When I was thirteen and in junior high, my friend and I went to the Festival of Trees. Our school glee class sang there and we got to hang around after, largely unsupervised. After all, it wasn't a scary place. Just lots of decorated trees, all well lit and Christmassy. There was a Santa Claus. My friend and I thought it would be funny to wait in line and sit on his lap, as if we were still little kids. Which we weren't anymore, just barely. I didn't quite yet feel a teenager--that mystical age I had been looking up to my whole childhood. And I certainly wasn't an adult. I was in-between and trying to figure out what that meant.
So we sat on Santa's lap, laughing, one of us on each knee. And he played along and asked us silly questions, and we answered. When we stood up to leave he said, "Oh I forgot to ask you what you wanted for Christmas."
And I said, "I want you, Santa."
I didn't know what that meant. I was trying to be funny. But I was thirteen, inexperienced, and naive without knowing it. Not only did I not fully comprehend what the phrase "I want you" could imply, but even if I had, I didn't have the life experience to put it into a context. I didn't have the brain maturity to anticipate a reaction. Certainly not the one that followed.
This man who was wearing a Santa beard and suit said, softly, "You don't know how much I want you," and he grabbed my butt.
There was an initial moment of shock, we ran off, and went into the bathroom and laughed and laughed. That was so weird! Some old dude in a Santa outfit said he wanted me and touched my bootie! It was a little alarming and a lot gross, but mostly funny.
I didn't yet know the word "pedophile." I didn't understand what I had just uncovered. I wasn't traumatized. It was this thing that happened with my friend, something we could bring up later and laugh about. I didn't tell my parents. I didn't tell anyone--not from shame or fear or anything but because it was just a joke thing that happened. Not till years later I looked back and though, whoa. That guy was having kids sit on his lap all day. I wish I'd understood. And told someone. And gotten him out of there and away from kids.
But that's the key--I didn't understand. I was a smart girl, but I didn't have the years, the age, the perspective yet. There's a reason why we label minors as minors and try to protect them. There's a lot of stuff in this world that only with time and experience can we start to figure out.
Sometimes a girl is thirteen or fourteen or fifteen and she starts to look like a woman, and she starts to say things she hears other women say, and some adults assume she is a woman. But she's a child. I was a child.
There are reasons we have statutory rape laws. A child cannot consent to sex with an adult. A child has not matured enough to understand. A child needs to be protected, even if they don't think they do. Thankfully I never saw the Santa dude again, was in no position to be assaulted by him. But this BS in Montana is really frightening, not because of this single instance, but because this crap happens all the time. (notice in the judge's "apology" he says his victim-blaming comments were "offensive to women" because, you know, rape is a women's issue and is nothing that men should worry about or has to do with them whatsoever.) Just look at how many people in power and with strong adult voices have become rape apologists in the Steubenville case, blaming the girl, crying over the "innocent" rapists, declaring (contrary to actual laws as well as common sense) what is "real" rape and what isn't. If judges, police officers, journalists, parents, communities don't understand, then the rape culture thickens. Children aren't safe.
There are men out there who put on a Santa Claus suits--of one kind or another--in order to meet, groom, and exploit children. It's more than just weird or gross. It's a crime. And it should be.