Earlier this week a Swedish court acquitted a 27-year-old man of raping a 13-year-old girl because the young teen's body was "well-developed." I wish I could say that I can't believe I just typed that sentence, or that I can't believe the sentence is rooted in fact, but neither reality should catch anyone by surprise. Whether the two engaged in sexual intercourse isn’t really a question: Police found evidence of the man’s sperm in the girl’s underwear after the man denied she was ever at his house; he later admitted she was there.
The Local reports that the girl was on the run from foster care when she met the man, who she says invited her back to his house for a drink before he raped her. And, according to Swedish law, he did rape her — he just wasn’t convicted, because two courts determined that the girl’s physical maturity would have made it impossible for the man to know she was under the legal age of consent. Via The Local:
Under Swedish law, having intercourse with someone under the age of 15 is classified as ‘child rape’, but both Västmanland District Court and Sweden’s Court of Appeal have now thrown out the girl’s case, because the legislation also states that a defendant must “know” or have “reasonable grounds to believe” that the child is under age.
After viewing video evidence including the girl’s interview with police, both courts decided that the 13-year-old’s body was so “well-developed” that the suspect could not have known that she was under the legal age for having sex in Sweden.
Here is a question I ask earnestly: How often, really, are teenagers so easily confused with adults? Even in this case, where the girl wouldn’t have had to be confused for an adult, but rather for someone just two years older, a different version of the same question applies. That is, how often, really, would a grown man not think to double-check a teenager’s age before having sex with her, when the law says that no matter what, it’s rape under the age of 15? (The girl’s lawyer, Göran Landerdahl, is wondering the same thing: He recently told a newspaper that he plans to take the case to Sweden’s Supreme Court, in hopes that in the future, anyone who has sex with someone who looks "borderline 15 years old," without confirming the age, will be held accountable.)
Of course, the law can say that child rape is child rape forever, but that has no bearing on enforcement. That’s true in Sweden, where the justice system has told a 13-year-old that her breasts and hips are the reason she was raped, but it’s also true in the U.S., where courts have said essentially the same thing more than once. In 2013, a Montana judge justified handing down a 30-day jail sentence to a teacher who raped one of his 14-year-old students, because she was “as much in control of the situation” and “older than her chronological age” (the girl committed suicide shortly before her 17th birthday). Later that same summer, a Louisiana parish argued that a 14-year-old girl in a juvenile detention center “consented” to be sexually assaulted by one of her (40-year-old) corrections officers. And just last November, a jury sided with the Los Angeles Unified School District after it argued that a student, also 14, clearly “chose” to have sex with her teacher because she lied to her mother in order to do so, and should therefore be held responsible for having “engaged in voluntary consensual sex with her teacher.”
(But this is just what happens in the justice system — let’s not even get started on the examples of how we perpetuate victim-blaming as a culture, à la Steubenville.)
The case in Sweden is yet another perfect example of how we view sexual abuse. This is what we always do. These are the excuses we make. We blame victims for their actions or simply for existing, female, in this world. We blame them for transgressions it should always be up to someone else to stop. What’s worse, the people and institutions who blame them most publicly are also the ones that have been officially tasked with protecting them.
Justice systems’ failure to protect women isn’t just illustrated in these specific cases. And it is not just the girls who are told that their bodies were too developed or that they were too alluring at too young an age who suffer, but also all the others who will be victimized by our cultural reflex to let abusers act with impunity at all costs. We already know that when victims are blamed for their own abuse, it makes them less likely to come forward. But when perpetrators of violence are not held accountable, it leaves them to perpetuate abuse — and it tells others that it is acceptable to do the same. Being “held accountable” for abuse doesn’t even have to mean punishment; it could mean being entered into a rehabilitation program that teaches abusers to stop their own violence.
But that isn’t an option when judges and juries take the easy route and stick with the status quo, telling girls and women that their uncontrollable progression through puberty is the reason they’ve been violated and bereft of justice. In fact, the easy route deprives everyone involved of justice — because it lets abusers stay abusive, and gives no one the opportunity to move forward.