No, Youth Is Never An Excuse For Sexual Assault

By Saigon Flowr

I had been looking forward to The Birth of a Nation for months. The critically beloved film is being touted as a cultural milestone that challenges the white savior narrative with its powerful story of the 19th-century slave rebellion led by Nat Turner.

And so, like many, I was devastated to learn that the film’s writer, director, and star, Nate Parker, was accused of rape while a student at Penn State. Along with his Birth of a Nation co-writer, Jean Celestin, Parker was accused not only of sexually assaulting a female classmate while she was allegedly unconscious, but of harassing her after she reported the crime. (Parker was acquitted; Celestin was sentenced to six months in prison, but when he appealed the verdict, the second case was thrown out because the victim understandably didn’t want to testify again.)

The case is upsetting not only because of the heinousness of the alleged crimes, but because of how the incident is now being handled. In the aftermath of the allegations, Parker issued a statement on Facebook, stating (in part):

“While I maintain my innocence that the encounter was unambiguously consensual, there are things more important than the law. There is morality; no one who calls himself a man of faith should even be in that situation. As a 36-year-old father of daughters and person of faith, I look back on that time as a teenager and can say without hesitation that I should have used more wisdom.
I look back on that time, my indignant attitude and my heartfelt mission to prove my innocence with eyes that are more wise with time. I see now that I may not have shown enough empathy even as I fought to clear my name. Empathy for the young woman and empathy for the seriousness of the situation I put myself and others in.
I cannot change what has happened. I cannot bring this young woman who was someone else’s daughter, someone’s sister and someone’s mother back to life…
I have changed so much since nineteen. I’ve grown and matured in so many ways and still have more learning and growth to do. I have tried to conduct myself in a way that honors my entire community — and will continue to do this to the best of my ability.”

This carefully crafted message raises many red flags, from the framing of the allegations as difficult for Parker, to the reduction of the devastating incident to a “situation.” But what bothered me most was the way Parker speaks about how young he was back then, and how much he’s grown and matured since. It bothered me because it’s indicative of a common, and damaging, rape-narrative trope — one that suggests “youth” is an excuse for sexual assault.

Let’s agree on this right now: It is not.

***

This is hardly the first time a narrative of youthful indiscretion has been used to defend rapists.

In the aftermath of the Steubenville case guilty verdict — which provided justice for a 16-year-old girl who was sexually assaulted by a clique dubbed the “Rape Crew” — the perpetrators were routinely defined in positive terms by their youth. CNN stated that the “young men . . . had such promising futures” and called them “star football players” and “very good students.” NBC, too, pointed out that the teens had “promising football careers.” And ABC described the case as “every parent’s nightmare and a cautionary tale for teenagers living in today’s digital world.”

This same rhetoric defined the Brock Turner case, with his father writing a much-maligned letter focused on his son’s swimming career and bright future, and the judge citing the youth of Turner (who was 20) as one reason for his lax six-month sentence.

Just this month, a high school athlete in Massachusetts charged with sexually assaulting unconscious classmates was gently wrist-slapped with just two years of probation. His attorney emphatically emphasized the role of his youth in this punishment, saying, “Putting this kid in jail for two years would’ve destroyed this kid’s life” and noting that “the goal of this sentence was not to impede this individual from graduating high school and to go onto the next step of his life, which is a college experience.”

This treatment taps into a troubling “boys will be boys” rationale that underpins our rape culture, with a subtext that is clear and damning: Young men are hormone-fueled, immature, and naive. Can you really blame them for raping women? More troubling still, this narrative actually works to make perpetrators seem sympathetic. They have so much ahead of them, the story goes. Do they really deserve to have their futures derailed because of one youthful indiscretion?

Of course, this narrative is never extended to the victims themselves, who are also young, and whose futures are often destroyed as a result of sexual assault and the trauma it causes (the victim in the Parker case, tragically, killed herself). Nor is youth used to defend the actually innocuous decisions women make that are routinely used to suggest that they “invited” assault — decisions like having another drink, going to that party, or being alone with someone they thought they trusted.

It’s patently absurd to think that, until a man reaches some threshold of mature adulthood, he can’t possibly be expected to know that sexual assault is not okay. I don’t know exactly what happened with Parker at Penn State, but I do know — as a woman who was once young and made careless decisions that could’ve ended up really badly but didn’t — that there are plenty of young men who don’t rape . . . or rather, don’t have “unambiguously consensual” sex when a girl is drunk beyond proper cognition.

Our current discourse surrounding rape and youth sets a dangerous precedent, telling men that they have a sexual assault free pass if they’re young enough, when what we should be doing is making sure boys understand consent and rape culture long before they reach adulthood. Indeed, we should teach boys at home, in schools, in media, and through our legal proceedings that sexual assault is not okay, ever, at any age.

Can youth be a factor in a lot of dumb decisions? Of course. But rape isn’t a dumb decision; it’s active abuse. And every “young” man, including Parker, should know a lot better.

***

Lead image: Wikimedia Commons

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