Positions of Authority and the “She Was Asking For It” Defense
Okay, sure. Sex with a minor is illegal. But it’s not really illegal if that saucy little minx wanted it.
And there you have it. That is the defense of one Angelo Vickers, a juvenile detention guard from Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, who repeatedly raped a 14-year-old girl, known as Mary Doe, under his supervision.
The age of sexual consent in Louisiana is 17. Given Mary Doe’s age at the time of the rapes, Vickers committed statutory rape when he had sex with her. He is already serving time for that crime.
Now, though, Vickers and other Terrebonne Parish officials are facing a civil law suit seeking money damages to compensate Mary Doe for the abuse she endured. It is in that context that Vickers’ lawyers are arguing that (1) Mary consented to the sex; and (2) her consent should reduce the amount of any damages she is awarded. Arguments like that are why people hate lawyers. (Note: I’m a lawyer.)
The premise of Vickers’ defense is faulty for a number of (painfully obvious) reasons. From a purely legal perspective, the crime of statutory rape does not consider the question of “consent,” or force, or any of the other variables that take center stage in cases where the alleged rape occurred between two adults. The only question asked in statutory rape case is whether sex occurred between an adult and a minor who are not married. Here, the answer to that question is a loud “yes.”
It should not matter, therefore, whether the victim willingly participated or not; under the eyes of the law, the sex she engaged in cannot have been consensual. Arguing that she consented is like arguing that the sky isn’t blue: it’s a waste of everyone’s time.
Worse – way worse – the argument is entirely tone deaf. Again, sticking to the facts of this particular legal battle, the civil suit alleges that Vickers and the community officials should have known there was inadequate supervision in the juvenile detention center. The case stems from a scandal that erupted in 2010, and that spawned a scathing report from the U.S. Department of Justice. That report noted that, among other short-comings, the detention center improperly relied on isolation cells and ignored guards’ routine exchange of candy and other favors in return for sex with the juvenile offenders.
And then there’s the victim’s personal history. By the time she was five years old, she was being molested. First by a swim teacher, then by a construction worker, then by an uncle, then by another family member. By the time she was 11, her mother had died and she had been plied with alcohol and other drugs. The uncle who molested her also tried to kill her on three different occasions. She was in and out of juvenile detention facilities over the course of eight years; her first stint was when she was just 10 years old. Now 20 and the mother of two children, she suffers from various psychiatric disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder.
To the compassionate eye, the dynamics of the detention center and the scarred fragility of the victim only compound what the law already established: Mary Doe was in no position to consent to sex with the guard several decades her senior. To the Vickers’ defense team’s eye, those factors indicate that the victim was so degraded that sex with her superior was something she wanted, invited, and even encouraged.
The case represents, on a tragic scale, the power plays of sex. In the Vickers case, there was an obvious manipulation of one girl’s complete vulnerability. In other, arguably less sinister contexts, a similar manipulation occurs. In the two-to-tango scenario, one partner knows all the moves and insinuates the other can learn them for the price of a sexual act. Often the powerful partner is older, and often he is male.
If you listen to Lena Dunham – and who doesn’t listen to Lena Dunham? – sex outside of social mores isn’t the real problem. The real problem, she says, is wielding a “position of authority to subjugate the women who dream of a piece of the pie.” That subjugation can of course occur without sex bartering, but sex bartering almost necessarily involves some manner of subjugation.
We are a nation of women divided. On the one hand, we’re being told to #LeanIn, to vote for Hillary, to condemn Betty Draper. On the other hand, we’re being told our reproductive systems know when the sex is nonconsenual, we’re being routinely harassed or pursued by men in or seeking elected office, and our cultural icons are still judged by the size of their clothing and not the content of their character. We want to proclaim that our biology doesn’t make us less than equal, but our biology keeps getting exploited to make us less than equal.
Most of us are luckier than Mary Doe, and thank goodness for it. But for as long as there is a Mary Doe, there will be a Hollywood phenom whose reality includes gender-based subjugation. For as long as there is a Mary Doe, there will be men who believe consent depends upon the reputation of the girl, but not her age. For as long as there is a Mary Doe, everything else is window dressing.
How to fight the power if the power is unyielding, and insidious, and pervasive?
I suppose a good place to start is the inside of a courthouse in a corner of Louisiana.
Featured image via Shutterstock.com