Sexual Assault

Attention Media: When Teachers Have Sex With Students It’s Actually Called “Rape”


The media has a detrimental habit of using the term “sexual relationship” when reporting on adults preying on minors—further perpetuating an already rampant rape culture.




If someone stepped on your toes while music was playing at a party, would you say you’d danced with them? If someone threw you into a pool knowing you couldn’t even doggie-paddle, would you say you’d gone swimming together? If someone dumped a cup of coffee on your suit while you were riding the subway to work, would you describe what had happened as sharing a cup of coffee with that person?

Of course not. Having a cup of coffee thrown in your face isn’t the same as drinking it, and it wouldn’t just be incorrect to describe it that way, it’d be pretty offensive. Sure, coffee’s involved — and some of it may even have made it in the vicinity of your face — but a coffee date? No way.

So too, there is no such thing as a teacher “having sex” with an underage student. Children and teenagers can’t legally consent to sex with adults — especially not when those adults are in positions of institutional power over them — and yet, again and again, this is how the mainstream news media describes educators and coaches who prey on students by sexually abusing, harassing or assaulting them.

The CBS affiliate in Detroit: “Michigan Substitute Teacher Charged with Having Sex with Student.” KCCI in Des Moines: “New Charges for Teacher Accused of Having Sex with Student.” Cleveland.com, an affiliate of the Plain Dealer: Disgraced Shaker Heights Teacher Gets Prison Time for Having Sex with Student 22 Years Ago.” KTSA in San Antonio: “SA Teacher Arrested for Having Sex with Student.” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:Mike Jossie, Oak Creek Coach Accused of Having Sex with Student, Posts Bail.” New York Post: “Teacher at Posh School Banned for Sex with Student,” and “Teacher Found Guilty of Having Sex with Student in Classroom.” The ABC affiliate in Los Angeles: “Beaumont High School Teacher Arrested for Alleged Sex with Student; More Victims Sought.” Orlando Sentinel: “Eustis Teacher Accused of Having Sexual Relationship With Student.”

Those are just the first few Google results for headlines in the last month. I had to yell at the Austin American-Statesman about this stuff just this weekend for a tweet-and-story combo that lazily and irresponsibly lifted the “sex” language for a reprint from a Florida outlet.

This isn’t a problem with individual copy- or headline writers, or a few social media newbies who are lazy about language and looking for clicks. It’s endemic to the way mainstream publications describe a terrible crime of abuse and manipulation and the wielding of power and privilege over people who we are, as a society, supposed to protect before any other group: Children.

I don’t know how to describe it other than to use the word creepy. It’s creepy. It’s creepy that, when a teacher abuses or assaults a student, so many people think of that crime as being a potential gray area — of teenagers or adolescents of being capable of consent or even pursuit — that “having sex,” the thing that consenting adults do together, becomes the standard descriptor.

This is a symptom, of course, of a larger problem: We are a society steeped in rape culture. The normalization and minimization of sexual abuse, sexual assault and sexual violence persists thanks to a dizzying confluence of factors, not least among them the broad cultural suspicion — among adults of both genders — that victims and survivors are asking for it, because of what they wear or don’t wear, what they say or don’t say, what they drink or don’t drink, where they go or don’t go, how fat or thin they are, whether they work late or early, how many children they have or don’t have, how many partners they have or don’t have … the list goes on and on.

But just because we have such a terrible problem calling rape and sexual assault what it is when an adult does it to another adult — surely that means we can at least agree to call it what it is when an adult assaults or abuses a child? It seems not. Particularly when rapists and abusers target girls of color, their perceived sexual precociousness is heightened in a culture of white supremacy, indeed a rape culture of white supremacy — as detailed by Mikki Kendall years ago with her hashtag, #FastTailedGirls. Culturally speaking, we believe that some children are able to consent to sex or even invite or pursue sex. That’s a plain, simple truth about the way America works in the year 2017, and the proof is in those headlines. We believe that some children — dozens per month, probably, if we pored over every paper in the country — are “having sex,” the very same words we use to describe a pretty specific class of consensual activity between grown-ups, with their adult teachers and coaches.

I wonder if this linguistic failure comes out of a warped sense of obligation to fairness — if, perhaps, some journalists think that “having sex” is a neutral construction to be used before a teacher or coach is convicted or tried on specific charges. If so, this way of thinking couldn’t be more wrong. There’s no reason not to use language that reflects legal charges — “Teacher charged with sexual assault” seems plain enough to me — and which doesn’t conflate consensual and non-consensual behavior. There is no such thing as language that doesn’t take sides. When we choose to default to the status quo — in this case, describing the rape and abuse of children as “having sex” — we uphold the status quo, and the status quo is rape culture.

Like a lot of people, I find having sex to be an enjoyable and satisfying way to pass the time. I am repulsed by newspapers and broadcast outfits that use those same words to describe what happens when a high school soccer coach assaults one of his players. That’s not “sex.” If it were sex, it wouldn’t be a crime — and if it were sex, we wouldn’t need the words assault, rape or abuse.

Words mean things. Language has a purpose. It’s appalling that journalists, editors and copywriters — people who are paid to think critically about language and ensure they use it accurately — can be so incredibly cavalier when it comes to this particularly egregious crime.

            

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