When the Target of Sexual Assault Doesn’t See Herself as a Victim

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What Women Really Think
Dec. 6 2013 9:36 AM

When the Target of Sexual Assault Doesn’t See Herself as a Victim

In Texas Monthly, Jenny Kutner writes a long and arresting account of her eighth-grade year, when the 14-year-old Kutner met the 23-year-old middle-school history teacher Trace Lehrer (a pseudonym). Mr. Lehrer talked with Kutner after class, invited her to eat lunch in his classroom, told her to call him “Trace,” touched her shoulder, rubbed her neck, tracked down her cellphone number, drove her around in his pickup, asked her to sit in his lap to steer while he manned the pedals, rubbed her thigh, came over to her house when her parents were away, and finally entered her bedroom.

Amanda Hess Amanda Hess

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. 

That year of Kutner’s life ended up aired in court and splashed across local TV stations, with Lehrer identified as a “villain” and Kutner his “victim.” But the lived experience was “more complicated than that,” she says. When she looked in the mirror, she “saw Trace Lehrer’s accomplice, not his victim.” Even now, when she talks about the incident, she uses this construction: “I had an illicit affair with my eighth grade history teacher when I was fourteen.” And: “I still cannot determine when I would have become a victim, because I’ve never believed that I did.”

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Is the situation actually “more complicated” than it appeared on the surface? It is and it isn’t. The power of Kutner’s story is that it lends insight into a particular type of victimization—the kind that happens when the victim doesn’t see herself as one.

In describing Lehrer, Kutner flips the language of statutory rapists: They say their victims looked old for their age; she says her teacher looked young. “He was 23 years old, but his round, unblemished face made him look more like someone’s high school brother than a grown-up with his own health insurance,” she writes. At first, Lehrer seemed to satisfy Kutner’s own yearning to be loved and appreciated by men at a time when she was surrounded by middle-school boys. “Mr. Lehrer represented the way boys would be when we got to the other side of high school,” she writes. He “seemed to us like the kind of male friend we could expect to have one day, but who we were lucky to find so soon.” When he came into her bedroom, she got what she believed that she wanted: He “held my head against his chest, stroked my hair, and made my stomach flutter.”

Then, her parents found out. Lehrer was fired; he later shot himself in the stomach, went to prison, and was released as a lifelong registered sex offender. Kutner entered high school, left to grow up under the shadow of what happened in eighth grade. The thought of Lehrer in her bedroom still “clings to my personal history like gum on the bottom of a shoe,” she says. What once made her stomach flutter soon made her palms sweat, her stomach lurch, and her windpipe tighten. Feelings of excitement and affection gave way to PTSD. “I once believed that that flutter came from the flapping of butterflies’ wings, but I have since learned that it came from a grown man fanning the flames of a young girl’s vulnerability,” she writes. “Trace Lehrer taught me that those flames consumed naiveté and then released passion, but I have since learned that they engulfed trust and then incinerated innocence.”

Still, even years later, Kutner "can’t describe" what happened in a word, because "I never learned the right vocabulary," she says. So she calls it an "affair," which can imply both romantic interlude and criminal incident, depending on how you look at it. “I use the word ‘affair’ because it is malleable, because it is discreet, because it connotes something that I feel more comfortable implying than do words like ‘assault,’ ‘abuse,’ or 'molestation.’ When I say that I had an ‘affair,’ I feel I have the agency and the control that I never had when the whole affair happened.” That doesn't mean that Kutner was not Lehrer's victim, but it does reveal how the victimization brought out complicated feelings in her. Part of Lehrer's crime, in fact, was in convincing a 14-year-old girl that she was no victim—she believed she was being treated as an equal, when she was not.

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