Attention journalists: An adult can’t ‘have sex’ with a preteen. It’s rape.

Jessica Goldstein, Culture Editor at ThinkProgress. jgoldstein@thinkprogress.org,, October 21, 2016

A handy guide for covering sexual assault cases.

A New York Times story was published on Friday morning with this stunner of a headline: “Montana Judge Criticized for 60-Day Sentence for Man Who Has Sex With His Preteen Daughter.”

It called to mind a headline with similar phrasing from Tuesday’s Houston Chronicle: “Former Aldine teacher accused of sex with student back in court.”

Just one problem: These aren’t stories about sex. These are stories about rape.

There is no such thing as “having sex” with a preteen, yet this is the terminology the Times used — not just in the headline, but in the body of the story — to describe the case of a man in Montana who was sentenced to a laughable 60 days in jail for raping his daughter.

The focus of the story is the judge and the backlash he faces for granting such a light sentence, 24 years and 305 days shorter than what the state recommended. But in using this language — “having sex,” something consenting adults do for kicks all the time —the Times erases the violence and criminality from the act. To use the phrase “having sex with his preteen daughter” is to make the horrifying suggestion that there is a world in which an adult could “have sex” with someone who is not even thirteen years old and not consider what occurred between them to be an act of sexual violence. That consensual sex between an adult and his preteen daughter is possible. Consensual sex between adults and preteens does not exist.

At around 10:30 Friday morning, the New York Times changed the headline to better reflect the nature of the crime. (There’s nothing on the page to indicate that the change constituted a correction):

<img class=”progressiveMedia-noscript js-progressiveMedia-inner” src=”https://cdn-images-1.medium.com/max/1200/1*dWY-eT3f4O9l6GtgcWACqw.png”>
New York Times, October 21, 2016

The language in the lede is changed, too, but again, there’s no correction:

<img class=”progressiveMedia-noscript js-progressiveMedia-inner” src=”https://cdn-images-1.medium.com/max/600/1*hInDCdvEaMfHG_PLXbzU5A.png”>
New story text on the left, original text on the right. (New York Times, October 21, 2016)

Another change comes later in the story (emphasis added): “pleaded guilty to a single felony count of incest for having sex with his 12-year-old daughter” is now just “pleaded guilty to a single felony count of incest.”

Meanwhile, the Houston Chronicle reported on the case of a former middle school teacher and her “long-term sexual relationship” with her 13-year-old student.

(Breathes deeply into paper bag)

The technical way to describe a “long-term sexual relationship” between an adult and a 13-year-old boy is as “continuous sexual abuse of a child,” the felony with which the teacher was charged. What really happened is that the 24-year-old woman repeatedly raped a 13-year-old boy over the period of months; to hear the Chronicle tell it, she was simply “accused of having sex with the student,” whom she met while teaching him eighth grade English.

Houston Chronicle, October 18, 2016

When the Washington Post covered the Aldine case back in June, it made the same mistake, writing in the headline that the teacher “had sex with” her student nearly every day:

<img class=”progressiveMedia-noscript js-progressiveMedia-inner” src=”https://cdn-images-1.medium.com/max/800/1*RjqMpKeWgGSnb67oyTdYXA.png”>
The Washington Post, June 2, 2016

The New York Daily News did the same. So did CBS News and Us Weekly.

To defang a crime like rape with the innocuous, even salacious language of sex, is enraging and irresponsible. It is a linguistic act of violence in the wake of a physical one.

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