The older we get, the easier it is to forget how young children really are. Eleven is an odd age. A child is on the cusp of adolescence but still prone to carrying a certain innocence. I don’t really know what eleven looks like anymore. It has been too long. Too much has happened. I do know that at eleven, I was still naïve. I didn’t know many curse words. I went to church. I got good grades. I loved my family and my family loved me. I was quiet and bookish, didn’t have many friends. I had childish wants. I had big, big dreams. I wanted Almanzo Wilder to marry me even if I didn’t quite know why. I was completely incapable of handling adult situations. I was sheltered. I was a good girl.
And then I wasn’t.
In 2010, an eleven-year-old girl in Cleveland, Texas, was gang raped by more than twenty men, repeatedly, over the course of four months. It was a crime of ever-increasing magnitudes, each new detail about the rapes more horrifying than the last—the abandoned trailer where a lot of the rapes took place, the sheer number of assailants, the video evidence, the way the town reacted, the way journalists reported the story. Every time I think about the case, I get nauseous. I am nauseous now. Revulsion is a reasonable response.
Consent is complex and that complexity can be uncomfortable but legally, a minor cannot give consent, even if she gives consent. Morally, we know that if a man hears an eleven-year old girl say yes, what he should really hear is no. If more than twenty men hear an eleven-year old girl say yes, what they should really hear is no.
Eleven is desperately young but it’s also so close to adolescence, to the whole world changing, to new ways of understanding, new ways of wanting. No matter who an eleven-year old is, though, there is no version of that age where a child is capable of making an informed decision about sex, let alone a gang rape with multiple assailants over the course of four months, which is what happened in Cleveland, Texas.
We don’t know how to talk about children anymore. We get so wrapped up in these shallow narratives about children being preternaturally advanced, about little girls wearing make up and dressing provocatively and seducing the camera, about little girls maturing faster, developing sooner. We forget. They are children, babies really, if we would allow them to be.
In the trial of Jared Len Cruse, one of the accused rapists, his lawyer Steve Taylor said, “Like the spider and the fly. Wasn’t she saying, ‘Come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly?’ I’m sure he thought he was quite clever. He made this statement while questioning Chad Langdon, the lead investigator on the case. Taylor thought this might be a feasible defensive tactic. He thought he could plausibly assert that an eleven-year old child had the wiles to seduce all those men and that her complicity would somehow negate any guilt on the part of said men.
Langdon replied, “I wouldn’t call her a spider. I’d say she was just an 11-year-old girl.”
Taylor, having not quite reached the bottom of his ethical barrel, told Langdon he hopes such an accusation never befalls his teenage sons as if that might somehow make any part of the situation acceptable. Fortunately, Taylor’s strategy was unsuccessful. Cruse was found guilty. He will be in prison for a very long time. Most of the assailants in the case will be in prison for a very long time. They call this justice. And still, there will be more rape cases and more defense attorneys blaming victims of all ages and believing that’s a viable strategy because, historically, it has been.
We don’t know how to talk about children anymore. Even when the Cleveland, Texas case first gained national attention, we were at a loss for finding the appropriate language. There was no vernacular to accommodate everything terrible and wrong about the crime. We were careless. The New York Times, in one of their first articles, was concerned about the town and how the town was affected. The town’s citizens wondered where the girl’s parents were, and worried, of course, for those boys. Everyone everywhere wondered how such a horrific crime could happen. And still, we were talking about a girl who was eleven.
She continues to dress like someone twice her age at family events, like Thanksgiving, where she was dressed as what I can only describe as a “sexy secretary” with a tight, shiny satin red shirt and a very tight pencil skirt with heels.
What can you do, really? I’m not her Mother. I’m not even her sister. But I feel like she could find herself in a bad situation if this continues. On the other hand, it feels distinctly un-feminist to tell a girl how she should dress or act because it suggests that any blame would lie with her.
We have no idea how to talk about children anymore. While I don’t believe there was any malice intended by the commenter, while I do believe she is, as she noted in her comment, conflicted, her words are still full of misplaced concern, victim blaming and this pervasive cultural belief that women and girls dressing provocatively leads to women and girls “finding themselves” in “bad situations,” instead of what actually happens— bad situations finding women and girls no matter where they are, how old they are, what they are wearing, or how they are comporting themselves.
This is of course compounded, in this instance, by the fact that we’re not actually talking about women. We are talking about girl children. Eleven-years old. No matter what they say or how they act or how they dress, eleven-year olds are children and we have twisted ourselves up so much that we have no idea what that means or, worse yet, perhaps we don’t care what that means.
It’s strange, this eagerness we have for placing the culpability for sexual violence everywhere but where it actually resides. I’m done with conversations about rape that do not place the responsibility for rape with rapists. I am absolutely done with questions about what the victim did or did not do to make themselves so vulnerable instead of what the predator did as he (or she) preyed. I am done with conversations about what potential victims can do to prevent rape instead of what rapists can do to stop raping. I am done with conversations about children and sexual violence that try to rationalize issues of consent and sexuality.
I’m not sure if misogyny is so culturally embedded that we cannot bear for rapists to bear the responsibility of their actions or if we’re terrified of our own vulnerability, no matter what we do to protect ourselves. Maybe we don’t know how to talk about children or even think about children because we don’t want to remember how little we once knew or face how much we would someday know.