It's only rape if the victim's a girl?

A district attorney in Wisconsin has brought very different charges against two 17-year-olds who had sex with 14-year-olds -- because one's a girl and one's a boy.

Published March 20, 2009 5:57PM (EDT)

When I read a headline like "The Teen Rape Double Standard," I tend to cringe and prepare myself for a bunch of sexist b.s. But in the case of Constantino Diaz-Duran's Daily Beast article yesterday, it's hard to think of a more fitting headline. Diaz-Duran examines two recent cases in which 17-year-olds in Sheboygan, Wis., were arrested for having sex with 14-year-old partners. One was released on signature bond, and the other was held on $1,000 cash bond. One was charged with a misdemeanor, the other with a Class C felony. One faces up to 9 months in prison, the other up to 40 years. What's the difference? One is a girl and the other is a boy.

The boy, Alan Jepsen, was charged with statutory rape, while the girl, Norma Guthrie, was only charged with a misdemeanor. Diaz-Duran quotes Dr. Marty Klein, author of "America's War on Sex," as saying, "the double standard is not unusual. It is unusual to find such an extraordinarily clear example of it, but the philosophy behind the phenomenon is very common." Boys who sleep with 14-year-old girls are predators; girls who sleep with 14-year-old boys are ... well, something much less frightening. However, Klein points out that the double standard is not only a result of demonizing boys, but of long-standing sexist attitudes toward women. "Women were not considered to be sexually autonomous beings. Their sexuality was never considered to be a weapon. It was never considered that it could damage somebody else's property ... So just bring that system of thinking forward into the present day and you get 17-year-old boys that are still considered to have the potential of damaging something with their sexuality, while it's much harder for people to imagine a 17-year-old girl causing harm with her sexuality." I'd also add that in a culture that fetishizes girls' virginity, the automatic assumption is that a "good" 14-year-old girl would never consent to sex, if she really understood what was going on -- whereas a 14-year-old boy would just be totally psyched to get lucky, amirite? (Now would be a good time to plug Jessica Valenti's new book, "The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession With Virginity Is Hurting Young Women." Young men, too, as it turns out.) In this narrative, sex robs the girl of something terribly precious, but it makes the boy a man. Which of those things sounds like a crime?

And that brings us to the really thorny question: Did either Jepsen or Guthrie actually commit a crime? Statutory rape laws are based on the premise that there's no such thing as consensual sex between an adult and a child -- a premise I'm certainly not inclined to quibble with. But when both parties are under 18, it's arguably somewhat murkier. Klein thinks there's no question: "What is fundamentally not fair is treating consensual sex between teenagers as a crime in the first place. Once you criminalize sex between teenagers, then it's only a matter of how much harm you're going to cause; how much destruction you're going to bring into people's lives." I don't believe it's quite so clear-cut -- a three-year difference can mean a tremendous gap in maturity and/or social power at those ages, which raises serious questions about coercion. However, I also don't think it's clear-cut that every 14-year-old who has sex with an older teenager is a victim. As Suzanne Goldberg, who teaches sexuality and gender law at Columbia, notes, "Every case has to be dealt with individually."

It's possible that that's what happened here: The district attorney looked at both cases individually and determined, based on real evidence, that Jepsen had committed a crime and Guthrie hadn't. But it sure seems like he made that determination based on little other than gender. And what does seem clear-cut to me is that such reasoning is, in fact, a bunch of sexist b.s.


By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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