Let's get this straight: Child victims are never at fault

Last week it was reported that a former Ashland High School volunteer swim coach was arrested on multiple counts of felony rape and sexual assault stemming from his alleged conduct with a 14-year-old girl on the team. The 24-year-old was being held in the Jackson County Jail on four counts of third-degree rape and four counts of second-degree sexual assault.

The Jackson County Child Abuse Network has no comment on any aspect of this case other than the language used to describe the alleged crime and reminding people of our duty to protect children.

The words we use influence our perceptions and create images in our minds. Police Chief Terry Holderness was quoted as saying a several-week APD investigation determined that "no force was used" between the alleged offender and the victim, who was a freshman at the high school.

We would like to clarify the use of the phrase "no force was used." This refers to the description of the legal codes. Rape in the third degree is described as having sexual intercourse with a person under 16 years of age. Rape in the second degree is having sexual intercourse with a person under 14 years of age. Rape in the first degree is described as sexual intercourse with a person under 12 years of age, or the "victim is subjected to forcible compulsion." In Oregon a person under 18 cannot legally give consent to have sex.

In other words, the degree of crime is based on the age of the victim or whether it is a violent attack. We have no doubt that Chief Holderness was explaining why the charge was third-degree rape and not first-degree rape. Our concern, and why we are writing this article, is the potential misconception that any rape can be described as without force or that the victim holds any responsibility.

There are many factors in child sexual abuse that come into play that may not seem like overt force. The first is what is called grooming. The offender is typically well versed in endearing themselves to the victim through kindness, compliments, attention, favors and gifts. Over time this leads to a lessening of normal caution and defense mechanisms on the part of the victim and can end up with them taking part in activities that they would never otherwise consider or choose on their own.

Possibly the most important aspect of child sex abuse is the power differential between the adult offender and the victim. Often the offender is in a position where the victim wants to please them and gain their approval. Our society sometimes erroneously sees this as the child being at least partially at fault by their actions, which in fact are just normal adolescent behavior. Wouldn't you want the attention or to please your coach, your minister or any person of power in your life? Our laws and our science tell us that it is never the fault of the child, no matter how it happens. Anything less is considered "victim blaming."

The responsibility lies with the adult to know that our culture and laws do not allow for any form of physical relationship between adults and children. And it is the job of the community to look out for children of all ages and respond appropriately if we think anything inappropriate is going on. Hundreds of studies and thousands of broken lives have proven the destructive results of child sex abuse.

We make no assumption of the guilt or innocence of the alleged offender in this particular case. What we do know is that today there is a child that needs the love and support of their family, friends and community. Law enforcement and the courts can decide the legal issues.

The message we would like to leave with you is that children are never responsible for being abused in any form, no matter what the particular charges or circumstances are. There is always some type of manipulation on the part of offender to gain power and control over the child or adolescent. Our children need our support and protection- without exception.

Randy Ellison is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who has become an advocate for prevention. He wrote this on behalf of the Jackson County Child Abuse Network.

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