I started having sex with adult men when I was 13 years old.
Neglected at home and ostracized at school, I found comfort in the sexual attentions of older men. Unlike boys my own age, who cruelly taunted me, older men were nice to me. Unlike my emotionally distant father, older men paid attention to me. They were grooming me, but to that chubby, attention-starved teenage girl, their attentions felt a lot like love.
And so I created Prodigy chat rooms with names like "13yo girl home alone" and spent hours chatting and having phone sex with the men who would find me there. I "dated" men in their 20s and 30s that I met at the movie theater, online or hanging around local college town with my other underage girlfriends. I pursued these relationships with with Lolita-like abandon. The terrifying thing is how few adult men ever said no.
I was not coerced. I consented to all these sexual encounters in the basest sense of the world. But I was making choices that I wasn't emotionally equipped to make. Legally, that's why statutory rape laws exist. Because like an intoxicated person, an underage person is not truly capable of informed consent.
And yet, on Monday, Stacey Rambold, a Senior High teacher convicted of raping 14-year-old Cherice Morales, who later committed suicide, was sentenced to spend just 30 days in jail. The judge justified his decision in part by saying he listened to recorded statements given by Morales before her death and believes that while she was a troubled youth, she was "as much in control of the situation" as Rambold.
The judge also said Morales was "older than her chronological age."
After the sentencing, the victim's mother shouted "You people suck!" repeatedly before storming out of the court, and later told news cameras, "My faith in the justice system is gone."
While researching this article, I read many comments supporting the judge's decision, all predicated on the idea that the 14-year-old victim had consented to sex with her 49-year-old teacher.
"There is little to no information given about what the nature of the relationship was, how it started, how long it lasted, how the girl felt about the relationship or perceived it, how much consent ... she gave in regards to it all, but all signs point to the fact that this was an ongoing relationship where they engaged in sex on at least 3 occasions, which strongly brings to question just how much actual victimization took place here," wrote one commenter.
The fact is, a 14-year-old girl may be capable of agreeing to sex with a 49-year-old man, but she doesn't have the emotional and mental maturity to consent. I was 25 before I realized that every man I'd slept with as a teenager was a pedophile. It seemed to me that since I'd courted the attention, that I was fully culpable. What teenager believes she is not mentally or emotionally capable of full consent? I thought I was an adult, although when I look at the picture of myself from the time period above, I see a child.
I thought I was the exception for these men, the girl so precocious and advanced that it superseded social norms. I thought that I was "older than my chronological age."
It never occurred to me as a young sexually active teen that the adult men I had relationships with may have been manipulating me, that they had designs and motives I couldn't see from my limited child's perspective.
Once, I met a 28-year-old man online and went to his house for a "date." He began to undress me almost immediately -- I went along with it because I wanted him to like me, and our sexual encounter culminated with him holding my head down and ejaculating into my throat while I sputtered and struggled to pull away. Later, I couldn't understand why he never called me again, why he didn't want to be my boyfriend.
Because I was a child, I was missing large pieces of the perspective required to understand adult situations. Children can be sexual. Children can pursue. Girl children in particular may have already learned how to manipulate and bargain with their sexuality at a very young age. They are still children. Like all children, they test boundaries, boundaries that adults must set and maintain.
If Cherice Morales was indeed a "troubled youth," like I was, if she came from a dysfunctional home or had a trauma background or had been previously abused, then not only may she have been lacking in protection at home, she may have been especially incapable of protecting herself. And that's why statutory rape laws exist -- to protect children who need protecting, not just from those who will prey upon them, but from themselves.
The defense argued that Rambold had suffered enough by losing his career, his marriage and his home and suffering a "scarlet letter of the Internet" as a result of publicity about the case.
For my part, I spent the next decade of my life wrestling with demons borne partly of sexual trauma. I became addicted to drugs, risky sex, and alcohol. I still struggle to learn that there are better ways to get attention than with my body, that my sexuality isn't the only thing that makes me worthy of love and attention.
Still, I made it out of my teen years alive; Cherice Morales wasn't so lucky.
What I needed, and what she needed, were strong male role models in my life who knew how the fuck to say "No thanks" to a little girl's come-ons. Because it doesn't matter if a young girl is saying yes, it's an adult man's job to say no.