so much.

  2. Yes. Kitty has the right to have sex whether or not it’s considered rape (against her own protestations).

    I’m not really sure I understand age of consent laws very well. On the one hand, young women are considered more vulnerable to sexual assault, and these laws are supposedly in place to protect them. However, a lack of understanding about sex is not one of those reasons. (That’s why a child and pre-teens, rather than teenagers, are considered unable to consent.)

    So what’s special about 14 to 17.999 year olds? I feel like people are uncomfortable with the idea of this age group having sex because of the possible repercussions (pregnancy, mainly). So they don’t get proper sex education, and they aren’t technically “allowed” to have sex. That doesn’t mean they don’t understand what they want, and can’t consent to it. Shouldn’t we just educate teenagers about the risks, rather than restrict their freedoms?

    And as a sidenote…isn’t it the case in some states that it’s not considered statutory rape if you’re within a certain age of the underage party?

    • To your last question: yes. For instance in Canada someone who is 12 or 13 can have sex with someone within 2 years older and people aged 14 and 15 can have sex with someone within 5 years older than them. 16 is the age of consent unless the older person is someone of authority, a guardian or it is exploitative in nature…then the person must be 18 (so you have to be 18 to be a prostitute in Canada).

      • (I’m just reading all the different American state laws now – some are very similar to this)

      • In the U.S. (at least in Kansas), a 19-year-old can have sex with a 14-year-old and that’s the age difference which can make it not-statutory-rape. I’m sure there are similar laws around.

    • Oh yeah, people are definitely uncomfortable with teens having sex. It’s why people push sooo hard for abstinence-only education, because apparently that’s the only way to shelter their kids from learning about sex. The reality is that they’ll keep having sex, just without the knowledge that there are ways to protect themselves (case and point, Texas has highest teen pregnancy rate of country, abstinence-only education).

      I think another contributing factor to the idea that teens shouldn’t be having sex is that we’re still freaked out about sex as a society. We’re (general ‘we’) ashamed of our bodies and our intimate lives, and we do everything we can to restrict the age group with the least inhibitions.

      Teenagers want to explore and have fun and figure out what they like, and a lot of the time aren’t ashamed of it. They keep it secret from adults, sure, but around their peers it’s no big deal. It just makes it to where kids don’t trust their parents or other adults when/if problems do arise.

  3. The reality is that people at these ages have sex, and many of the people who happen to be above this arbitrary line of exclusion are their peers, no more or less responsible than they are. Rape is a strong word, and a horrible act. I agree with Katie, to call this rape is improper.

  4. I don’t disagree with your position that 18 shouldn’t the be-all end-all age for consent. I do think that Elyse’s article raised other confounding factors. I should probably first also mention that I have refused to watch the show from the very first, and I have not regretted that decision once.

    Really quickly regarding age of consent, I think a fair case could be made that by and large puberty is not a great time to make rational sexual decisions. I could even say that puberty’s hormonal effects might constitute some level of impairment akin to chemical impairment from drugs, alcohol, etc. I have no medical training, and I haven’t done the research, so I’m certainly not qualified to make that statement unequivocally. I’m not even sure it’s close to accurate. I think, though, that that is probably the rationale behind the laws in general.

    The real confounding factor, for me, is that according to Elyse’s recap, Kitty is coercing Puckerman into sex. She is leveraging her notedly predatory nature toward Puckerman’s brother to get sex from Puckerman. That’s certainly an exercise in power. She’s using the threat of sex to get sex. This combines with the age of consent issues to make the act more significantly clear as rape than merely an age of consent issue alone.

    • Hey, thanks for sharing your opinion. It’s nice to get a spread of ideas in response to something as charged as this.

      The idea that people going through puberty can’t properly make sexual decisions trips allll my feminist buttons. It’s actually really, really offensive, and even though I’m sure that wasn’t intentional, I’ll show you some examples to help you understand why:

      Pregnant women can’t make rational sexual decisions because of their hormones.

      People on their periods can’t make rational sexual decisions because of their hormones.

      We can’t have a female president because she would be too emotional (because of her hormones).

      “I think a fair case could be made that by and large [being on your period] is not a great time to make rational sexual decisions. I could even say that [menstruation's] hormonal effects might constitute some level of impairment akin to chemical impairment from drugs, alcohol, etc.”

      Okay, so how does Kitty coercing Puckerman into sex + age of consent issues = rape? The idea here is that Puck would be the one “raping”, but if the issue is that Kitty is using leverage to coerce him the statutory part of the argument is moot because Puck is an adult. A discussion about Puck being raped via coercion is a discussion which does not involve age of consent.

      • I made my point pretty inarticulately, and I definitely recognize how that came out like I’m an asshole, so I apologize for that.

        I do think pubescent hormones have an effect on our decision-making abilities. I do think they can impair them (largely personal experience, and again, no training and research). I don’t think that the scale of impairment is necessarily on par with being falling-down drunk, however I drew the comparison between other factors of impairment (which impair consent) to draw a parallel between what might constitute rape. This factor alone, again, doesn’t lead me to disagree with you.

        Puberty and teenage years are wildly different experiences for different people. Personally, I didn’t feel I was in a good place to make appropriate sexual decisions when I was a minor. I didn’t have sexual intercourse, but I still engaged in other sexual activity, which is not a particularly good testament to my resolve from the time. I certainly understand that other people can be in other places regarding those same decisions even at the same point in life.

        Puberty is not only physical maturation but mental maturation. Where in the spectrum is between their pre-pubescent faculties and adult faculties is going to be highly variable. The capability of a teenager, then, to make sound decisions (sound for them and not sound in a societal way) is not a foregone conclusion. People’s position in the scale are not perfectly consistent. Given I don’t watch the show, I can’t say much beyond Elyse’s write-up, but I have some doubts about either characters’ place on the spectrum in this situation.

        The conflation of the acknowledgement of the illegality of the action, Puckerman’s implicit understanding that what he agrees to is wrong, the possibility that their judgment is impaired, and the imbalance of power put me in the camp that it was a rape.

        I will fully grant that the middle two points in the list are the weakest. But…I just can’t bring myself to watch the show.

      • Regarding the examples, I definitely was not limiting myself to women in my interpretation. Hormones can be a confounding factor but not a limiting factor, absolutely. Part of that likely also couples with the mental maturity of the person with the hormones. Hormones alone don’t mean anything in this context, but hormones with many other things could.

        I actually agree mostly with both posts. I think you

        • (Accidentally hit submit.) I think your penultimate paragraph and Elyse’s are the ones most opposed to each other. That’s what I’m trying to parse.

      • Actually, recent neurological studies do show that the adolescent brain does not process the impact of potential consequences of actions in the same way that an adult brain does.

        And while I agree that when it comes to someone who is a peer, a teenager is as capable as an adult of consenting to sex, the statutory rape laws are meant to protect young people who be swayed, even without realizing it, by the perceived authority of someone who is an adult. It’s a similar motivation to rules against relationships between adults where one adult is in an authority position relative to the other. While its possible for people in such a position to be thoroughly consenting, it is also possible that the difference in their positions makes the issue of consent more questionable.

  5. The one thing about Elyse’s post that stood out to me was that in the show they went out of their way to set up the idea that Kitty was underage in the universe of Glee. There was no reason to do so since Puckerman is graduated and she is not, we know there’s an age difference. In that sense I think it was very poorly done, unless they plan to use this in some later show to make a point. Though I don’t think they’ve really done a good job of that either. In any case, I don’t think you can call it rape. She consented, he consented. It’s a fuzzy and dangerous line legally if she’s not at the age of consent, but he’s not a creepy predator in this case either.

    However, regarding age of consent laws and teens ability to consent there are good reasons, whether they prick feminist sensibilities or not, for limitations on what teens can do. Including driving, drinking, voting, joining the army and the whole host of adult choices we magically are legally allowed to make (mostly) at age 18. The age of adulthood is itself, arbitrary. In any case, it’s not hormones exactly that induce teens to make potentially poor choices so comparing it to a pregnant woman isn’t actually reasonable. Teenagers brains are at this strange stage of development where they are typically unable to really assess risk or risk-taking behaviors. Obviously 18 doesn’t magically mean your brain is adult, it takes a couple more years (in fact, historically men at least weren’t adults legally until their early 20’s). But it does mean that as a population, teenagers are more likely to do risky things without having made the assessment adults do. It’s actually similar to dealing with someone whose brain is impaired by drugs or alcohol. So while as a society we have to recognize practically that teenagers are going to do things, like have sex, we also have to try and limit the potential consequences of that behavior when it comes in direct conflict with an adult who may well be taking advantage of them.

    In the end though, this means that the age of consent is an arbitrary line. As is the age at which we allow them to drive, vote and otherwise participate in society as an adult. Some teens may be mature enough to have sex at 13, some may not be mature enough until 17. But you can’t make legal judgments without something objective to base it on. That’s also why these laws have the built-in gaps. If you’re within 2-5 years (depending on your state/country) then you don’t hit that arbitrary line anyhow.

    In any case, I think the ultimate problem is how the show was written.

    • I didn’t actually consider that it could be a future plot point, but given that the show makes me vomit I’m not surprised I didn’t make that connection.

  6. I have a huge problem with the notion of the fake Hollywood Gleehio imposing Californian age of consent rules on the whole world.
    I am tempted to break out the old “Smash US Imperialism” banner.

  7. So, I am gonna be that person that I hate. But that’s cool, because I’m spittin’ truth as I know it.

    When I was underage, I was desperately horny and pretty ripe for exploitation. I was long distance dating a guy three years older, and while that may have danced on the verge of legality, he was still a peer, and we never had sex. But I was eager to lose my virginity. I thought at the time that I was perfectly able to consent, with anybody that I wanted to.

    I ended up losing my virginity right around my 19th birthday, after the breakup of the long-term long-distance relationship, to a guy I handpicked because he was really nice. I’m now 28 and I’ve been banging away since. I have experienced the wide spectrum of consent; I’ve had very happily mutual sex, I’ve had “okay I guess I’m gonna do this now” sex, I’ve had unwanted consensual sex and I’ve been forcibly raped. (Can I just say that it bugs the hell out of me that people say that something is “insulting” to “real rape victims”? The word rape covers a lot of ground, just like the word assault does.)

    Looking back, I know now that had I engaged in sex while underage, chances are it would have been all right. I don’t think it would have been good for me, but I doubt it would have had any lasting consequences. But I also see how vulnerable I was due to my lack of experience and yes, the hormones racing through my brain; I am glad that the age of consent laws were there protecting me. While jerks can be found in many strata of society, teens engaging in sex with their peers are at way less risk than teens engaging in sex with people who are significantly more mature or more advanced than they are- jobs, cars, money, apartments, et cetera.

    I’m a doula, and I specialized in working with both teenage mothers and sexual assault victims. The stats on teen moms are telling- over half of births to girls aged 10-17 are fathered by men over the age of 21. This does not include the significant age gaps that occur when, say, an 18 ‘year old impregnates a 12 year old. Like incest, these could be conceivably consensual, but the circumstances throw that consent under the shadow of authority.

    I don’t care about Glee. They like to present untenable situations for the drama of it. I care about the actual young women who are consistently being used by older men who break these laws.

  8. The legal age of consent is arbitrary, and varies from place to place but that doesn’t mean age related inability to consent isn’t a thing.

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