At least once a week, we see a headline in the local or national news discussing the latest case of child sexual assault (or rape). Invariably, these articles will refer to the accused “having sex with” the minor. This sort of story is seen routinely in newspapers and online media across the country, from reports about Jared Fogle to local stories about teachers raping students. When media outlets use this phrase, they are implicitly calling into question whether the child is truly a victim — and they are reinforcing rape culture.
Take this recent example from Houston. A man in his 20’s lured a 12 year old girl into the bathroom at CVS, where he allegedly raped her. Both the headline and the article use the phrase “had sex with” — and never once used the word “rape.” Even the detective assigned to the case seemed reluctant to call it rape, saying “She was not necessarily all that unwilling, but at the age of 12 it doesn’t matter.” This language choice is absolutely appalling; while acknowledging that a 12 year old cannot consent to sex, the detective nonetheless appears to blame this child for her own rape. The news story compounded this horrible statement by refusing to call the crime what it is: rape.
Let’s be clear here: while the age of consent may vary and the terminology may differ, rape is a crime in ALL 50 states and the District of Columbia. Children cannot consent to sexual activity. This includes Pennsylvania, where sexual contact with a child under 16 is a crime. It is important to note that this is different from cases where two teenagers have a sexual relationship; there are exceptions in the law for these situations. Here, we are talking about sexual contact between an adult (such as the man in his 20’s described above) and a child. When an adult engages in sexual contact with a child, it isn’t sex — it’s rape. The way that we talk about these crimes must reflect that reality.
The reporting of sex crimes against minors is another way that media hurts. The language used by journalists seeps into our consciousness, and reframes the nature of the crime — there is a major difference between saying someone “raped” and someone “had sex with” a minor. Let’s make sure that the way that we talk reflects the reality of the situation; an adult didn’t allegedly “have sex with” a 12 year old; he allegedly raped her. These are the sorts of broad cultural changes that we must make if we ever hope to end sexual violence. We ask you to join us in calling out media when they use “had sex with” instead of “raped” when referring to these crimes. Tweet at media outlets, comment on their websites or Facebook pages, and complain to their stations or editors when they use such outdated, victim-blaming terminology. With social media, we have more power than ever to make a change — let’s use that power for good!