Skip the semantics.The Jeffrey Epstein case is about victimizing girls, not “young women”

Cui bono? Who benefits from squeezing language until it bleeds jargon? The guilty, of course.

But another important question is: Cui plagalis? Who stands to lose? Whose suffering is likely to be minimized if normally careless people suddenly become very careful about their word choice?

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine

Image: by Linnaea Mallette  CC0 Public Domain

When a teenage girl reports being raped

Why wait to report rape? All you have to do is report it, and then the bad guy will be punished, the good girl will be protected, and justice will be served. Here’s one American expressing a typical point of view on the topic this morning:

And here’s a short essay from the loving parent of a teenage girl who was raped — not thirty-five years ago, but last December. They did report it as soon as they possibly could, and now they are living through the very typical aftermath of what very often happens next. 

Spoiler: Justice was not served. The author is my friend of twenty years.

***

I spent the weekend sitting in the emergency room with my teenage daughter. I do mean the whole weekend, 48 hours of it. She was inching towards suicidal plans again, Googling ways to overdose.

She’s been an inpatient before, twice, after a previous suicide attempt. Her father and I confronted her about her plans and asked her if she needed to go back into a psychiatric hospital to be safe and get help. She asked if she could think about it. Two hours later she told us, yes, she felt like she needed to go back. So we went to the emergency room to wait for a bed on a unit somewhere. After the emergency room, she spent the next five days in an inpatient mental health facility.

Here is what led up to this day:

In December she was at an event with friends and started to feel sick. A male acquaintance of hers offered to take her home. But before he brought her home, he turned off into a dark parking lot and raped her.

She told him no. She did her best to physically resist. There was no confusion about consent there.

Then he brought her home where she began the dark spiral of self-blame. She had flirted with him in the past, they had texted. There may have even been some talk of “getting together.” So she did her best to just push it away and move on.

Trauma doesn’t work like that, though. Her body responded violently. Over the next two months, she would vomit multiple times a day, often going days at a time without holding down any substantial food. We sought every medical solution we could find to help her, but with only limited success. Because we were just putting a band-aid on a broken leg.

In June, we started observing her even more closely and discovered some concerning information about how she’d been spending her time. Together, her dad and I talked to her about it. She told us that on top of all we found, she had been raped back in December. There was a whirlwind of trying to get her every kind of help we could at this point, but that is not what this is about. My own self-doubt and distress having to think of my child going through this or memories of my own traumatic experiences are not what this is about either, but those were extreme too.

It took two more months before she felt like she was ready to make a police report. In August, she made the report. It took two more weeks for the detective to finally make an appointment for her to come in and make a statement.

I knew that would be hard for her. She would have to talk through the whole story, which she had only done with her therapist to this point.  But it was much worse than I imagined. It shattered her all over again.

The detective was a friendly, young guy. He talked to me first and asked me all about what I knew. He asked why we had waited so long to report this. I told him that we found out well after it had happened, and since there wasn’t any physical proof, our first priority was to get her some help and try to get her a little bit stabilized.

Then he talked to her. It took a very long time. He called me back in when she was trying to pull herself back together in the bathroom. He asked me if I knew about her other experiences with boys. I did. He asked me if I knew what kind of pictures and texts she had, at one point, had on her phone. I did. When she came back into the room he told us that he would interview the boy she was accusing, but if he asked for a lawyer, they would drop the case. Because it was her word against his.

The detective talked to him the next day. He asked for a lawyer. The police dropped the case.

So while this boy carried on with his senior year, playing football, hanging out with friends, my daughter ended up sitting in a locked room feeling violated all over again when she was told that for her own safety, she couldn’t have her bra. Or her sweatshirt. Or her journal or any writing utensil but crayons. For her safety.

While this family goes on with life as usual, we are buried under medical bills. His father gets to go watch his son’s games. I pick my daughter up from school after another major panic attack.

While he stayed at school with his friends, she switched schools so that she wouldn’t have to face the trauma of seeing him every day. While he gets by without having to say a word, she is questioned extensively and in graphic detail about what really happened and about her mental health and sexual history.

But it is just her word against his.

***

Related: If she was sexually assaulted, why didn’t she say something sooner?

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

16 things Catholic girls should know about consent

How should Catholic parents teach their kids about consent?

We don’t want to give the impression that we’ll wink at sexual misbehavior, as long as our kids reach adulthood without a police record, a pregnancy, or an STD. We want more for them than that. We utterly fail our children if we teach them only about consent, without any other understanding of what sexuality is for and why they are so valuable as human beings. Reducing sexual health to mere consent is just another form of degradation

At the same time, we don’t want our kids to get a police record, an STD, or a unwed pregnancy. Or a damaged psyche, or a broken heart, or a shattered sense of self-worth. An education in consent is not enough, but we must teach them about consent.

But too often, Catholic parents dig in, just telling kids to save sex for marriage, period. Perhaps they teach their kids to avoid the occasions of sin like the saints, but they’ve never taught them how. They’ve never taught their kids what to do if they have, like billions of teenagers before them, gotten carried away by desire, or what to do if they themselves have good intentions but their boyfriends do not. They’ve never taught them how to navigate that minefield of conscience, desire, and external pressure. They send their daughters out entirely unequipped.

And so girls who want to be good are left to piece together some kind of dreadful “least bad” course of action with almost no information about what they can and should do in actual relationships. Teenage girls often put their own best interests last, in hopes of minimizing damage or offense for everyone else. 

So here is what Catholic parents should teach their daughters about consent:

  1. It’s never too late to say “no” for any reason. You’ve done that thing before, with him or with another guy? You can still say “no.” You’ve done worse things already? You can still say “no.” You’ve done lots and lots of things, but not this particular thing? You can still say “no.” You’ve talked about this thing, even agreed to do this thing? You can still say “no.” You’re right in the middle of the thing and have changed your mind? You can still say “no.” It’s a little thing that no one could possibly object to, but you just don’t want to? You can still say “no.”

If you find yourself in the habit of encouraging sexual behavior over and over and over again, and then backing out over and over and over again, then maybe you’re being a jerk, and should think about how you’re spending your time, and how you’re treating your male friend. But that’s a separate issue that you can deal with later. Even jerks can say “no.”  You can say “no” at any time for any reason, because you have no obligation to turn your body over to your boyfriend. Why would you?

 

2. Yes, he can stop. Of course he can stop. What is he, a defective robot? If he’s all worked up, it may be very difficult to stop, and he may be mad or offended or disappointed, but he has free will and he can stop. If he doesn’t stop when you tell him to stop, that is sexual assault. He. Can. Stop.

You’re not genuinely injuring a guy by stopping after one or both of you are aroused. You don’t have to sacrifice yourself on the altar of blue balls. If he’s man enough to ask for sex, he’s man enough to deal with a little disappointment. 

 

3. There’s no such thing as being tricked into consenting. If you consent, you do it on purpose, consciously. If you didn’t realize you consented, or didn’t mean to consent, then you did not consent, and whoever tricked or coerced you is assaulting you, by definition.

 

4. A hymen is just a membrane. We hear a lot about protecting virginity, but sex is about so much more than vaginal penetration. There are non-PIV acts which feel important and powerful because they are — and they belong within marriage, just as much as intercourse does. You don’t have to let yourself be used for all kinds of absurd and degrading things just to protect that precious treasure of technical virginity. A hymen is just a membrane. You, on the other hand, are made in the image of God, and should not submit to degradation from anyone who professes to care about you.

 

5. Listen to your gut. If a situation feels weird or fishy, trust that God-given instinct and get the hell out. You don’t owe anyone an explanation. A firm “No, thank you, I’d prefer to do x” or “That won’t work for me, how about we do x instead?” is all you need. And if someone throws a tantrum over your alternative plans, you can be reasonably certain your good was not at the top of their list of priorities. A good man will value your comfort as well as your consent.

 

6. There is never any good reason for a guy to mention what his previous girlfriends were willing to do. Whether it’s a compliment (“I’m glad you’re not uptight like she was”) or a complaint (“All the other girls I’ve been with had no problem with such-and-such”), this is pure manipulation, meant to put you off balance, exert pressure, and make you feel like you have something to prove. It doesn’t matter if you’re different from every other girls in the entire universe. You are you, and if he can’t appreciate that, then he can go dangle.

 

7. Love doesn’t manipulate. It’s old school manipulative when he says “If you really loved me, you’d do such-and such.” It’s also manipulative if he turns it on its head by saying, “Let me show you how much I love you,” or “Why won’t you let me show my love for you by . . . ” Love isn’t about putting pressure on people. Love lets people be.

 

8. You never owe a guy sexual favors just because he does something nice for you. If a guy wants to spend time with you and you like him, be nice to him. But a date is not a contract. You’re not chattel, to be traded, no matter what he thinks he deserves.

And if you do hold the line and say no to “big” things, don’t feel like you then ought to compensate by agreeing to smaller things that also make you uncomfortable. Your comfort isn’t up for bargaining.

 

9. An adult man who wants sex or romance with you when you’re underage is a bad man. Full stop. You may be flattered, you may feel like you’re especially mature, and you may very much want what he’s asking for; but, by definition, this is assault. There’s a reason you cannot legally consent when you’re underage. An older man only wants an underage younger girl if there is something wrong with him. He’s very likely gone after other, maybe even younger girls, and will continue to do so. You should protect them by telling someone you trust.

 

10. If you’ve had sex, you’re not automatically in a relationship; you don’t owe him anything; and you’re not fated to be together. Sex makes you feel like there is a bond, but you have the power to break it at any time. It may hurt to disrupt that sensation of being in a relationship, but it may be the smartest thing you can do — the sooner, the better.

 

11. You don’t have to get married to someone just because of your sexual past together. Even if you’re pregnant. In fact, getting married because you “have to” could be grounds for a future annulment, if you got married because of pressure and a sense of obligation, rather than as a free choice. If you did something wrong, like choosing to have consensual sex with someone who’s not right for you, you can’t somehow redeem or erase that past sin by getting married. The past is the past. God wants you to have a good future.

 

12. It’s a bad mistake to have sex outside of marriage, but it’s not somehow more Catholic to refuse to use a condom. Contraception is a sin, and so I cannot in good conscience say, “Yes, if you’re going to have sex, use a condom.” Even if your goal is to prevent the spread of disease and to prevent the conception of a potentially fatherless child, it’s not somehow less-bad to commit two mortal sins instead of one.

But some young Catholics will tell themselves that there is something noble or bracingly honest about refusing to use a condom, even as they persist in seeking out unmarried sex. This is absurd. What are you doing? If you want to avoid sin, because it hurts you and your partner and cuts you off from God, then avoid sin. Don’t play games with telling yourself, “I’m sinning, but I’m doing it the Catholic way!” There is no such thing as sinning the Catholic way.

 

13. You’re not bad for wanting to have sex! Feeling strong sexual desire doesn’t prove that you’re a bad person, a bad daughter, or different from good Catholics. God has given us this desire for a reason. Sex is good, and the desire for sex is a normal, healthy desire. Your job is to figure out how to respond to your desire in a healthy and moral way. And no, it’s not easy. You will probably fail. Try again. But . . .

14. If you find that you cannot make yourself stop seeking out sex, then there’s probably something else wrong in your life, and you need help with identifying, addressing, and healing it. It’s normal and healthy to have a strong, hard-to-control libido when you’re young, but it’s neither normal nor healthy to feel driven and compelled to seek out sex with lots and lots of people. This is self-destructive behavior, likely with deep roots. It will be difficult to talk to someone  about this, but you really do need help — psychological help, not just confession.

 

Some girls will also agree to unprotected sex as a way of accepting some kind of built-in punishment for their promiscuity, not realizing that the promiscuity itself is a symptom of psychological distress. Confession is helpful. It is likely not sufficient by itself.

15. If something bad happens, whether it was consensual or not, you’re not alone. The people who truly love you will not love you less just because you did something you shouldn’t do, and they certainly won’t love you less if something happened to you that shouldn’t have happened. If you have someone who truly loves you, that person will talk to you, or find you someone to talk to, or take you to the doctor, or take you to confession, or take you to a therapist, or do whatever you need so you can be in a better place than you are right now. Having had sex does not make you an outcast. You are young. All is not lost.

 

16. You’re not ruined, no matter what you’ve done or what others have done to you. You cannot be “damaged goods,” because you are not goods. You are a person. Even if you feel worthless right now, and even if other people say you are worthless, you do not and existentially cannot exist for the consumption of any other human being. Not your future husband, not anybody. You are a child of the living God.

 

Yes, your past will affect you. Yes, you are changed by your choices and by the choices of others. But if you have regrets, they can be forgiven. If you have wounds, they can be healed. You are not ruined. You cannot be ruined. As long as you are alive, there is hope.

 

Here’s the kicker. Much of what I’ve said above goes for married relationships, too. You can go to extremes, of course. Some men behave as if their wives can never say “no” once they are married; and some women behave as if their husbands must gain explicit permission for every thought, word, and deed. It often takes couples many years to understand each other well enough to find the right balance. Spouses can reasonably expect to have sex with each other if possible. But there is also such a thing as violating consent in a marriage. Marriage does not give one spouse the right to use the other spouse, sexually or otherwise.

 

So, Catholics, let’s get over our aversion to the word “consent.” Our kids need to know about consent in dating, and they’ll need to know it when they’re ready for marriage, too. It’s one more way to learn to love each other better. 

 

***

Many thanks to my friends M.B., C.P., F.S., R.S., G.H., K.C., C.C., D.M., J.T., A.G., M.E., E.L., S.J., M.D., K.M., R.B., A.H., K.C., for helping me compile and refine this list.
Photo via Pexels (creative commons)