In February, in the town of Torrington, Connecticut, two 18-year-old high school football players, Edgar Gonzalez and Joan Toribio, were arrested and charged with sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl. Specifically, the charges against the two boys are second-degree sexual assault, risk of injury to a minor with sexual contact and risk of injury to a minor.
The former charge — the sexual assault one — stems from what most states call “statutory rape,” and while that’s not the exact language used in Connecticut’s law, the premise is the same: the boys, who were not only old enough to consent to sex but also legally adults, engaged in sexual acts with a person much younger than them, and too young to legally consent. As adults, the burden of behaving legally and responsibly rests with them, and not with the victim. In Connecticut, the age of consent is 16 — three years older than the victim in Torrington.
The Torrington case got a great deal of attention, including a story in the New York Times, due to the relentless bullying, especially on social media, that the victim underwent after the young men, both football players and both popular, were arrested. The Twitter hashtag #FreeEdgar was widely used to show support for one of the alleged assailants, and the victim was called names and attacked for supposedly ruining the two men’s lives. According to the Times story, many Twitter users questioned why the victim wasn’t also being arrested, as she too had agreed to sexual relations.
This particular issue is one of the reasons why the Torrington story, and many like it, is so stomach churning. Much of the bullying directed at the victim revolved around the fact that she “asked for it” by apparently having agreed to sex. While the details of the sexual encounter have not been made public, and so it is unclear whether or not she was a willing participant, the question remains: Are statutory rape laws necessary, and are they fair?
The short answer is yes, of course. Statutory rape laws are absolutely necessary and exist to protect victims in just these kinds of situations — cases in which there is a major imbalance of power, and in which so-called willingness does not change the fact that the victim has been violated, physically and emotionally, by people who should have known better, and who are in fact legally responsible for knowing better.
But there is a longer answer, and that is that statutory rape laws are complicated, inconsistent, and difficult to enforce. For example, many states, like New York and Connecticut, have provisions in their laws that either lower the severity of the offense or eliminate it altogether if the victims are within a certain age range — say, two or three years—of one another. Would the Torrington case have been different, in terms of the charges brought against the men, if the victim had been 15 instead of 13, and the assailants 17? In Connecticut, probably. Is that fair?
Therein lies the gray area. When dealing with teenagers, who are not fully developed in terms of their reasoning and decision making skills but who are basically walking balls of hormones, how do you distinguish between hot-and-heavy, perhaps ill-advised but genuinely willing sex, and sexual assault? And in cases, like Torrington, where the delineation is clear, how do you educate confused and angry young people about the difference between a stupid decision and a heinous, illegal and horribly damaging one, like the one the young men allegedly made?
There is no universe in which the victim in Torrington is to blame for her assault. Whether or not she said yes, she was the victim of a crime that could continue to haunt her for the rest of her life, though of course one hopes not. She is a textbook example of the necessity and efficacy of statutory rape laws and ages of consent. But when it comes to such laws, we are doing young people a great disservice by simply not educating them. Young men and young women should know exactly what is and is not legal, what is and is not assault, just the same as they should know the basics of safe sex practices.
We also need to educate parents, guardians and other citizens, so they can recognize when young people are at risk, when they are too young to legally give consent and when legal action should be taken. Again, some cases are clear-cut, but many are confusing for the parents and loved ones involved. Can they file charges? Was their child old enough to give legal consent? What resources are there for victims of statutory rape? Parents and families need to know the answers to these questions.
And perhaps most importantly, we, as the public, need to understand that the victims themselves are probably confused, scared and ashamed. Especially in statutory rape cases in which the victims said yes to sex or sexual contact, feelings of guilt and blame can arise and convince victims that they are at fault for the crime. And it’s important to let victims know that, while these feelings are normal and understandable, they are not to blame for what has happened to them. They are not “destroying someone’s life” by coming forward — they are doing the right thing to protect themselves and others.