Betsy Karasik is a writer, painter, and former attorney who recently wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post and attempted to begin a serious discussion on how we evaluate laws pertaining to minors and sexual activity. Since her opinions on this issue were published she has received feedback ranging from supportive to highly vitriolic. I reached out to Betsy to ask her specific questions about her views on the matter.
When you were writing your piece detailing your views in relation to laws regarding sex between teachers and students, did you expect the backlash you have received from it thus far?
I did expect a backlash simply because I was advocating re-evaluation of two highly controversial subjects: whether sex between a student and teacher should always result in the case going into the criminal justice system, and the age of consent/statutory rape laws. These are both big taboos, and to be challenging accepted narratives about them is definitely poking the tiger.
But I naïvely failed to anticipate the extreme distortion my piece would receive by the media. Almost every media outlet characterized my piece as being pro-rape, racist, condoning pedophilia, actively promoting student-teacher sex, and/or other positions I find utterly repulsive. It never occurred to me that the piece would be read so selectively. I think a fair reading makes it clear that my concern is for the welfare of the students/victims and that my ideas are coming from a place of pragmatism and compassion.
Labeling me as "pro-rape" is a facile and intellectually dishonest way to shut down dialogue, much like claiming that anyone who questions mandatory sentencing is promoting crime or that advocates of comprehensive sex education in schools are promoting promiscuity. I wasn't surprised when Glenn Beck slammed me, but I was appalled to see the same reductive tactics and reactionary mindset embraced by journalists who call themselves progressives and feminists.
Do you feel that the message you were trying to relay has been misconstrued or not fully understand by those responding negatively towards it, and you?
Yes, it was shocking to me that some assumed I was suggesting decriminalization in the type of situation that occurred at Penn State. I was not in any way arguing that teachers who employ grooming, harassment and other forms of coercion should escape prosecution. A small minority of readers did carefully consider my arguments and provide thoughtful and insightful feedback.
I am in correspondence with a psychologist who works with sexual abuse victims who, while disagreeing with my position about the degree of harm generated by consensual teacher-student sex, shares my concerns about subjecting abuse victims to the criminal justice system.
One thing I do regret is that the piece was ambiguous in unpacking why I pegged it to the case involving Ms. Morales. I expressed "ambivalence" over her case, but I failed to sufficiently clarify that my ambivalence was not about whether the teacher should have been prosecuted, but about whether the criminal process may have traumatized her. (That was why I introduced the piece with the Louis C.K. remarks, which also address an unintended consequence of criminal laws.)
When I said I was troubled "for the opposite reason" I was not implying that the teacher should have received an even lighter sentence, but rather I was pivoting to the general issue of whether these criminal prosecutions have a huge downside for victims in general. I did specifically state that I was not defending Judge Baugh's comments, but I nevertheless blame my lack of clarity for the fact that this particular aspect of the piece was misconstrued by a percentage of readers.
What exactly were you trying to convey?
I was trying to convey that criminalization is a blunt instrument with unintended consequences and is not always the best way to deter behaviors we deem undesirable. Society learned this during prohibition and is currently grappling with these problems in the context of drug laws and mandatory sentencing. I was simply stating the obvious: sexual activity between students and teachers will continue to occur no matter how hard we try to suppress it with legislation. And some of these situations will include behavior that does not include force, coercion, manipulation, or other conduct that plainly should be subject to criminal laws.
I was suggesting that we could be responding to consensual situations in a more realistic and intelligent manner, and that forcing the student to participate in a criminal prosecution in these cases is likely to unnecessarily amplify the trauma to the student.
Of course, we aren't just talking about the general population, but rather a situation where teachers are in a position of trust and authority over students. That is why I clearly stated that any teacher who has sex with a student, even if the sex is consensual and the student is above the age of consent, should be fired and lose their license. And I have also suggested a higher standard of proof for establishing that student-teacher sex is consensual, perhaps in the form of a rebuttable presumption of non-consent.
Some argue that because of the power differential there can never be meaningful consent in in this context. I disagree and I believe it is tortuous and hypocritical to label all of these situations rape. I do agree that any student-teacher sexual relationship should be subject to very careful scrutiny because of these concerns. I would rather see society devote resources to providing a thorough mental health and/or law enforcement evaluation on a highly individualized basis at this point to determine if there was manipulative or coercive conduct, rather than on indiscriminate prosecutions and repairing psychological harm after the fact.
In her book Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex, (Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2002) Judith Levine states that "[m]any psychologists believe that adults' reactions even to certifiable sexual abuse can exacerbate the situation for the child..." and quotes a report by the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect stating: "There is often as much harm done to the child by the system's handling of the case as the trauma associated with the abuse."
Even my most vocal critics in the victim community concede that the criminal justice system is still rife with ignorance and incompetence, can be a brutal experience for victims, has a long way to go before it adequately supports survivors of abuse, and is not likely to change any time soon.
You stated that you "don't believe that all sexual conduct between underage students and teachers should necessarily be classified as rape, and I believe that absent extenuating circumstances, consensual sexual activity between teachers and students should not be criminalized."
I strongly believe that forcing a teenager who has engaged in a consensual sexual experience to self-identify as a rape victim sends a hypocritical and damaging message to that individual and to society. I suspect this sentence disturbed readers because I did not make it sufficiently clear that I was carving out an exception for consensual situations, not assuming most sexual activity between students and teachers to be consensual.
I was also arguing that the age of consent is unrealistically high. In the United States it is 18 in many states, and 16 or 17 in others. In most European countries it is between 14 and 16. When I said "extenuating circumstances," I actually meant, and should have said, "aggravating circumstances." When I said "not all sexual conduct between underage students and teachers should necessarily be classified as rape" I was referring to consensual sexual activity by teenagers who are underage within the current legal framework, but who would not be underage if legislators lowered the age of consent.
Again, this is not about promoting sexual activity, but rather realistically tailoring social policies, including how wide a net we wish to cast for criminal prosecutions.
Do you feel this way about sexual relations between teachers and students specifically or sexual relations between all legal adults and minors?
As noted, I think the current age of consent is unrealistically high, and I feel the same about how these principles should apply to the general population. I have been thinking about the fact that, outside the school context, there would not always be disincentives such as job loss to deter adults from seeking out sexual relations with teenagers above the age of consent. But if the teenager is above the age of consent and the conduct is consensual, distasteful as it may be to contemplate that they are engaging in sex with adults, I still believe this is better addressed outside the criminal justice system, preferably through the intervention of parents and mental health professionals.
This sentiment is supported by Ms. Levine's extensive analysis of statutory rape, wherein she argues that "legally designating a class of people categorically unable to consent to sexual relations is not the best way to protect children ... [c]riminal law, which must draw unambiguous lines, is not the proper place to adjudicate family conflicts over youngsters' sexuality." Id. At 88.
Do you believe that our society, our culture here in America, is one that is incapable of having an open and honest conversation about sex, the different age groups that participate in the act, and the different circumstances surrounding all sexual activity between participants or even non-willing participants as it pertains to crime and punishment?
I would hate to conclude that it's impossible, but I have to say the response to my op-ed quite vividly illustrates how polarized people are on this point and how vehemently they will attack and shout down opponents. It is obvious that examining either of the taboos I challenged, statutory rape laws/age of consent, and student-teacher sex, is guaranteed to provoke a firestorm.
For these reasons, I am pessimistic about society's ability to objectively and effectively reassess our criminal codes or even sex education policies. That being said, even within the backlash I am seeing some genuine interest in openly debating these subjects, and that is heartening because the issue here is -- or at least should be -- the health and welfare of young people.