The Left

Let's Be Less Nuanced

Statutory rape
Statutory rape
The term "statutory rape" is used in some legal jurisdictions to refer to sexual activities in which one person is below the age required to legally consent to the behavior. Sexual relations with a prepubescent child, generically called "child molestation", is typically treated as a more serious crime. | Photo: Archives | Statutory Rape, Child Molestation, Violence, Crime,

Punishing rape isn't mindless

I don't think it's simplistic to say that if a 40-something adult has sex with a 14-year-old, it's a crime, and should be. But apparently that's because I don't understand how complicated these things are.

Take the Roman Polanski rape case. Several decades back, Polanski convinced Samantha Geimer, a 13-year-old model, to pose topless for him alone. He gave her alcohol and a sleeping pill, then sodomized her despite her saying no. To me that's rape, period, end of statement, which makes Polanski a rapist.

According to columnist Victoria Coren Mitchell, however, that just shows my "terrible dread of nuance ' People have become desperate to reduce everything, including each other, to mindless categories of good and bad."

I don't think there's anything mindless about reducing Polanski's rape of Geimer to "bad" but Mitchell says that's just my desire for simplicity. After all, the adult Geimer says she was stupid to let Polanski get her alone and talk her into drinking wine. And Polanski is a Holocaust survivor and he creates amazing movies, so I have to consider the big picture in judging him.

And if I were trying to sum up his life when he faces eternal judgment, I suppose I would. But all I'm judging is Polanski's decision to rape a child. Saying he deserves to do hard time for that crime doesn't require an opinion about the rest of his life. As far as the rape is concerned, Polanski's genius and personal tragedies are irrelevant.

So is Geimer's alleged lack of judgment. Even if she did make a bad decision, that doesn't excuse Polanski's action or make her somehow to blame. Making bad decisions is normal for 13-year-olds. Adults who are supposed to protect them from the consequences, for example by not raping them when they're vulnerable. And of course, by locking up the rapists.

Roman Polanski
Roman Polanski

Roman Polanski, born 18 August 1933, is a Polish-French film director, producer, writer and actor. Having made films in Poland, Britain, France and the USA, he is considered one of the few "truly international filmmakers." Charges for sexual crimes continue to plague the director for decades. | Photo: |
Mitchell is right, though, that I dread nuance in rape cases. Nuance is the rape apologist's friend. Nuance is "Well, the woman clearly went to that bar to get laid, so she had it coming." It's "You can't punish a talented/rich/well-connected man for getting some like he was a common street thug!" Mitchell's column is more of the same.

And unfortunately, she's not unique. Father Benedict Groeschel of the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, for instance, said last year that in a lot of clerical child-molestation cases, the kids were really the aggressors. They wanted it, and the priests were just so stressed out they couldn't find a way to say no.

Then there's Montana Judge G. Todd Baugh who recently sentenced a 40-something teacher, Stacey Rambold, to 30 days for having sex with a 14-year-old. Baugh's nuanced understanding was that the teenager was fully in control of the relationship, and besides, she was really mature for her age. Following in his wake, Washington Post columnist Betsy Karasik argued that student/teacher affairs shouldn't be criminalized at all. There's a "vast and extremely nuanced continuum" of teacher/student relationships including flirting and crushes and we don't want to criminalize students flirting with teachers, do we?

Well, no. But nobody's calling on Montana to file statutory rape charges every time a student gets a crush, so how exactly does Karasik's nuanced analysis relate to the facts? As legal writer Dahlia Lithwick put it, there are no balancing tests in statutory rape cases; "the 13-year-old really wanted it" is not a legitimate defense. Even assuming the kid's "yes" is a sincere yes and not "yes because you're my teacher and can ruin my life if I say no."

In cases like these, not being nuanced suits me just fine.

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Updated May 10, 2017 9:58 AM EDT | More details

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