I astounded that Betsy Karasik, supposedly a lawyer, wouldn’t have known intellectually, that rape is not about sex, but all about power.
There is a painfully uncomfortable episode of “Louie” in which the comedian Louis C.K. muses that maybe child molesters wouldn’t kill their victims if the penalty weren’t so severe. Everyone I know who watches the show vividly recalls that scene from 2010 because it conjures such a witches’ cauldron of taboo, disgust and moral outrage, all wrapped around a disturbing kernel of truth. I have similar ambivalence about the case involving former Montana high school teacher Stacey Dean Rambold. Louie concluded his riff with a comment to the effect of “I don’t know what to do with that information.” That may be the case for many of us, but with our legal and moral codes failing us, our society needs to have an uncensored dialogue about the reality of sex in schools.
As protesters decry the leniency of Rambold’s sentence — he will spend 30 days in prison after pleading guilty to raping 14-year-old Cherice Morales, who committed suicide at age 16 — I find myself troubled for the opposite reason. I don’t believe that all sexual conduct between underage students and teachers should necessarily be classified as rape, and I believe that absent extenuating circumstances, consensual sexual activity between teachers and students should not be criminalized. While I am not defending Judge G. Todd Baugh’s comments about Morales being “as much in control of the situation” — for which he has appropriately apologized — tarring and feathering him for attempting to articulate the context that informed his sentence will not advance this much-needed dialogue.
I do think that teachers who engage in sex with students, no matter how consensual, should be removed from their jobs and barred from teaching unless they prove that they have completed rehabilitation. But the utter hysteria with which society responds to these situations does less to protect children than to assuage society’s need to feel that we are protecting them. I don’t know what triggered Morales’s suicide, but I find it tragic and deeply troubling that this occurred as the case against Rambold wound its way through the criminal justice system. One has to wonder whether the extreme pressure she must have felt from those circumstances played a role.
I wonder if Karasik would even know about this case, if not for the lurid details that thrust the story onto a national stage.
There are some compelling insights in Karasik’s essay. There is something twisted and puritanical about the way American culture is expressed in the laws concerning rape. Woman should not be legally singled out as victims of a special crime, because rape is just assault and battery, just as if someone had punched an individual. The law also specifies instances when alleged assailants deploy objects. Ascertaining what the victim is thinking or feeling is not necessary legally. Karasik’s arguments about sexual mores should be irrelevant in the legal context. But, despite her valid attempt at pointing out how craven and stunted our official culture is about sex, she misses the point, that Stacey Dean Rambold confused his authority as a teacher and his perception of his victim’s consent. Rambold is no different than any predator, now with Karasik’s rationalizations empowering his self-serving abuse.
Women are taught that it’s not their fault if they get raped. But they’re not really taught what “not your fault” looks like. We think of fault-questioning as lying somewhere in drunkenness and clothing choices and saying no to a dude with a boner. So when we’re forced to say yes, even though we’re clearly saying no, that doesn’t fit what’s in the script for things that aren’t your fault. And when it’s not forceful and it’s not threatening, and it’s calm and dismissive and insists that you know you want it, that doesn’t fit the script either.
We know what our rape is going to look like. Except that the script we’ve been given isn’t based on any true stories. So our rapes rarely fit. And for that, we blame ourselves. We blame ourselves for not recognizing it. For not stopping it. For not doing more. For not seeing it. For being there. For not knowing better than not to get raped. For not fighting. For freezing. For not being the right kind of rape victim, the kind of victim who gets cast into one of those familiar blockbuster type stories we know so well. The kind of rapes that don’t get prosecuted, but that people care about, at least. That people believe. That we can even convince ourselves of. We don’t just blame ourselves; everyone else blames us, too.
I’m tired of answering “Why didn’t you _____”
Because. Because I didn’t know I could. Or should. Or even had the right to. Because it wasn’t in the script.
Maybe it’s time we wrote more scripts. Better scripts. Ones of true stories. Ones with surprising characters. Ones with flawed protagonists we can relate to. Ones with antagonists we can recognize. Ones with outcomes we can understand. Ones our friends can understand. Our families can empathize with. Ones that humanize the survivors. Ones that recognize all survivors.
Elyse at Skepchick goes into sincere detail about just what a woman could rationalizing during an abusive episode. She’s right, though – the truth is gray and full of disturbing inconsistencies and details few of us want revealed. Like fiction, fantasy is very popular in the law. Karasik might recognize this, but then she exonerates the predator along with the victim, because the entire situation doesn’t conform to a fantasy we would like to experience. What we need to debate is what a teacher does and what education is for in a society full of human beings, yes, sexualized humans, and also humans who both abuse and experience abuse. Human society depends on a careful balance of conflict and cooperation.
Rambold overstepped the bounds of authority, and Karasik is his spokesperson.