The Other Side of the Story

At the Texas Monthly, Jenny Kutner tells the story of her affair at 14 with a married teacher 10 years her senior. She paints a complex portrait of herself as both a victim and a survivor, but also a willing — and unwitting — participant, a young woman believing she has full agency and later an adult coming to terms with the manipulation and abuse. More than anything, the piece is powerful because it gives voice to both the 14-year-old girl who lived the experience, and the adult woman assessing and processing it. She’s not a news story or a silent figure in a larger morality tale; she’s a real girl, with all the complex feelings that come along with infatuation and adolescence and victimization and breaking through. It is a must-read.

About Jill

Jill began blogging for Feministe in 2005. She has since written as a weekly columnist for the Guardian newspaper and in April 2014 she was appointed as senior political writer for Cosmopolitan magazine.
This entry was posted in Rape Culture, Sex, Sexual Assault. Bookmark the permalink.

38 Responses to The Other Side of the Story

  1. Laura Grimes says:

    Sex between a 24 year old adult, especially a teacher, and 14 year old child student is not an affair, it’s rape, and calling it otherwise contributes to rape culture.

  2. Athenia says:

    This article kinda gives me the willies–it seems that Ms. Kutner still really hasn’t come to terms with what happened i.e “it’s complicated” “it’s an affair.” “he’s the best teacher I’ve ever had.”

    The parts describing her parents’ heartbreak stood out the most for me and I wonder if describing it as an “affair” is actually an accurate way to describe what happened–not so much that she had an affair with an older married man, but she destroyed her family’s trust in her.

    • Jill says:

      I dunno, I think she’s pretty clear that she was an abuse victim, but that the experience of actually living through the manipulation makes the story-telling more complicated than “I was raped.” I think that kind of nuance is a positive thing — not everyone experiences manipulation and abuse the same way. She follows up in this piece at Salon.

      • Athenia says:

        Most definitely. Thanks for the follow up link– it’s definitely more clear and puts her story in a broader context.

      • Whosagooddog? says:

        Agreed, Athenia. I wasn’t familiar with Kutner’s story before this, and her first article made me wonder if perhaps the trauma and PTSD she experienced was mostly the result of how her parents, peers and the public reacted to the “affair” rather than the “affair” itself. Then I read her follow-up in Salon and learned that Lehrer had threatened to kill her if she ever left him, at which point it became instantly clear that there was a deep well of trauma and abuse embedded in the “affair” itself (above and beyond the issues inherently raised by the age difference).

      • Little Raven says:

        I had read Jenny’s original story when Texas Monthly published it, but I had not seen her additional piece until now.

        Thank you for linking it.

      • Hannah says:

        I agree, Jill….I was in a similar situation in high school, though the particulars were different (I was older than Kutner was, the man was not a teacher but someone I babysat for and, very naively, considered a friend) and find my feelings are similar to hers- I know that what he did was abusive, but I also know I was complicit, so…? Where does my responsibility begin and end? I really appreciate the article for giving voice to that.

      • EG says:

        I dunno, my perspective is a bit different. I was in a not dissimilar situation when I was young, though the “affair,” such as it was, did not start until I was 18 (he was in his 40s, married, the father of two, and careful to stay on the right side of the law), though an incredibly inexperienced 18. After years of feeling responsible, the older I get, the more I think, fuck that, it’s entirely his fault. Regardless of anything else, it was his responsibility not to be an asshole user who mistreated a young, naive girl who had a crush on him. Period. Just as it’s my responsibility not to mistreat the people in my life. Period.

        If at 10 I had consented to drinking five shots of whiskey, that wouldn’t have made it OK for an adult to give them to me. At 18, consenting to be treated like shit did not make it OK for a manipulative jerk to treat me that way.

      • (BFing) Sarah says:

        Thanks for the follow up link.

  3. Disorder says:

    I was very bothered by how little agency this woman had in the prosecution of this teacher. The parents distrust her implicitly and give her no say in the prosecution. The court case just becomes a bunch of prescribed hoops she has to jump through. If this is the parent’s view of their child, is it any wonder that she went in search of something which she deemed adult?

    • Drahill says:

      Eh, I’m really not. On some level, having a justice system that can divest from the victim isn’t a wholly bad thing. If you buy into the underlying presumption of American justice – that a crime is not against a single victim, but against the society at large – the ability to remove the victim from the case’s center, when possible, isn’t a terrible thing. I also think your argument runs counter at times. We all recognize this “affair” as rape precisely because the girl cannot legally consent to sexual contact with this man. Her consent in fact was wholly besides the point. If the law, as a protective measure can wholly deny her sexual agency when it comes to partners over a certain age, why does it then need to fully respect any agency when it comes to a prosecution? The underlying presumption of statutory rape – and by extension, its prosecution – is that you have a victim who lacked agency to consent from the very beginning, and thus, cannot be reasonable expected to protect her/himself or advocate on his/her own behalf. Crimes against children, sadly, often have victims who, let to their own volition, would not testify or cooperate in a prosecution willingly. Should all those crimes be left unaddressed?

      I can certainly see how the author can feel a sense of disempowerment from the prosecution that happened. However, I can also fully see the rationale that her cooperation, or feelings about the case, were not central to whether the prosecution should have gone forward.

      • Disorder says:

        To be honest I’m not entirely supportive of current justice system, so that may color my repose to the piece a bit. But at any rate I really am troubled by the paternalistic tone of the father in the piece, and I just wondered if the better response of the parents might have been to take the author to therapy first. I would hope that the therapist might help her to understand what happened to her and make a choice in which she was an agent. Also B.S. statute of limitation laws prevent survivors from being allowed to process what happened to them and latter make a choice about how they want to respond. As a survivor myself I feel that part of my recovery has been to regain control by making choices about what I want to do about my assault; I guess I would like for other survivors to have a similar opportunity.

      • Drahill says:

        I still think you’ve missed my point. You can’t have it both ways. The crux of the crime here is that a man had sexual contact with a person who, under the law, could not give consent. She could not consent, full stop. She legally had no agency to enter into a sexual relationship with this man in the first place. I don’t see anybody on this thread arguing that her consent in fact should be able to supplant the fact that she could not give legal consent. So, then, the question becomes – if the law recognizes that she has no agency to enter into the relationship, why should the law then recognize agency in the prosecution phase? If this is child, then other entities – parents, the court, society at large, etc. – have a responsibility to act as her agents and in her best interests. And if we accept that a crime was committed against her – and it seems we all do – then is it not in her best interests to see her attacker prosecuted?

        Frankly, the way I read this, the prosecution seemed to be handled fairly tactfully. A deal was made, in line with the victim’s wishes, and care seems to have been taken to spare her from a trial. That seems a fairly decent resolution to me. As to your point about therapy – frankly, she should have been in therapy regardless of any other outcome.

        Also, I’m unsure about your point as to how empowered she actually should have been in the process. Crimes involving children very often have victims who are loathe to go forward on their own accord – not because of any well-considered rationale, but because of the high level of emotional abuse and manipulation the abusers tend to subject them to. Even if we acknowledge the agency of victims, what do we do the victim’s “agency” is still being unduly influenced by the abuser? I know therapy sounds good, but speaking as somebody who worked in a therapy setting with children, it isn’t as neatly packaged as you make it sound. Working through abuse can take years, and a great many of the victims never fully work through it. I don’t believe the ability to prosecute or address the child abuse issue should be depend upon a therapist’s skill and an imagined timetable for victims.

      • ldouglas says:

        Everything Drahill said. The idea that people who rape young children should get away with it if said young children can be convinced they were happy with the situation is incredibly dangerous and, frankly, stupid.

      • Disorder says:

        First of all not being able to consent and not having the agency to say something wrong happened, and I would like to do something legal about it are two very different things. Quiet frankly I find your argument insulting. I quite sure–in fact very sure–that there are many 14 year old girls who are survivors of sex crimes and can recognize that what happened to them was wrong. These young women deserve every opportunity to decide weather on to purses a legal case. Legal cases can be re-traumatizing for victims of sex crimes (as well as empowering), and therefore the choice as to weather or not to purse legal action should ultimately be the victim’s.

        Also perpetrators of crimes who are in their teens are often tried as adults. If this is ok, why is it not ok for a victim in her teens to make choices about the pursuit of a legal battle. Although laws and the protection of them may have larger cultural effects the legals system should first and for most work in the interest of victims (as should this messed up culture).

        Ultimately the survivor’s parents and legal system which decides what this victim should and should not do about harm that was done to her are part of paternalistic apparatus that runs counter to feminist aims of empowerment. Agency is one of the greatest things that is lost at the hands of this kind of violence. Restoring it should therefore be a prominent goal.

      • Miranda says:

        Hi, disorder.

        I’m sorry about what happened to you.

        I’m also a survivor of childhood sexual trauma, and I just want to inject another consideration here. My situation involved a serial predator.

        These young women deserve every opportunity to decide weather on to purses a legal case. Legal cases can be re-traumatizing for victims of sex crimes (as well as empowering), and therefore the choice as to weather or not to purse legal action should ultimately be the victim’s.

        While I am deeply sympathetic to your argument that the legal system, as it stands, is deeply paternalistic and can be re-traumatizing, I am also uncomfortable with allowing stat rape to be tried only if the victim consents to the trial. This is because I feel that part of the whole point of the legal system is preventing future harm, especially as so many offenders seem to be repeat offenders. When it comes to adult rape cases, the likelihood of conviction is so small that such questions are essentially moot, but my impression was always that stat rape has a much higher conviction rate.

        I don’t know how to balance a need to protect an individual’s agency with the need to protect the broader community ; it’s something I struggle with and I don’t know the answer, but I do think future victims need to be given consideration here.

        I say this as someone who basically was a “future victim,” because when a victim came forward to adults but didn’t want to involve the law, the adults (illegally, by the way) abided by her decision and didn’t report.

      • Everything Miranda said, and for exactly the same reasons and from more or less the same background. (Though mine was more complicated that he was a priest and nobody would have believed me or the others.)

      • Drahill says:

        These young women deserve every opportunity to decide weather on to purses a legal case. Legal cases can be re-traumatizing for victims of sex crimes (as well as empowering), and therefore the choice as to weather or not to purse legal action should ultimately be the victim’s.

        You’re still dancing around my point, which you seem unable to answer. A child does not have full agency – and not just when it comes to crimes. They do not have the agency to enter into contracts, to consent to sex with adults, etc. Agency for children is rarely 100% in a great many forums. You seem unable to answer why this should be any different.

        I don’t support your argument for many reasons, but chief among them is this: Empowerment has a flip side. The ability to fully decide whether to press charges creates, for many people, a dual responsibility that can really re-traumatize victims. There is a large segement of socety who believe that if a victim does not pursue prosecution, he or she becomes complicit in the future misdeeds of their attacker. Now, of course, that is bullshit on many levels. However, that does not preclude victims from imposing that belief on themselves – or others from doing it to them. I don’t want a victim believing that because she declined to prosecute her attacker, any subsequent assaults he commits might be partly her fault. You talk about the “right” to prosecute, but you fail to see that for a great many people, it is not a right, but rather, a duty. And I don’t want any victims to have a “duty” to prosecute. I want that burden to be on the state, where it is now and rightfully should be. You talk about empowerment as though it cannot have any potential downside, when you fail to see the potential reminfications of placing such a burden (and yes, it is a burden) on victims.

      • Miranda says:

        I don’t want a victim believing that because she declined to prosecute her attacker, any subsequent assaults he commits might be partly her fault.

        In my personal anecdotal experience with all of this, having the state choose to press charges doesn’t really circumvent the guilt problem that accompanies watching your abuser be punished/not be punished. The guilt shifts onto questions of, “Because I told someone/didn’t tell someone” or “Because of me, someone found out about it/didn’t find out about it.”

      • Drahill says:

        But Miranda, that wasn’t my point. My point is that now, the state is the main actor responsible for dealing with the attacker. If the decision to prosecute is placed solely upon the victim, the victim is the sole bearer of the imagined duty to “stop” the abuser from offending again. When the state drops the ball, many victims still do feel guilt or responsibility. However, the state still bears the largest chunk of responsibility for pursuing the attacker – and I prefer it stay that way. I do not want a system in which victims bear the sole responsibility for prosecution – especially a child victim.

      • Miranda says:

        If the decision to prosecute is placed solely upon the victim, the victim is the sole bearer of the imagined duty to “stop” the abuser from offending again.

        I understand your point, but I’m not sure how well it maps onto the reality of what pressing charges against an abuser looks like. What I’m trying to say is that the “imagined duties” of the victim don’t start and end with the decision to press charges. I appreciate that you “do not want a system in which victims bear the sole responsibility for prosecution,” but often times they do bear the sole responsibility of informing another adult about what is happening, or picking up the phone and telling the police in the first place, or making a statement, or choosing to cooperate by telling the truth, or, or…

        I mean, we are in agreement about your larger point, but I’m just trying to illuminate places of complexity in dealing with stat rape and stat sex crimes, because it’s something I’m intimately familiar with.

      • Drahill says:

        Miranda, I think you are talking about something I’ve nevr brought up. The initial duty to report almost always lies with a victim – but that isn’t unique to sexual assault cases. That includes a plethora of crimes. Disorder and I have been going back and forth about the role the criminal justice system should play in relation to victims. But that system doesn’t even get activated until an initial report is made, so I think you are talking about something that falls outside the realm of the initial conversation. I’m not saying it’s not a well-made point, but it’s not the focus of the conversation here.

    • TMK says:

      So much yes. Actually, when i tried to put myself in her shoes, i thought the aftermath, with immediate control from the parents, lack of trust, and the therapist asking her about feeling guilty*, and general coercion (you have to answer the questions, etc, etc) was horrible.

      *Once i had an event in my past that left me absolutely confused. By all standarts it should be regarded as assault/abuse, but i did not felt so. Only after talking with my friend who asked me how can i let myself be treated like that i had short episode of feeling victimized. And i was an adult with a strong personality, so, seriously, therapist (or a friend) role is not to impose its own interpretation…

      I also agree that their family trust was built on thin ice. And before someone says that you cannot have your child come and tell you such things as affair with an older person, sure you can, if you leave the agency to the kid and only try to convince her/him, but without excercising power (like the parents did), but the same way you would try to talk to an adult friend you could not legally force to anything.

      That builds real trust, and i know what i am saying, people routinely feel uncannily safe and accepted in my company. I even had a several years of relationship with heroin addict that was (well, still is) devoid of lies, and we all know how hard drugs usually facilitate dishonesty.

      • Esti says:

        Honestly, this reads like victim blaming the family to me. “If you had just parented better, your kid would have felt comfortable telling you about her teacher’s advances.” This isn’t her parents’ fault any more than it’s her fault.

        And while I understand the feelings of discomfort about the reaction she did get from her parents, I agree wholeheartedly with others here who have pointed out that statutory rape prosecution cannot rest on whether or not an abuser has successfully convinced his or her victim that they are a willing participant. Given the circumstances, I think her parents handled things pretty well: they reported it, they got her therapy, and they never tried to blame their daughter for what her abuser did to her.

      • TMK says:

        Well, i think their reaction was insensitive and that their earlier relationship with their daughter was, well, typical. But i do not think what happened to her was their fault.

        I agree with what Miranda wrote above. While i think that the victim agency is important, as i said above and as others wrote too, i dont think that this should be only prosecuted on victim wish. Not anymore as murders are, and, the victims have an obligation to society to help the prosecution so the perpetrators can be succesfully prosecuted. But i wont pretend it is not hard, and that it is not a choice between two evils, forcing a victim to testify and endangering future victim(s).

      • Athenia says:

        This dude waited until the parents were out of the house to go have sex with a 14 year old. I’d be pretty upset if I were them.

      • TMK says:

        Sure. The difference is in what you do when you are upset. Are you going to exercise the power you have over the other person, or are you going to treat them as a independent person (sovereign? My english is eluding me).

        I dont see being upset or angered as an excuse, even if i agree it explains it.

      • EG says:

        I don’t think I’m going to treat my teenage kid like an independent or sovereign person. Because…she’s a kid.

  4. Fat Steve says:

    I think what’s worth commenting on in this story s not how it differs from other cases of rape, rather, how it is similar to how other cases of rape are treated. Specifically, the victim is continually victimized long after the act, both by people defending the perpetrator and those purporting to ‘help.’

  5. I wonder how prevalent these sorts of crimes are. When I was in Eighth Grade, the male choir teacher was accused, then arrested, then convicted for sexual contact with a 14 year old boy. Shortly before the trial, three or four young men, now adults, stepped forward to say that the same thing had once happened to them.

    Either these sorts of things have always been present, or maybe now victims are more willing to step forward. I will say that it is really depressing sometimes to read about yet another arrest. It seems to me as if there is a new allegation and conviction every month or two.

  6. emilybites says:

    What really struck a chord for me was how manipulable young people can be: they can think they’re grown-ups, making adult decisions for themselves. Predators encourage that belief so that the victims of abuse believe they’re in consensual relationships.

    The prevalence of stories like this suggests the prevalence of the abuse to me. My soccer coach began what I instinctively want to call ‘a sexual relationship’ with me (but I should say ‘began abusing me’) when I was fourteen, which lasted until I was eighteen. I thought of him as my boyfriend. At the time I thought I already was an adult, but the older I get the more I despise him for his predatory manipulation of my naive, childish self.

    Because teenagers tend to think they’re smarter and more capable than they are, it’s up to adults to make the smart choices kids are too young to make.

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