Louise Pennington


Two weeks ago, Victoria Coren called for more ‘nuance’ when discussing Roman Polanski’s guilty plea for unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. Polanski had originally been charged with six separate counts, including rape, after grooming, drugging and anally, orally and vaginally raping 13 year old Samantha Geimer.[1] Coren’s plea for nuance was met with outrage and distress from victims of sexual violence and with concern from organisations who work with victims. Coren has suggested that those who did not like the piece simply did not understand and her use of the word ‘nuance’.

The problem is not that people simply did not understand. The problem is that we understand it too well.

The problem with the media reporting of child rape cases is that they are too ‘nuanced’.[2] We do not talk about child rape as a crime where the only person responsible is the perpetrator.[3] We make excuses for child rapists. It is the very language we use that minimises and obfuscates both the crime being committed and the responsibility of the perpetrator, as Whoopi Goldberg made evident with her infamous “it wasn’t rape-rape” to refer to Geimer’s rape by Polanski.[4]

Polanski’s conviction for unlawful sex with a minor is referred to as a “sex scandal”[5] as if raping a 13 year old somehow compares to a senior politician having a consensual sexual relationship with someone other than their wife. The excuses made specifically for Polanksi reflect our obsession with celebrity culture, but the language used is similar in other cases of child rape and sexual violence.[6]

Prosecutor Eleanor Laws QC instructed the jury not to link the trial of Michael Le Vell[7] for child rape to other high profile child rape cases involving celebrities by invoking the term “witch-hunt”. Le Vell was found not guilty of all charges but there is something troubling about a prosecutor suggesting that there might actually be a “witch-hunt” involving targeting male celebrities for child rape.

Jimmy Savile[8] was labeled a “predatory, serial sex offender” in a joint report by the MPS and the NSPCC. The report recorded sexual offences committed by Savile between 1965-2006.  Rather than examining the structural and systemic nature of the years of child sexual abuse comitted by Savile, Metropolitan Police commander Peter Spindler suggested that Savile had “groomed the nation”, conveniently abdicating responsibility for those who knew but did nothing to protect vulnerable children.

Stacey Rambold[9] served only 30 days in prison for raping his then 14 year old student Cherice Moralez. Judge Todd Baugh’s summation included the statements that Moralez was “older than her chronological age” and was “as much in control of the situation as was the defendant.” Moralez committed suicide in 2010

Neil Wilson[10] received a 12 month suspended sentence for engaging in sexual activity with a child, making indecent images of a child and possession of an extreme pornographic image after the prosecuter Robert Colover referred to Wilson’s 13 year old victim as a “sexual predator”.

Due to the campaiging by Ending Victimisation and Blame [Everyday Victim Blaming] campaign[11], the CPS launched an investigation which culminated in Colover’s resignation and the Attorney General reviewed Wilson’s sentence under the undue leniency clause. This week, Wilson was sentenced to two years in prison for the sexual assault. The campaign would not have been necessary had the Colover and judge Nigel Peters not used the word “predatory” to refer to a child victim of sexual violence.

The language used to obscure or minimise child rape and child sexual violence in these cases are not abnormal.  They reflect wider patterns of victim blaming and misuse of language.

A very common way of obscuring the crime of child rape is by the use of the term “had sex with”. The conflation of the two terms have appear frequently in the media,[12] notably in Coren’s piece on Polanski as well as very troubling recent article in the BBC[13] on the conviction of ten white men in Yorkshire for the serious sexual exploitation of a child.[14]

“Had sex with” is a euphemistic term which implies consent. Firstly, children can not legally consent to sex. The act is child rape. Secondly, conflating sex with rape is very dangerous. It makes it easier for rapists to deny that they committed rape. It makes it easier for juries to believe that there was “reasonable doubt” because the victim was drunk or wearing a skirt or out late at night or a million other excuses.[15]

Language is important because we live in a rape culture. Roman Polanski did not have “sex with” 13 year old Samantha Geimer. Polanski raped her.

We need to stop looking for ‘nuances’ and start talking about child rape using the term child rape. We put our children at risk when we use language that minimises or obscures the crimes that were perpetrated against them.

We make our children doubt their own stories of rape and sexual violence when the adults and media around them use euphemistic language like “had sex with”.

Rape has a purpose in our culture.[16] We do tremendous disservice to our children when we fail to label child rape as child rape.


HuffPostPic1Louise Pennington is a feminist writer and historian with a background in education. She blogs for the Huffington Post and her personal blog, My Elegant Gathering of White Snows [], is part of the Mumsnet bloggers network.