A Dupont-area artist and former lawyer wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post over the weekend that called for the decriminalization of student-teacher relationships in most circumstances. Betsy Karasik‘s piece was pegged to the high-profile case in Montana, in which a teenage girl had a sexual relationship with her teacher and later committed suicide. The teacher was sentenced to 30 days in jail last week. Unsurprisingly, Karasik’s op-ed was immediately slammed as incendiary—-a baseless argument grounded in anecdotal evidence that condones statutory rape. It immediately spurred responses from places like Slate, Jezebel, and ThinkProgress.
Fred Hiatt, editor of the Post’s editorial page, defended the decision to publish the editorial, saying “it raised a legitimate question, namely, is a criminal trial always the most beneficial route for victims of sexual abuse?”
“The purpose of an op-ed page is to offer a forum for debate, including for perspectives that may run against the grain of majority opinion,” Hiatt writes in an email.
Hiatt writes that the original online headline of the piece was “Sex between students and teachers should not be a crime.” Although he felt that was true to Karasik’s argument, it was later changed to “The unintended consequences of laws addressing sex between teachers and students” because “I felt [the original] might convey to readers that the author was condoning sex between students and teachers, which the piece clearly does not do.”
I reached out to Karasik to find out why she wrote the op-ed, if she thinks the public understood her intended message, and, given the backlash, if she has any regrets.
Below is our unedited Q&A, which was conducted via email.
Have you been an advocate for rethinking the way we criminalize teacher-student relationships in the past?
Betsy Karasik: This is not a topic I have ever written about or advocated about publically in the past, but over the years I have discussed it with many people including parents, victims of abuse, academics, and mental health professionals. What usually triggers me to write columns is that some particular incident incites a strong emotional reaction. In this case, I heard an NPR piece about the Rambold case in Montana, which motivated me to try to articulate some of the ideas I have been mulling for a long time. Having worked as a litigator, I know how stressful the legal process was for my clients, even with civil trials. So although I have no way to corroborate this, I strongly suspected that the pressure of the criminal proceedings may have had a harmful impact on Ms. Morales’ state of mind and helped push her to commit suicide.
Have you submitted other op-eds to the Washington Post before? If so, on what topics?
Yes, I’ve written perhaps a dozen op-eds and pieces for the Close to Home section over the past 10 years. Two were about President Obama, a number have been about nature and the environment, and some have been more personal. For instance, after a heroic dog named Target a soldier brought back with him from Afghanistan was accidentally euthanized in an Arizona animal shelter, I wrote a piece urging people to adopt animals from shelters rather than buying pets from breeders.
What was the editing process like with the Post for this submission?
I sent a short version to the editors and they asked me to expand certain sections. Then there was a lot of back and forth about smaller changes. Toward the end we were under deadline, and unfortunately a couple areas of the piece ended up a bit unfocused and ambiguous. But I take responsibility for signing off on the final draft. One thing I had asked for, but the Post refused, was to refer to the victim as “Ms. Morales” instead of just “Morales” but that is apparently standard style for the Post. Also, as is probably obvious, there are severe space limitations with an op-ed piece, so one cannot devote a lot of space to qualifying and elaborating on statements.
You mentioned to me that the media and public have distorted your piece to further their agendas. In what ways has your message been misread?
My intent was to explore whether society can do a better job in the way it responds to sex between students and teachers. I think a fair reading makes it clear my goal is to protect victims of abuse from unnecessary trauma and, when sex is consensual, remove the teacher from the school without further traumatizing the student with criminal proceedings. But the vast majority of commentators fixated on my suggestion about decriminalizing consensual sex, claiming that I condone or even advocate sex between students and teachers. That is just totally false; I clearly state all teachers who have sexual relations with students should be fired and prohibited from teaching unless the law deems them rehabilitated. There is a big difference which seems to have been lost on people.
Another group of critics interpreted my piece as a defense of the judge and the verdict in the Montana case, even though I specifically stated I found his comments indefensible and noted that it was appropriate he apologized. Part of the confusion may have been that I included a sentence that states “…tarring and feathering him … will not advance this much-needed dialogue [about sex in schools].” Some took that to mean I was expressing sympathy for the judge and blaming the victim, which I was not.My point was that when people see the incendiary reaction to his remarks, they will hesitate to make any statements about this topic that are even mildly controversial, and it may be a long time before any judge feels free to express any type of nuanced opinion about this kind of case.
Going back to the space limitation issues, it never occurred to me that I would need to specifically spell out that I was against rape, abuse and exploitation. I assumed that would be a given. But a surprising number of readers took that omission as license to claim that I am a sociopathic pedophile rape-apologist. With social media these days, there is little room for polite engagement; once you have been targeted for criticism you are immediately Satan.
Think Progress posted a sharp attack based on several short excerpts from my piece without quoting or providing a link to the entire piece; I pointed out to them that they were ensuring most readers would be judging it without the benefit of any context, but they never responded. Media Matters posted a piece with the headline: “Wash. Post Publishes Pro-Statutory Rape Op-Ed.” The Slate tag line on me comes up in Google as “Washington Post Argues That Rape is No Biggie.”
The more outrageously I am portrayed by these entities, the greater the traffic to their websites and support for their platforms. I think it’s pretty cynical of them to be attacking me for being irresponsible when they are representing my ideas irresponsibly to fire up their readers. This state of the media really saddens me.
Have you received any feedback from people that agree with your argument in the piece?
I have received a lot of feedback from people who agree with my arguments, or at least see a kernel of truth there and are very grateful that I have sparked an open debate. Many acknowledge that it is political and professional suicide to associate oneself with these ideas. Most people can’t afford to express these opinions without risk of losing their jobs or being shunned by their communities, and unfortunately practicing lawyers, therapists, teachers and others whose insights would be extremely useful also have too much to lose by entering the debate.
Much of the support I have received has been in the form of calls, emails and private messages on social media. One nasty aspect of Twitter, which is mostly where I have been responding to comments, is that if anyone dares support me or even send me a friendly “hang in there” tweet, the Twitter mob immediately descends upon them as well. And then the Twitter mob takes the lack of supportive comments in my feed as further evidence that I must be wrong. Some of the major bloggers on Twitter have privately expressed to me that they feel my article is being treated very unfairly by Think Progress (@thinkprogress), Media Matters (@mmfa) and others, but they can’t afford to enter the fray.
My Twitter feed has been a tsunami of very ugly harassment, in the form of name calling and even threats. Someone keeps signing me up for porn and deviant sites to make me look like a pervert. So yes, supporters would like to contribute to the dialogue but feel intimidated.
Have any of the messages or pieces in response to your op-ed resonated with you or made you question or rethink your position?
Yes, some of the more thoughtful comments have made me question my position. It is a very uncomfortable and uncharted position to be suggesting that something as taboo as student-teacher sex might be better addressed, in certain circumstances, with decriminalization. But that doesn’t mean the idea shouldn’t be discussed. One thing I seem to have gotten dead right is the impossibility of having a civil dialogue on the topic. And though I never intended to offend or hurt the victim community, some of their messages have resonated deeply (more on that later).
All of the evidence in your article was anecdotal. Do you have any concrete data or evidence to support your claim that teenage girls are not “horribly damaged” from relationships with their teachers?
No, I am not aware of any studies that examine the psychological effects of consensual sexual relations between teachers and students. But the individuals I referred to seemed happy and well-adjusted and they have gone on to have good careers and family lives. And I have also heard and read stories about how the criminalization and resulting stigmatization of teacher-student affairs caused tremendous emotional suffering and ruined lives. A number of the emails and messages I have received in response to the piece have also contributed stories along these lines, some very poignant. While this is still all anecdotal, these real-life examples suggest that the issue is not black and white and deserves to be discussed openly and without rancor.
As a lawyer, do you think it’s feasible that this sort of relationship between an adult and minor can be decriminalized? Why or why not?
From a theoretical point of view, I think it is potentially feasible with a concerted effort by politicians, educators, and mental health professionals to formulate a rational legal and institutional framework. People would have to agree on what age or other circumstances would constitute rape or abuse per se, how the questions of fact concerning whether consent was present would be determined, and by whom. They would have to consider the question of how a teacher’s special position of trust and authority over students would factor into this analysis. One thought I had is that perhaps there should be a rebuttable presumption of lack of consent that could only be overcome with clear evidence. (A rebuttable presumption is legal assumption that is taken to be true unless evidence proves otherwise.)
The problem is, legislators react to high-visibility issues like rape with far-ranging legislation fueled by rhetoric and political expediency. Once embedded, these laws become hard (or impossible) to rein in (think mandatory sentencing or drug laws). What politician is eager to take the initiative to revoke or dilute criminal legislation? He or she would endure what I am currently enduring, with no political capital to gain.
Are you in favor of completely changing the legal age of consent from 18?
Yes, 18 seems extremely unrealistic in today’s culture. In some states it is already 17 or 16. The age of consent in most European countries ranges from 14 to 16.
Any regrets about submitting this op-ed? Would you do it again?
My main regrets relate to whether I could have stated my opinions more clearly and in language designed to lessen the strong emotional impact. Some people, especially abuse victims, expressed feeling hurt and negated by reading the piece, which I deeply regret. As one friend of mine who is an abuse victim pointed out, merely raising these topics is hurtful to some.
In hindsight, if space limitations had allowed, I should have included a qualifying paragraph stating that I was not condoning rape, harassment or abuse of any kind, and that I did not intend in any way to place the responsibility for abuse on victims. But generally op-eds get right to the point. Also, if I had the opportunity to rewrite the piece, although I did refer to Morales’s death as “tragic and deeply troubling,” I would even further to underscore that my ideas were coming from a place of empathy.
And now for a little bit about yourself: How long have you been living in D.C. and what neighborhood do you live in? What do you do here?
I quit my 16-year career as a lawyer in 1998 to go to art school. While practicing law I represented plaintiffs in personal injury, product liability, unfair insurance claims practices, and civil rights cases. Just for the record, since so many have assumed I must have been drummed out of the legal profession, I was A.V. rated by Martindale-Hubbell (meaning the highest peer review rating for competence and ethics) until my retirement with no blemishes on my record. I am now a painter and live in Dupont Circle. I’ve also been a beginner at guitar for 30 years.
Photo courtesy Betsy Karasik