Women’s Advocates’ Education and Outreach Coordinator Meggie Royer writes a monthly post on topics that are relevant to the work we do as an organization. While Women’s Advocates is supported by Grant No. A-CVS-2018-WOMADV-00013, awarded by the Office on Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs – the opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Justice.
On Monday, January 7, 2019, Cyntoia Brown of Tennessee, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2004 for killing a man who had participated in her sex trafficking, was granted clemency. Despite being sixteen at the time of the murder and in fear for her life, Brown had been tried as an adult.
In July 2016, Bresha Meadows of Ohio fatally shot her abusive father. At the age of 14, although not tried as an adult, Meadows was still charged with aggravated murder and spent two years in prison before being released in 2018 to serve two more years of probation.
And the list goes on. Although about half of all U.S. states have banned life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, there are many children still trapped in a justice system that views youth actions, oftentimes in self-defense, as fit for adult punishments.
And for young women, this paradox is two-fold. For when minor girls act in self-defense against grown men, they’re “old enough to know better,” but when grown men act in predatory ways against minor girls, those girls are somehow “old enough” to have seduced the men.
In other words, a young girl who causes harm to mitigate harm is a woman. And a young girl who undergoes harm, and endures it, and there is no mitigating of that harm, is, yes, somehow a woman too.
When the influential and world-famous British singer and songwriter David Bowie passed away in 2016 at the age of 69, it came out that a female fan of his named Lori Mattix had “lost her virginity to him” at the age of 14. Instead of outrage and shock, public attention was focused squarely on Mattix, who, in many eyes, was viewed as a seductress and homewrecker, largely due to Bowie’s immense popularity and a 2015 interview with the Thrillist in which Mattix describes her experience with Bowie as “beautiful” and appears to look back on it fondly.
There is also R. Kelly, listed as “one of the best-selling music artists in the United States” despite numerous child pornography allegations and a 2002 video that showed him performing a sexual act on a female minor. After the recent release of a Lifetime documentary series about Kelly’s abusive behavior with underage girls, Surviving R. Kelly, several viewers took to Twitter to express their opinions – not of Kelly, but of his minor victims. Many users referred to his victims as “fast,” a colloquialism meaning mature beyond one’s years. One Twitter user wrote, ““Y’all still talkin about R Kelly in my opinion the little girls was wrong too they fast,” and went on to say that they had “no business” being around a “grown man.”
There it is. “Little girls” somehow are able to seduce “a grown man.” And if those same “little girls” had engaged in self-defense against R. Kelly, we might very likely encounter the same sort of sentence that was handed down to Cyntoia Brown and Bresha Meadows.
So there is David Bowie, and R. Kelly, and notably Woody Allen, who to this day denies sexually assaulting his minor daughter Dylan Farrow, while continuing to make films in which adult men take advantage of young women just shy of the age of 18, young women whom the general public might view as seductresses, as “fast,” as “acting beyond their years.” There is Wilmer Valderrama, who “dated” Mandy Moore at 16, then Lindsay Lohan at 17, then Demi Lovato at 17, all while himself an adult several years their senior.
Cyntoia Brown, Bresha Meadows, Dylan Farrow, R. Kelly’s countless victims, the fictional Lolita from Nabokov who is really anything but fiction….they will never be “just” the age they really are. They are somehow old enough to know better, despite being young enough to be preyed upon. They are somehow hardened criminals, despite being innocent victims.
The real truth is this: they were children, despite being forced to be adults.
It is critical to understand that not all girls who have experienced what is unquestionably sexual or domestic violence or coercion would consider it to be violence at all upon reflecting in adulthood, like Lori Mattix. It is critical to understand that a child, a young girl, may view herself as the perpetrator, as the predator, and from there comes the self-blame, the doubt, the guilt, the shame. But it is even more critical, it is paramount, to move beyond recognition and into action: it is time, far past time, that we hold adult men accountable for what they do to girls.
On February 8, 2017, Melissa Jeltsen of Huffington Post published an article about Bresha Meadows titled “When Surviving Childhood Means Killing Your Father.”
We must recognize, at the very core of our beings, that a childhood you have to survive is no childhood at all.
Written by Meggie Royer, Women’s Advocates’ Education & Outreach Coordinator (firstname.lastname@example.org)