Saturday, May 17, 2008

Legal double standards in sexual abuse cases involving 18 year olds

Two days ago, a priest was acquitted of sexually assaulting an 18 year old woman in El Paso, Texas. Three of the counts in the case against Rev. Phillip Taban involved sexual abuse using emotional dependency, which means that the abuser or sexual predator created or fostered a dependency relationship which left the woman (or man) unable to truly consent, even though she didn’t say no or do anything physical to suggest the relationship was unwanted. The prosecution failed to prove emotional dependency in this case, but said that it would try in a similar case with similar circumstances should one come up later.

Meanwhile, two Texas teachers have been indicted this week on charges of improper relations between an educator and a student for sexual relationships between themselves and 18 year old students under their care. Joy Blackstock, 23, was accused of having a sexual relationship with an 18 year old male student which occurred last fall, in Early, TX, and another teacher, Austin teacher Allen Cole, 34, was accused of having a sexual relationship with a 18 year old woman.

Sexual abusers, regardless of their victim’s age, create conditions where their victims are made emotionally dependant on them. This process has a name – grooming. Grooming is used to facilitate the abuser’s sexual abuse by creating a conflict between the victim’s desire for the abusive relationship to end and the dependency needs the abuser created in her. Unless there is forcible rape, all sexual abusers make their victims dependent on them.

As a brief aside, the “emotional dependency” charge could theoretically be used against domestic abusers who create a position of trust (as a partner or spouse) to control their spouse. Sexual abuse occurs often in abusive relationships, and the victim is often coerced into sex. Texas prosecutors should consider the feasibility of using “emotional dependency” sexual assault charges against domestic abuse perpetrators.

The three Texas cases, with major events occurring within a few days of each other, proves that there are legal double standards depending on which professional is exploiting an adult victim. If a person in authority sexually exploits an 18 year old person under their care, the punishment that they will get depends on which profession they use to exploit their victim in Texas (and other states). If the exploiter is a prison guard or a high school teacher, it becomes a second degree offense punishable by between 2 and 20 years in prison as a maximum sentence in Texas.

If a doctor or lawyer exploits their vulnerable 18 year old patient or client, then the maximum punishment for a non-forcible rape offense will be suspension or expulsion from the profession, but not a criminal charge in most states. If a college professor or priest does the same thing that Debra Lafave or Rev. Paul Shanley did to their charges, there is no criminal punishment for the sexual relationship per se, though the professor’s victim can use collegiate sexual harassment internal policies or Title IX to file a complaint and get the professor removed.

There are double standards not just with regard to gender that are played out in the court of public opinion, but also in the court of law in each state. The 18 year old victim of teacher sexual abuse has a criminal recourse in Texas, but not in Illinois, Wisconsin, or Michigan as of 5-16-08. The therapist with an adult victim of therapist/patient abuse faces a 2 year misdemeanor in Michigan, but a 12.5 year felony in Wisconsin. In all cases, a civil recourse is possible, and the professional can be stricken from their profession’s roster.

It takes sexual assault charges for professionals who are sexual abusers of adults to be brought to the attention of the criminal justice system. With teachers and prison guards, most states define sexual intercourse and other conduct as sexual assault. A smaller number of states define therapist/patient sex as abusive. Sexual exploitation by professionals of adults is not defined as criminal sexual conduct in many instances, so victims are robbed of justice in too many cases.

Has there been any scientific research that says that priests or college professors who sexually abuse vulnerable adults under their care do less damage to their victims than their counterparts in the high school? Has their been any research which states that 18 year olds who are seduced by priests and professors rather than high school teachers are more mature? I don’t think so.

Research has shown that professional abuse of clients runs in the 10% range over a career.

Perhaps it’s time to review how professionals who sexually exploit vulnerable adults are treated. The vulnerability may come from youth (under 25), dependency, past victimization, mental illness or other disorders, or a belief in professionals acting, well, professional.

In Arkansas, professionals who use their position to coerce or seduce 18 to 21 year olds into sex are considered to be felons, as this case shows. (Arkansas’ AOC is 18). Unfortunately, older victims do not have the same sort of protection from predatory professionals.

The three cases above show that the laws need to be standardized, and strengthened so prosecutors don’t need to bring charges of emotional dependency to stop abusers. A law criminalizing professional/client sex with adults in and of itself could go a long way in stopping such abuses.

It’s time for the same outrage that would have been felt if the victims were 9 instead of 18 to apply when professionals abuse their trust with vulnerable adults. And it’s time for the law to punish in the same manner, regardless of profession and age when such

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