October 16, 2009
13-year-olds are fair game, according to William Saletan
I haven’t spoken in this particular venue on the subject of Roman Polanski, largely because others have said what I think so well already. Furthermore, I find myself wondering, partly, what’s left to discuss? A 44-year-old man in a position of power drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl. There was a shitty plea bargain and some legal shenanigans, and the man served a little time, but fled the country to avoid serving any more, and has lived in Europe ever since. The fact remains, though, that he raped a 13-year-old girl, and justice was arguably not served on that point. Now he’s been re-apprehended, and what I’ve simply been dumbfounded by is the pundits and celebrities who want to discuss not whether the re-apprehension itself was shady, not the aforementioned legal shenanigans and/or the problematic nature of plea bargains, not whether California’s limited resources might be better spent on other things—but whether or not what Polanski did was really rape and/or was justifiable.
This week, William Saletan made a foray into the rape apologism surrounding the Polanski case. Now, I know that Saletan has given feminists every reason to ignore what he says outright, but I stumbled upon this round of garbage via a Think Progress e-mail and it incensed me enough that I had to write about it.
A bit of personal background: I started menstruating when I was ten years old. It was toward the end of my fifth grade year; thankfully, we’d already had enough sex ed that I understood what was happening.
I hit my full adult height when I was twelve years old, in seventh grade. I was still gawky as hell, believe you me, but I had hips, I wore a bra, and I was, at least in theory, physically capable of bearing a child. However, I was not at all ready to be having sex, especially not with someone decades older than me.
Saletan, however, appears to be arguing that I would therefore have been fair game, at least to a certain extent, at the age of twelve:
Why exactly should we be aghast that the legal system of the 1970s considered such evidence relevant to Polanski’s culpability? Why aren’t the physical maturity and willingness of the girl—or boy—significant?
In fact, they are. As I’ve pointed out before, over the past 150 years in the United States and Europe, the average age of menarche—a girl’s first period—has fallen two to four months per decade, depending on the country. In 1840, the age was 15.3 years. By the early 1980s, it was 12.8. It’s quite plausible that the 13-year-old girl Polanski had sex with in the late 1970s was, to some degree, sexually mature.
Having sex at 13 is a bad idea. But if you’re pubescent, it might be, in part, your bad idea. Having sex with a 13-year-old, when you’re 40, is scummy. (Personally, I’d be stricter. If I ran a college, I’d discipline professors for sleeping with freshmen.) But it doesn’t necessarily make you the kind of predator who has to be locked up. A guy who goes after 5-year-old girls is deeply pathological. A guy who goes after a womanly body that happens to be 13 years old is failing to regulate a natural attraction. That doesn’t excuse him. But it does justify treating him differently.
If I’m to be generous (has Saletan given me any reason to be generous?), Saletan is basically just making the argument that it is neither fair nor accurate to call Polanski – or any adult who has sex with a girl who has passed menarche – a pedophile. Which, okay, if we’re talking solely about linguistics and labels, I suppose we can generally say that there’s a difference between someone who’s sexually attracted to prepubescent children and someone who’s sexually attracted to pubescent and postpubescent (is that a word?) teenagers*. But is that really the lesson we should be taking away from the Polanski case? Is that the discussion we need to be having?
In a follow-up post, Saletan states that “we shouldn’t contort our justice system to nail this or that defendant. The distinctions we draw or fail to draw in our laws endure from case to case. We have to get them right,” and that prepubescent children “aren’t 13- or 15-year-olds, for whom an argument about willingness can at least be made.” He goes on to complain about “the conflation of sexual assault defined by force with sexual assault defined by age.”
At this point, he’s sounding an awful lot like concern trolls of the rape apologist variety, who frequently claim that if we want “real rape” to be taken seriously, then we have to stop getting our knickers in a twist over “gray-area rape,” defined variously as sex with a willing person below the age of consent, sex with someone who is intoxicated or asleep, sex with someone who had previously consented but changed their mind, sex with a non-consenting spouse, etc.
Another follow-up post went up this morning, in which on the one hand Saletan seems to be taking issue with the shitty plea bargain—“I can understand the desire of prosecutors and the public to nail him for something. But I don’t like using rape defined by age as a proxy for rape defined by coercion”—which, okay, reasonable people can argue about plea bargains and whether X should be considered an acceptable substitute for Y charge—but on the other hand we’re back to the idea that a young woman who is past menarche but still well under the age of consent is fair game: “Is maturity an arguable factor with a 13-year-old, particularly one who’s posing nude in a jacuzzi? Yes.”
I have to tell you, I’m not real sympathetic to the idea that there are mitigating factors in terms of someone’s culpability insofar as committing rape is concerned, and the comment about posing nude in a jacuzzi sounds an awful lot like blaming the victim, to me.
Ultimately, age-of-consent laws exist for a reason. Sometimes they’re used to trample on the sexual autonomy of teenagers, and that’s problematic, but ultimately I’m not at all willing to say that physical sexual maturity should dictate a person’s age of consent. And is a discussing the Roman Polanski case seriously the best place to discuss such things? Seriously?
I don’t know anything about Saletan’s personal life, but I really, really, really hope he doesn’t have any daughters.
*From Wikipedia, via commenter Evelyn Morgan in the Slate discussion forum: a pedophile is someone attracted to prepubescent youths. A hebephile is someone attracted to pubescent youths. An ephebophile prefers youths in older adolescence, while a teleiophile’s interest is in adults. So there we are, then.