11-Year-Olds Dressed Like Prostitutes: Kathleen Passidomo's Endless Nightmare

Will it ever end? You make one bone-headed remark about an 11-year-old who was "gang-raped in Texas by 18 young men because she dressed up like a 21-year-old prostitute" and it's like you're a bad person or something. HuffPo picks on you, we pick on you, the Buzz picks on you; New York Magazine, RawStory, and ThinkProgress pick on you -- and now Salon.com chimes in with a vicious little editorial that'll reach more readers than most of those others combined. And why's that? Just because you blamed an 11-year-old's rape on her mother's sense of fashion.

Poor Kathleen Passidomo! The Republican state rep from Naples has been in office only a couple of months, and already her name is mud in the national media. Her defense, such as it is, is that she got her idea about the 11-year-old's mum's culpability from this New York Times piece, which is bogus -- the piece, alas, doesn't say anything about the girl's clothes being to blame. Passidomo has further stated that she couldn't possibly be so reactionarily anti-feminist/pro-patriarchy as to have blamed the rape on fashion, because she's "been involved with" the Shelter for Abused Women and Children for "many years."

I called the shelter to confirm this, and guess what?

It's true! Or almost true, anyway. According to the shelter, Passidomo was "involved with fundraising" for "several years" but "didn't actually do anything on the property."

But, look -- no matter where Kathleen Passidomo exists on the feminist spectrum, whether she's a closet burqa-wearer or the secret owner of a lucrative chain of abortion clinics -- the fact is, Kathleen Passidomo probably doesn't think this 11-year-old deserved to be gang-raped. How do we know? Because Kathleen Passidomo is a human being, and human beings do not generally feel that justice has been served when children are tortured and brutalized. However regrettable her phrasing, what Passidomo was trying to express is an obvious if unpopular truth: that although a child has every right to safety in any environment she chooses to enter, that right will not be equally protected by all individuals in all environments.

In a less boneheaded way, the Times story from which Passidomo allegedly got her weird notion also reflected this truth. As a result, it has been almost universally condemned. Here are the passages that offended thousands of readers and prompted a sharp critique from the Times' public editor, Arthur S. Brisbane:

Residents in the neighborhood where the abandoned trailer stands -- known as the Quarters -- said the victim had been visiting various friends there for months. They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate for a woman in her 20's. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said.

"Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?" said Ms. Harrison, one of a handful of neighbors who would speak on the record. "How can you have an 11-year-old child missing down in the Quarters?"

Many commentators, such as this one, believe this kind of reporting should never have been done; that if the reporter's interview subjects mentioned the girl's precocious dress or her habit of palling around with teenaged boys, the information should have been left out of the story. I wonder how these commentators would have responded if the girl had been said to have dressed like a tomboy or to have hung around with a children's choir from a local church. If it's acceptable to report one set of facts but not the other, then we have entered an era in which politics demands the obfuscation of reality. An OK ethos for politicians, maybe, but pure poison to journalism.

Please note that the Times story never used the word prostitute. That was Passidomo's invention -- she assumed that any 11-year-old who looks like she's in her 20s must be a girl of loose morals or have sprung from the loins of a harlot. But Passidomo's a God-fearing Republican, so what should we expect? If we want politicians with a 21st-century understanding of sex and sexuality, we oughtn't cast our ballots for people who think Jehovah destroyed an entire city because he didn't like how its inhabitants were using their naughty bits. Atavist or no, Passidomo still has a point. The world is dangerous, and a politically progressive sense of justice is insufficient to keep its children safe. Too many of our fellow humans will never share that sense of justice -- priests and politicians no less than teenaged hooligans from the Quarters. This is an enduring truth, and it will endure even if Kathleen Passidomo learns to speak like an intelligent adult or if the Times stops reporting what it finds.

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