We often state that our children are our future, but we don’t always act accordingly. Suzanne Carlson, a staff reporter for The Daily News, shared a story on July 10 about a 40-year-old man charged with the aggravated rape of a 12-year-old child on St. Thomas. Territorial public defender Alexia Furlow attempted to convince Magistrate Judge Carolyn Hermon-Percell to dismiss the aggravated rape charge that carries a minimum sentence of 15 years and the possibility of life in prison.
Furlow argued that the 12-year old “gave the verbal OK to proceed” and that the young girl had “mental and physical maturity enough” to say she was in pain. Judge Hermon-Percell challenged Furlow’s statement and reminded her that “at 12 years old she couldn’t give consent.”
I applaud Judge Hermon-Percell for affirming that sexual violence is never the victim’s fault. Furthermore, silence is not consent. Furlow’s statement not only ignored USVI law that designates 18 as the age of consent, but she placed the onus of the abuse on the child instead of the perpetrator.
The offender/perpetrator, Vaughn Challenger, had groomed the 12-year-old child for four years. Essentially, pedophiles befriend children and present themselves as likeable, trustworthy and fun. They often introduce high-touch activities like wrestling and/or tickling games to acclimate the child to more intrusive sexual touching. To even speculate that a 12-year-old is mature enough to consent to sexual contact with a 40-year-old man is criminal and unreasonable. Such a statement promotes attitudes that sexualize our children, and fails to create accountability by adults to demonstrate proper safety and appropriate boundaries that safe guard our children.
The belief that a 12-year-old child is capable of consent with a 40-year-old man lacks basic empathy and understanding for children living and existing in a world of adults where they are expected to comply with adults and demonstrate respect — something pedophiles play on. Children should expect to be safe, and yet, statements like Furlow’s demonstrate a lack of care and concern for children and an invitation to victimize our vulnerable ones.
Sexual assault occurs every two minutes in the United States to one out of every six women and to one in 33 men. While we do not have reliable statistics available on the number of sexual assaults in the territory, the anecdotal evidence concludes that it is a problem. We cannot pick up the newspaper without encountering somewhere between the front page and the last page a report of sexual violence, domestic violence, gun violence or some other forms of violence.
While the literature indicates that children are at greater risk if they lack supervision at home, have poor relationships with their parents or primary caretakers, are harshly disciplined, are subjected to emotional abuse and neglect, resulting in craving love and attention, these children are most at risk for being abused or abusing others. Our continued lack of awareness and discomfort with the issue of sexual violence places our children at even greater risk.
One of the most popular myths that prevailed until recently was that perpetrators are strangers, hence the programs about “stranger danger.” Unfortunately, it is “Uncle G” or “Grandpa M” or the nice neighbor next door or up the street who poses the greatest risks. But how would we know that if we do not become informed?
Another myth is pedophiles are dirty old men. Yes, some are the stereotypical dirty old men, but most are ordinary individuals that ingratiate themselves to children and their parents. Further, it is not just children that are sexually assaulted. The belief that men rape women because they are sexually and overly aroused or have been sexually deprived is a longstanding myth. Motives for rape include the need for power and control, hostility, the need to humiliate and degrade, and in extreme cases, the need to inflict pain and commit murder.
Just as the sexualization of children encourages violence and coercive behavior, the objectification of women encourages violence in males. “Othering” anyone allows us to render them less than human, which then gives us permission to mistreat and abuse them.
These are not easy issues to deal with. Yet, our head-in-the-sand behavior and attitudes do not make these issues disappear. I invite you to a virtual training sponsored by The Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Council on sexual assault today through Thursday. Make the commitment to learn about this topic. Remember, it takes a village. Call us at 340-710-0144.
— Qiyamah A. Rahman, St. Croix, is the sexual assault response team coordinator for the Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse Council.