Saying ‘No’

I’ve been thinking about Cherice Morales a lot lately. Perhaps it would be better to say that she, and her case, are haunting me. This bright, promising, talented Latina committed suicide at just 14 in the aftermath of a rape; a rape committed by her 49-year-old teacher. He was sentenced to just 30 days for his crime on the argument that they were having ‘consensual sex’ and that Cherice ‘had control of the situation’ and was emotionally older than her physical age.

Cherice was smeared in court as a teenage temptress, a case strengthened by the fact that she was Latina; this is a world where Latina women are viewed both as seductresses and as public property. As ‘spicy’ and ‘fun’ and ‘sexy,’ even at 14, apparently. Even when they are unequivocally well under the age of consent, we’re told that they are willing partners in sexual activity; people dare not call this what it is, which is rape.

I think about myself when I was 14. I was a lot of things. I was whip-smart, and confident, and self-assured. I thought I knew everything and anything I didn’t know I could charge ahead on anyway, no need to read the instructions or wait for directions. I was just starting to show the early signs of severe mental illness and I was just smart enough to know that I should hide them so I wouldn’t be outed as not normal. I was planning trips around the world and having college dreams.

And I was flattered by the attention of men. I liked it when they approached me at the coffeehouse, when older boys talked to me at parties. I liked the feeling of confidence and strength they gave me; me, at 14, an appealing and seductive catch for a adult man! Clearly it was my cleverness, my quick mind, my sophistication. They understood that age was just a number and I knew that too; I liked their stale smokey kisses and drinking with them on their back decks, I liked feeling powerful and in control.

I was ‘precocious,’ everyone said so. Some other people said some less flattering things about me too; I was a slut, a whore, easy. But I didn’t care. I had my older boys and their cars, I had the status that a connection to a steady supply of alcohol brought me. I had the gifts they gave me, the marks of their mouths on my neck that I archly covered with scarves I’d ‘accidentally’ let slip.

Some of my friends worried about me, especially my older friends, but they didn’t understand me. They might have talked to me and my ‘boyfriends’ but they were just trying to drive us apart because they didn’t understand the purity of our love; we weren’t like other people. My boyfriends weren’t paedophiles. They weren’t taking advantage of me. I was too smart for that.

My father might have worried about me too, but I always had good excuses for being out late. I had the Nice Boys and Girls I brought home and then I slipped out the back stairs to meet up in the darkness.

My colleague Emily McCombs wrote, when talking about this case, ‘I was 25 before I realized that every man I’d slept with as a teenager was a pedophile.’

I said at the time that her whole piece resonated sharply with me, speaking with such unerring accuracy to so many of my childhood experiences, and it’s a fantastic essay you should read if you haven’t already. Because here is the thing, for Emily, for me, for so many other people with these shared experiences in our childhoods: these were our childhoods. We were children. We were not adults.

We might have been bright, but we weren’t emotionally (or even physically) mature. We were children. Legally, we didn’t have the capacity to consent, but we didn’t have it ethically or developmentally either. Fed and drawn by the attention, we convinced ourselves that we mattered, that we were special, that these men preying on us and taking our innocence meant something. And we quickly learned what kind of performances attracted attention.

Unlike Emily, I had a great home life. My father and I had a strong relationship and I experienced a great childhood rich with books, opportunities for social interaction, and love. So don’t try to tell me that teenagers ‘fall’ into sexuality, or that only people from troubled backgrounds end up with stories like these; it doesn’t matter what your background is, you can still become the girl with smeared makeup and a torn dress at the party, brain swirling in confusion and addled by whatever your current ‘boyfriend’ fed you.

And don’t try to tell me that children somehow complicit in their exploitation. While children can be sexual beings, while children can and should have agency and autonomy, adults should know better than to treat children as sexual objects. Adults, as Emily points out, should have the power to say ‘no.’

I didn’t understand when I was a teenager that the men preying on me weren’t doing it because I was so special, but because they were so pathetic. Because they were paedophiles, and they found me easy prey. They searched out the part of me that needed affirmation and they fed it. It took me years of experience, and the development of emotional maturity, to understand what had been going on all those years ago—and it was brought home when I was in my mid-twenties and encountering lonely, sad, confused children who did what they’d learned got them attention.

But I said ‘no,’ because I was an adult, and this is what we do. We protect children, and we protect people of all ages who are vulnerable. We protect people who don’t have the full capacity to consent, who can’t see the whole picture. We make conscious decisions to reject the prevalence of rape culture in our lives.

We make the active decision not to rape.

No one was there to do that for Cherice and she paid a high price for it.