The wildly popular ABC Family series has missed a teachable moment about statutory rape in their troubling portrait of a relationship between a high-school student and her teacher.
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Seven seasons in and Pretty Little Liars has finally addressed the elephant in the room. No, they have not identified the mysterious villain terrorizing the central characters, but they have mentioned the fact that a teenage girl had sex with her teacher while she was a student in high school. But, even after seven seasons, the show has yet to approach the dangerous territory of including the word “rape” in its script.
Aria Montgomery, one of the titular Liars, meets the older Ezra Fitz in the very first episode when she stops at a local pub for a cheeseburger. After connecting over shared tastes in books and music, the two quickly find themselves passionately kissing in the bar’s bathroom. They go on to embark on a troubled and troubling romance that reflects the continuously uncertain perception of statutory rape in present-day culture.
A wildly popular show—the most recent season returned from its winter break with 2.25 million total viewers—Pretty Little Liars has sustained the on-and-off relationship of Aria and Ezra since its premiere in 2010. While the two kept their relationship a secret from their family and friends, vaguely referring to “getting in trouble,” the words “underage” was almost never uttered on the show, and no one has ever referenced “statutory rape”—even Aria’s friend Spencer, the pragmatic daughter of a successful lawyer. In the fourth season, when Aria is confronted by her school principal about her relationship with Ezra, she imagines him being led out of the school in handcuffs as her principal says, “It’s illegal for a teacher to have sex with a student.”
That scene was as far as the show went in addressing Ezra and Aria’s relationship. Pretty Little Liars is set in Rosewood, Pennsylvania, where the age of consent is 16—if the adult isn’t the minor’s teacher. Aria and Ezra do sleep together on the show, but their having sex after he loses his job avoids being defined as statutory rape by a mere technicality.
Pretty Little Liars not only portrays this relationship, it romanticizes it. Marlene King, the show’s creator, has said she views the two “like magnets who attract each other for hopefully the run of the show, because I think they are soulmates.”
And “soulmates” is certainly how the show presents Aria and Ezra: introspective, offbeat artists whose sexy, forbidden romance just isn’t understood by everyone around them. Opposition to their relationship, whether from friends, parents or school authority, is seen as a shortcoming or example of being close-minded rather than a voice of reason. And not once are viewers asked to view the relationship as something that is wrong, morally or legally, nor is Ezra’s position of power over Aria ever discussed. When, in the seventh season (which fast-forwarded five years into the Liars’ future), Aria’s newly dumped ex-boyfriend Liam confronts her about her past with Ezra, his perfectly reasonable statement—“I think you were seduced by your English teacher when you were in high school”—is depicted as an accusation made by an irrational and angry ex out for revenge.
While the writers of Pretty Little Liars obviously knew they were addressing a controversial subject when introducing Aria and Ezra’s relationship into the story, they seem unsure of how to address the consequences of the liaison—much like how statutory rape is perceived in present-day culture.
The laws regarding statutory rape, which is commonly defined as “sex between an adult and a minor,” vary from state to state depending on the age of sexual consent. Ranging between 14 and 18 years of age, with many states setting it at 16, the age of consent legally determines if intercourse is statutory rape. But these matters are not as simple as they might appear. In fact, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program maintains national data on forcible rape and other sex offenses, but the FBI UCR Program collects data regarding statutory rape only in the National Incident-Based Reporting System. Only one Supreme Court case has addressed statutory rape—Michael M. v. Superior Court of Sonoma County in 1981—and Justice Brennan stated that “because their chastity was considered particularly precious, those young women were felt to be uniquely in need of the state’s protection.”
Justice Brennan was not online in this opinion; the laws were first established to protect the “virtue” (a.k.a. virginity) of young women. If a woman had sexual relations with a man who would not marry her, she was then tainted by scandal and often cast out of society. Furthering the already misogynistic and victim-blaming attitude of the laws was that a man could (and often still can) defend himself against rape charges by referencing the victim’s sexual history.
Rape is defined as sexual activity without consent, which also contributes to the lack of clarity regarding statutory rape. If teenagers who are willfully engaging in sexual relations with older partners view rape as sexual relations without consent, their perception of statutory rape is further muddled. A Pediatrics report states that approximately 30 percent of young women report having had sex by their 16th birthday, but many claim adolescents are unable to consent in a meaningful way, unaware of the consequences of his or her decision.
Age also factors into the sentencing. The penalty for statutory rape differs in each state, with some basing the penalty on the age of the offender: The older the offender, the harsher the sentencing.
But despite these laws, the perception and attitude regarding statutory rape is a confusing one, in which emotion and religious values often play into the dialogue, sparking righteous fury rather than clear-cut legal consequences.
In 2013, the Washington Post published a controversial article originally headlined, “Sex Between Students and Teachers Should Not Be a Crime.” In the piece, which was changed to read, “The unintended consequences of laws addressing sex between teachers and students,” Betsy Karasik commented on a recent sentencing of a teacher who pleaded guilty to raping a student who went on to commit suicide, discussing what she described as “the utter hysteria” that surrounds such situations. “I don’t believe that all sexual conduct between underage students and teachers should necessarily be classified as rape,” she opined. “And I believe that absent extenuating circumstances, consensual sexual activity between teachers and students should not be criminalized.”
Karasik’s piece inspired strong reactions and she penned a response, stating, “I strongly believe that forcing a teenager who has engaged in a consensual sexual experience to self-identify as a rape victim sends a hypocritical and damaging message to that individual and to society… I was trying to convey that criminalization is a blunt instrument with unintended consequences and is not always the best way to deter behaviors we deem undesirable … Some argue that because of the power differential there can never be meaningful consent in in this context. I disagree and I believe it is tortuous and hypocritical to label all of these situations rape.”
While the age difference between the two people defines statutory rape, that is not always the determining factor in legal cases. Race, class privileges and prejudices regarding the gender of the accused all effect the outcome, and, in cases where both the accused and the victim are the same sex, harsher punishments have been issued. When an 18-year-old man was given 17 years in prison after performing consensual oral sex on a boy who was almost 15, his lengthy sentence was credited to the fact that the two were of the same sex. The “Romeo and Juliet” law that takes closeness in age into consideration did not apply to a homosexual case in Kansas. The option to issue lengthier sentences to same-sex cases was struck down in 2005, when the Kansas Supreme Court ruled a law that penalized homosexual statutory rape cases more harshly than heterosexual as discriminatory.
In May 2016 a 16-year-old boy was charged with statutory rape following having sex with a teenage girl, who is also 16. The case is being tried in County Kildare in the Republic of Ireland, where boys, but not girls, under the age of 17—which is the age of consent—can be prosecuted for statutory rape. And, in 2009, two 17-year-olds were accused of having sex with their 14-year-old romantic partners, but their punishments, which were determined by the same person, varied greatly. The boy was kept in prison for a week while the girl was released immediately, on signature bond. One of the accused was male, while the other was female. Reflecting on the disparity in treatment, the clear reason behind this double standard can be credited to women being viewed as the property of men.
When Owen Labrie, who a senior at a New Hampshire prep school who had sex with a 15-year-old freshman girl as part of a tradition known as “senior salute,” was tried, he is also branded for life as a sex offender. Commenting on the sentence as “cruel and unusual,” Ruth Marcus stated, “Registering sex offenders is designed to protect the community against the threat of a repeat predator, which Labrie is not.”
Technicalities abound in legal cases, as demonstrated when Leah Gayle Shipman, 42, married Johnnie Ray Ison, in January of 2011. She had been arrested for having sex with Ison, then 15, at a high school in Wilmington. Their marriage makes Ison unable to provide evidence against Shipman, and all of his previously made statements concerning their relationship are not admissible at the trial. Shipman, who was facing 15 years for statutory rape and taking indecent liberties with a child, divorced her husband of 19 years and married Ison six days later—after Ison, who was 17, was given written permission by his mother to wed.
And a wedding seems to be in the works for Pretty Little Liars as well. The fifth episode of season seven ended with a cliffhanger of Ezra proposing to Aria, and in the following episode, she happily accepted. Set five years after the conclusion of season six, Aria is now an adult—albeit, a young one—and she and Ezra resumed their relationship thanks to their seemingly undeniable romantic connection. After what appears to be a brief amount of time together, Ezra asks Aria to marry him, saying that seeing her again “felt like the last flat stretch of track of a roller-coaster ride, where your stomach’s flipping out and your knees are weak but you can breathe again.” Presumably, he is able to breathe easier now that having sex with her is legal. But if the two live happily ever after remains to be seen.
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