Debunking myths about statutory rape, race and class: Part 1 of 3

by Racialicious special correspondent Latoya Peterson

The image above has been making the rounds of the feminist blogs, most notably Feministe and Feministing.

The ad was intended to target perpetrators of statutory rape in Milwaukee. Comissioned by the United Way of Milwaukee, the PSA style posters attempted to address a growing issue in that region: an increase in teen pregnancy where the mothers were young to mid teen and the fathers were grown men.

While the images were apparently tested with a focus group, the ads were killed before they made it to the streets. Personally, I hate the images in the ad as they are so comically disorted the messages is lost. The young girls who these men are impregnating do not have seven year old faces on twenty year old bodies. Most of them do look close to their actual ages. And most of the men who would sleep with a developed fifteen year old would probably be repulsed by the idea of having sex with a seven year old.

The ad does garner attention, but by using a photoshopped image of a girl, as opposed to an actual teenager it fails to reinforce the actual message.

However, the ad itself isn’t what prompted me to write this post. The responses to the ad on mainstream feminist blogs did. As I scrolled through the comments in each thread, I was shocked to see how many women were willing to dismiss statutory rape as an issue of mistaken identity. While there were definately some commenters who spoke up as to why the ads were needed, I was astounded to see how many feminists defended the poor men in this situation, who were tricked by these age-bending teens into having sex. The prevailing assumption was that these girls were somewhere they had no business being, doing grown adult things and most of this statutory rape stuff was just an innocent mistake. Some women even threw in their own accounts of looking tragically underage and having to deal with being endlessly carded or having men leave them alone because they looked so young. Tough life.

But not as tough as a fifteen year old trying to cope with a grown man’s affections.

So, I write this post in hopes that some of those women – and a few men – who were so quick to dismiss my day to day reality (and that of my friends) as a simple case of teenage sluts gone wild will read this and reconsider what they know about statutory rape, how it plays out in communties, and how it isn’t easily dismissed as a race or class issue – though both race and class do complicate things quite a bit.

Some notes before we begin:

1. In the vein of feminist blogs, I am slapping this post with a trigger warning. I am not going to describe things graphically, but some of what happens will probably be hard for some people to take. For that, I apologize, but it has to be said.

2. Please do not judge any of the actions taken by my peers or myself. All these things happened from the ages of 12 – 15. One of the events I will describe starts at age eleven. We were not in the mindset to make adult decisions, or even good decisions.

[FYI, age of consent in Maryland is 16, with an exception for actors with less than a four year age difference. This means that a 16 year old can have sex with someone aged 16 - 20 and it would not necessarily be statutory rape.]

3. Settle in, this is the first of a 3-part post.

Ready? Here we go…

“People who have sex with children know what they are doing is wrong.”

Feministing Commenter stinsonnick said:

Ad #1.
I think for the most part men who have sex with children know that it’s wrong, or at least understand that society views it as wrong. This isn’t going to help anything.

Ad #2.
I agree with GoGo. The text of this ad is the equivalent of saying “Oh yeah, she’s hot, but don’t hit that yet.” Awful. And it’s a complete contradiction to Ad #1 which says you shouldn’t even be viewing children sexually. I guess, as always, it’s okay to sexualize black women and girls.

From my reference point, his assessments are off.

Yes, society generally frowns on men that have sex with children and the term “pedophile” conjures up a pervy older man looking at kiddie porn trying to abduct a nine year old from the playground. However, in my personal experience, there are way too many men who know that having sex with a child may be wrong, but consider a teenager (or a pre-teen with a great body) is totally fine.

When I was younger, one of my biggest fears was older men. I could deal with the guys in my grade and older teenage boys. What I was not prepared for were the grown men who would persue me ruthlessly – either by following me up the street in their cars or on the metro. This experience was not unique to me – most of the girls I knew then or the women I know now have all had similar experiences with men who looked to be well into their twenties or thirties.

I remember talking to an older advisor at school about how to deal with it, and she suggested (in addition to trying to go find help) lowering my age when men asked how old I was. I remember telling a guy (aged 21) that I was thirteen when I was sixteen and he didn’t skip a beat. He went on to ask if I had my first boyfriend yet and if he could be my first. I freaked out, because in my mind that was my best chance out of the situation without having it escalate into a confrontation.

At this point, I know, some of you are scratching your heads wondering why a young me didn’t just scream or tell the man to leave me alone or run away. Let me share a little something with you: that afterschool special shit doesn’t always work in the real world.

If I scream and no one decides to help me, I am royally fucked. But don’t take my word for it, take the woman who got harassed on the green line. She asked for help and no one came to her aid on a crowded train. Finally, a teenaged girl risked her safety to help the woman out. Here’s what happened, for those of you who don’t live in the DC area:

The victim had just sat down after boarding the train when a man aggressively moved in next to her and began pushing his body against hers.

“I immediately reacted putting out my hands saying, ‘Whoah, too close. You need to move or I need to move.’ And I immediately got up to move seats,” the woman said. After that brief exchange, the victim claims the man became violent and slammed her against the glass while jamming his elbow into her ribs.

He then allegedly called her derogatory names, attacking her race and gender.

As the victim pleaded for help, a teenage girl responded, pulling on the woman’s wrist to help her break free.

“He just grabbed me again by the lapels of my coat and threw me up against the glass on the other side of the train,” the woman said.

Once the train stopped, the victim escaped and reported the attack to the train operator and two station managers. She said they responded with indifference, never contacting Metro Police and let her attacker get away.

A teenaged girl came to a grown woman’s rescue as the rest of the passengers just sat there and allowed the assault to continue. This is not unusual. Here’s one occassion from my life:

I remember very clearly is coming home on the bus after hanging at a friend’s house afterschool. I was a freshman in high school at the time, so 13/14 years old. A man – yes, man, I remember him to be about 24 – who recognized me from around the neighborhood came up to say hello. Now, this man had already had a few nasty encounters with my friends, so when he approached me on the crowded metro bus I did not speak to him. I was on the window seat, and there was someone else between myself and this man.

He continued to question me about where I was going and I remained silent. The man became irate, demanding that I speak to him or acknowledge him. He then escalated to screaming “oh bitch, you want to act like you don’t know me!” banging on the top part of the bus. I sank down in the seat and felt the person next to me sink down too. The violent tirade continued until the bus driver finally took notice, stopped the bus, and put the man off at the next stop…which happened to be in my neighborhood. I ended up riding the bus to the end of line and back. The only person who did anything about the situation was the bus driver.

One of the things I learned when dealing with men who approached me was not to make them angry. If you make a man angry, he is more likely to try to restrain you or outright attack you. So, even if you are screaming inside, the best way out of most situations is to be nice and bide your time until you are in a safe enough area in which to get away. This dynamic is explored in the anthology Naked I referenced in an earlier post. In that collection, yet another woman is puzzled why her mother is kind to the men who disrespect her on the street – and yet, comes to understand very quickly what could happen if you aren’t.

I am not saying that this behavior is right. It irks me everytime I have to respond to disrespect with kindness fue to fear of physical harm. However, escalating a situation with too many unknown factors isn’t my style – and I am not trying to end up dead or assualted because I wanted to prove a point.

To be continued tomorrow…

This series is now complete.

Go to part two.
Go to part three.