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Let’s talk about rape for a minute

The internets are abuzz with news that Roman Polanski has been arrested in Switzerland and may be extradited to the United States to face a decades-old statutory rape charge. The New York times reports:

… the arrest raised a strong possibility that Mr. Polanski would be returned to the United States to face sentencing under his conviction for having had sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977.

Seems simple enough. He’s not the first man to like young girls, right, so why all the fuss? And anyway, as Whoopi Goldberg is now under fire for saying, it wasn’t rape-rape. Except that, actually, it was rape-rape of a pretty reprehensible nature. In the victim’s own words,

It was not consensual sex by any means. I said no, repeatedly, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. I was alone and I didn’t know what to do. It was scary and, looking back, very creepy.

What’s going on here? Why do people like Whoopi, myself, and apparently a plurality of internet denizens think that this was the other kind of rape (not rape-rape), the kind where consent was freely given but the law took it back? The kind where a senior gets blown by a sophomore and goes to jail for ten years?

The tacit belief that there two kinds of rape — “real” rape, and statutory rape — is apparently widespread. It’s also fairly insidious, in that when we hear that 1) Roman Polanski raped a girl and 2) that she was underage, the latter fact completely wipes out the former in our consciousness. Simply because the victim was a minor, we automatically lump this case in with the dozens of other “victimless” statutory rape cases we’ve heard about, including the handful of incredibly sensationalized stories of female teachers seducing younger male students.

Given the common application of our statutory rape laws — punishing consensual sex acts involving minors along arbitrary age lines — I think you could make a strong case that we should call it something else. Including the word rape just conflates a violent, invasive assault with an act widely accepted as benign. As a matter of fact, according to Slate, most states don’t call it statutory rape at all:

Polanski pleaded guilty to “unlawful sexual intercourse” with a minor. What’s the difference between that and statutory rape?
They’re synonymous. Only a few states—Georgia, Missouri, and North Carolina—actually use the term “statutory rape” in their penal codes. Other legal euphemisms for having sex with someone who’s underage include “Rape in the Third Degree” (New York), “Felonious Sexual Assault” (New Hampshire), and “Carnal Knowledge of a Child” (Virginia).

You might ask, what’s the difference? It was illegal for him to have sex with a 13-year-old, so he’s breaking the law either way, consensual or not, right? Not really. What’s the difference between someone who utters a falsehood, but believes it, and a liar? Simply intent — also the difference between murder and manslaughter. More importantly, it matters a lot to the victim of the crime, specifically whether they personally feel that something bad has happened to them.

If we’re going to continue to prosecute seniors who have sex with sophomores (or college freshmen who have sex with sophomores, depending on the state), then we really need to stop including the word “rape” in that offense (for the states that still include it) and strip it from the popular lexicon, a process that will take time. Any room for confusion between “rape” and “rape-rape” is an insult to victims of sexual violence.

Posted in Musings.


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  1. nathan says

    This sounds personal: is there something you want to tell us Zach?



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