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Is America really clueless about the meaning of rape?

By Carol Costello, CNN
updated 4:56 PM EDT, Wed May 28, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A judge gave light sentence to young man who admitted raping a 14-year-old
  • Carol Costello says rape is not an 'error in judgment', it's a crime
  • She says judges and others seem to have difficulty grasping definition of rape
  • Costello: Rape discussion often centers around the victim, rather than perpetrator

Editor's note: Carol Costello anchors the 9 to 11 a.m. ET edition of CNN's "Newsroom" each weekday. Watch the 10 a.m. ET hour of Newsroom Tuesday for a segment on this topic. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- It's 2014, yet many Americans -- including a sitting judge -- apparently don't know how to define rape. They find it difficult to figure out who is an actual victim. They can't even figure out who's a rapist.

Even when the accused pleads guilty to...rape.

I'm not kidding.

Carol Costello
Carol Costello

It happened in Dallas County, Texas.

A young man named Sir Young admitted, in court, to forcing himself on a 14-year-old classmate.

Young's attorney, Scottie Allen, said the girl expressed interest in having sex with Young, "just not on school grounds."

Apparently Young couldn't wait. As his attorney put it: "he made a very, very bad judgment," and ignored the victim's objections and admitted that to police.

Fancy that! Rape, a "bad judgment."

Apparently that's not out of the realm of sound judicial thinking because Judge Jeanine Howard agreed. She sentenced Young to deferred probation and community service because -- wait for it -- it was partly the victim's fault.

What's next in Texas rape case?
Lawyer: He's not typical sex offender

Howard told the Dallas Morning News the girl -- who was in junior high school -- wasn't a virgin and had given birth to a baby.

If that's an invitation to rape, is every girl or woman who's had sex or had a baby fair game?

Rapist sentenced to work at TX rape crisis center

"Rape is the only crime in which we turn the lens onto the survivor, the victim, and not onto the perpetrator," said Bobbie Villareal, executive director of the Dallas Rape Crisis Center. "When someone gets shot, we don't ever ask them, why didn't you get away from that bullet?"

Lest you think that judge in Texas is the only person on earth who's confused about rape, she's not.

From former Rep. Todd Akin's assertion there's such a thing as "legitimate rape" (as opposed to illegitimate rape?) to Whoopi Goldberg's claim that director Roman Polanski's assault on a 13-year-old girl wasn't "rape-rape," to a defense attorney in Cleveland who called an 11-year-old gang rape victim "a spider" who lured men into her web, all seemed really, really confused about whether a crime even occurred.

Perhaps one of the worst examples happened in Montana. District Judge G. Todd Baugh proclaimed a 14-year-old victim, who committed suicide before the trial started, "older than her chronological age" and "probably as much in control of the situation as the defendant."

The defendant in this case, the girl's 31-year-old teacher, Stacy Dean Rambold. Baugh sentenced Rambold to 15 years, then suspended all but 31 days.

Sure, Rambold's sentence was overturned, but only after massive public outcry.

It's 2014. Why are such things still happening?

Rape is not a "lapse in judgment." And who cares, defense attorney Allen, if an admitted rapist is "very talented, very gifted," and had scholarship offers?

Rape is a crime.

Is murder a "lapse in judgment" that could spoil a killer's bright future?

America actually seems a bit squeamish about calling someone a rapist. Perhaps because there is a perception that women often accuse men unfairly.

Except that's not true. According to a 2012 Justice Department Study, just 4.9% of rape allegations were unfounded.

Opinion: Rape cases -- when judges just don't get it

Jessica Valenti, a feminist writer for the Guardian says it's more complicated than that. She writes: "Part of the problem is that America has never had a clear, accepted cultural definition of what rape is.

Even legal definitions have been confusing. It took until 2013 for the FBI to change its 1929 definition of rape from "the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will" to the new version: "Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim."

Perhaps the new definition will help. But I'm not convinced. What explanation can there be for sitting judges in separate states to place partial blame on two 14-year-old girls for their own sexual assault?

Unless they believe as Humbert Humbert did in Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita," a book about a grown man who "fell in love" with a 12-year old girl: "... it was she who seduced me," he said.

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