Gender and the Law Prof Blog

Editor: Tracy A. Thomas
University of Akron School of Law

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Harms and Remedies for Young Women in the #MeToo Era

Charisa Kiyo Smith, #WhoAmI: Harm & Remedy for Youth of the #MeToo Era, 23 U. Penn. J. Law & Soc. Change (forthcoming)

Legal approaches to sexual and gender-based harms between minors are both ineffective and under-examined. Despite the #MeToo movement, the flashpoint confirmation hearing of Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh involving alleged high school peer sexual assault, and heightened public awareness, fundamental issues regarding individuals under age 18 remain ignored, over-simplified, or misunderstood. While the fields of children’s rights, family law, and criminal justice consistently wrestle with the continuum of human maturity and capacity in setting legal boundaries and rules, under-theorizing the #MeToo matter for youth will continue to perpetuate harm, toxic masculinity, and complicity in rape culture.

This article bridges the gap between empirical reality and legal response in a crisis that cannot be understated. As many as 81% of students between grades 8 and 11 report experiencing school sexual harassment, and girls ages 16-19 are four times more likely than the general population to be victims of sexual assault. These figures are undoubtedly low as much victimization goes unreported, including among males, LGBTQI populations, communities of color, and adults. Engaging the consciousness of the #MeToo movement — one of newfound courage and tenacity among survivors — this article calls for a paradigm shift while deconstructing, reimagining, and reorganizing the problematic legal landscape regarding sexual and gender-based harms between youth.

This article asserts that status quo responses miss concerns unique to minors and simultaneously over-criminalize, infantilize, and neglect youth. At best, the status quo approach fails to address underlying causes of rape culture and other harms. At worst, it deprives survivors of true remedies and recourse while unfairly branding children with life-long punishment. Sexting among youth is a pervasive habit that presents an archetypal case study. Myriad sexting scenarios can lead to a blunt legal response that fails to recognize the inaccuracy of victim-offender binaries in the digital age.

After critiquing and deconstructing the existing criminal law approach, this article recommends a paradigm shift that more aptly situates the “Me” in #MeToo concerning minors. Creating an informed, interdisciplinary typology of instances of sexual and gender-based harm among youth, this article ultimately proposes a tiered response system defaulting to public health education and harm-reduction, which only resorts to criminal legal intervention in the most severe situations. Although egregious events may require legal redress, a large portion of incidents involve issues beyond the narrow scope of law and impact youth who seek nonlegal or farther-reaching remedies.

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