Two weeks before President Donald Trump designated April as National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, a Spokane judge invoked Trump's lewd statements about grabbing women's genitals without their consent in deciding the seriousness of an assault on a 15-year-old girl.
Local sexual assault victim advocates and a member of the Spokane chapter of the National Organization for Women echo the judge's comments about the influence of pop culture on adolescent boys and girls. They call for more education in public school curricula on sexual boundaries and possibly a change in state law.
The case, which was first reported last week on Inlander.com, stems from an incident caught on a security camera at North Central High School. Footage shows a 16-year-old boy touch the girl's butt and grab her genitals three times.
The teenage boy was convicted of misdemeanor assault. However, citing a lack of evidence — as well as pop-culture references such as hip-hop artists grabbing their crotches during a Saturday Night Live performance and Trump's secretly recorded Access Hollywood comments — Superior Court Judge James Triplet absolved the teenage boy of any sexual motivation attached to the crime.
"Our president openly brags that he can grab women by the 'pussy' — his words — whenever he wants to, because that's what people who are powerful and rich get to do," Triplet said from the bench after finding the boy guilty of assault.
For advocates, the case raises questions about protection for sexual assault victims under the law, the extent to which popular culture is responsible for blurring the lines of appropriate behavior, and whether or not grabbing a girl's genitals is an inherently sexual act.
"The bottom line is that there are so many things in our society and culture that are done that cross the line regarding appropriate behavior," Triplet said in court. "Yet our society allows that risqué and sexually explicit behavior to be modeled to our children, who are developing physically, emotionally, and with respect to their maturity. They often watch these public figures to determine what's hip, what's OK or what's acceptable."
The case dates back to June 2016, when the teenage boy and the victim are hanging out one Friday after school. She is sitting on a bench, and he is "dancing and spinning" in front of her, "trying to make [her] laugh," the boy testifies during trial. The two are not dating, though they know each other.
The boy playfully taps the side of the girl's head, and she does the same back to him. The boy pokes her stomach and hips, then grabs her butt and her crotch several times.
The victim "gives no reaction," Triplet says, summarizing from video footage.
The following Monday, the school's dean of students, Mary Gustafson, confronts the victim, who she describes as "shy, standoffish and embarrassed." The victim acknowledges that she was laughing and joking with the boy, but that she felt violated when he touched her.
"[The victim] said that while she never said it was offensive until Ms. Gustafson talked to her, she still felt violated because the touching was unwanted," Triplet says in court. "She again said she didn't tell anybody because she didn't know what to say, and she didn't know how to approach people with that information."
When Gustafson confronts the boy, he admits to touching the victim's genitals and butt more than once. He tells Gustafson that he "thought [the victim] was into that; based on previous conversations they had, he also felt she was into him." The boy is suspended for the rest of the year.
In ruling out sexual motivation last month, Triplet says there is no doubt that the touching was offensive and "just because [the victim] did not tell [the boy] no, did not react adversely, did not cry out for help, or did not go running away from the scene does not mitigate the offensiveness of this act."
However, he continues, it's possible that the victim did not recognize the touching as abusive until adults confronted her.
"The fact that she didn't speak out, tell him no, ask someone for help, or report it to anyone suggests that she didn't think it was that big of a deal until she was confronted by the school," Triplet says.
According to Washington state law, an assault involving a person's genitals does not automatically mean that the assault was sexually motivated. Prosecutors must prove that the accused was sexually gratified in some way.
The judge says he was struck by how "nonchalant" the teens look on a security video that captured the interaction. Because the teenage groper did not touch himself, did not have an erection and testified that he was "being goofy and dancing and making jokes to get her to laugh," there was no evidence of a sexual motivation, Triplet says.
The boy was convicted of misdemeanor assault and given six months of community custody and 25 hours of community service, and was ordered into counseling. (Had the judge found evidence of sexual motivation, the boy would not have been required to register as a sex offender, and his sentence length would not necessarily have increased, defense attorneys say.)
It's encouraging that the school administrator reached out to the female victim and the male groper, rather than dismissing the incident as horseplay, says Erin Williams Hueter, director of victim advocacy and education at Lutheran Community Services Northwest.
She adds that it's important for victims of sexual assault not to hinge their recovery on rulings in the criminal justice system.
"We don't see a lot of convictions of sexual assault cases," she says. "It's really in the hands of jurors. I encourage people who feel victimized, regardless of a police report or if a charge is filed, to know that there are counselors they can talk to and help work through their feelings."
Sherry Jones, a member of the Spokane chapter of the National Organization for Women, adds that public schools should teach students about consent, how to enforce one's own physical boundaries and how to respect those of others.
"Our movies, books, magazines, ads, they often portray sex as a conquest, and rarely as an agreement between two people," she says. "The best way to deal with this is to be teaching our children. If we can teach about abstinence, why can't we teach about boundaries?" ♦
Lutheran Community Services runs a 24-hour crisis hotline for victims of sexual assault, family and friends looking for advice on how to support victims, and those looking for general information on sexual abuse. The conversations are confidential, and you don't have to be in immediate crisis to call: 509-624-7273