Thursday, October 11, 2012

Legislators ought to stop giving sexual assault tutorials

Wisconsin state representative Rep. Roger Rivard (R-Rice Lake, Wisconsin) is in trouble for addled and insensitive comments he made about rape.  He has done the community of the wrongly accused no favors.

Rivard, for reasons I cannot discern, was commenting on a case in Wisconsin where a boy was charged for having sex with a younger girl. The boy was 17, the girl was 14, and children under 16 can not legally consent to any type of sexual contact in Wisconsin. This is commonly referred to as statutory rape where valid legal consent is deemed by law not to exist because of the age of the girl.

Given the age of the children in the scenario Rivard addressed, the compassionate, and just, response is to hope that the boy is not punished as if he were an adult. It can even trigger a legitimate debate about whether a three-year age gap in teens should negate the offense altogether. I have no expertise in such matters, but rational people recognize that society has to draw bright-lines when it comes to the age of consent. The appropriate age is something over which there is much debate, and this case raises troubling, and very serious, questions.

Instead of positing a serious response, Rep. Rivard made these startling comments: He said his father warned him, "Some girls rape easy" - meaning that after the fact they can change what they say about whether sex was consensual. Then, Rivard "clarified" his remarks and related what his father told him about premarital sex: "He . . .  told me one thing, 'If you do (have premarital sex), just remember, consensual sex can turn into rape in an awful hurry.'" Rivard said. "Because all of a sudden a young lady gets pregnant and the parents are madder than a wet hen and she's not going to say, 'Oh, yeah, I was part of the program.' All that she has to say or the parents have to say is it was rape because she's underage. And he just said, 'Remember, Roger, if you go down that road, some girls,' he said, 'they rape so easy.'"

Instead of "clarifying" his remarks, Rivard tumbled deeper down the rabbit hole. This blog, which is the leading blog that gives voice to the wrongly accused, does not support Rivard's comments.

First, boys should not have sex with underage girls, but not for the reasons Rivard suggests. Putting aside issues of morality, the girl was underage at the time of the act, and her willingness, or unwillingness, to engage in the act has nothing to do with crime of statutory rape. If she was underage, it was rape the moment the act occurred. Yes, Rep. Rivard, rape is "easy" in that instance -- because the girl was underage.  If a girl becomes pregnant, the illegal tryst will come to light, and the state has a duty to prosecute. Rivard seems to be telling boys to be wary of having sex with underage girls not because it's illegal but because the girl might reveal the tryst, which is troubling and bizarre on a host of levels.

Second, Rivard's comments suggested that boys should be wary of having sex with underage girls because the girls will lie and claim it was nonconsensual.  Rivard's message wrongly suggests that girls have a propensity to lie about rape. The reality is that teen sex occurs routinely in our culture -- it would be impossible even to estimate its frequency -- and the overwhelming number of such incidents do not spark false rape claims. That is a fact.

If Rivard wanted to talk to boys about having sex, he missed a golden opportunity to paint a mature, and serious, picture for them. He should have talked about the dangers of pregnancy, and the boy's responsibility to support children born as a result of the encounter -- about how the boy will exchange a few minutes of immediate pleasure for 18 years of child support.

Rivard should have talked about the necessity of consent, and about not proceeding if the boy is unclear about the girl's intentions. Beyond that, Rivard should have talked about how studies show that girls have much greater after-the-fact regret than boys, and that even if she says "yes," she might later regret it.  Rivard could have told the boys to envision how their girlfriends might react to the sexual encounter after it is over.  He could have told the boys to envision how their girlfriends' parents will react to the news that she's having sex with him. Will she feel pressure to lie to them and claim it was non-consensual? False rape claims sometimes occur, as Amanda Marcotte has written, because of "the idea that it's shameful to just have sex because you want to." Amanda Hess similarly talked about women who make false claims to defend their "femininity." Society holds young women to standards different than young men (although recent studies show that is changing among young people), and girls typically feel greater societal pressure than boys to refrain from sex. (That, of course, does not excuse false rape claims.)

What we need is a mature, serious discussion about these matters. Not warped views that "women routinely lie about rape," or, for that matter, that "women never lie about rape."  The world is far, far more complex than that, and the issues are too serious to reduce to mantras. Lawmakers, like most bloggers, should stay out of the public discourse on these issues until they actually know what they're talking about.