I feel sorry for headline writers. I really do. They’ve got so little space to both summarize long stories AND attract readers’ attention.
So I cut them lots of slack. But it’s tough to see headline writers at three news outlets get one story SO wrong as the recent one involving Boston Rabbi Barry Starr who allegedly sexually exploited a teenager and then apparently misled and stole from his flock to conceal his crimes.
The Boston Globe’s headline read
“Rabbi allegedly misused funds to keep liaison with teen quiet”
The Raw Story opted for
“Boston rabbi accused of misusing $480K in temple funds to pay off gay sex accuser”
The Jewish Daily Forward went with:
“Boston Rabbi Barry Starr Paid Teenage Boy $500K To Cover Up Affair”
At best, these headlines miss the point. At worst, they’re dreadfully misleading.
Let’s go one by one and examine the problems here.
–When adults have sex, it’s a “liaison.” When an adult sexually exploits a 16 year old, it’s a crime. Words like “affair,” “liaison” and “relationship” imply consent. And a child cannot consent to having sex with an adult (even if the predator is gentle and convinces the child that it’s “love”).
–The word “gay” here is wrong. For starters, it too implies consent. (Contrast, for example, the phrase “gay sex” with the phrase “heterosexual rape.”) It also suggests that the rabbi may be gay, which may or may not be the case. (Abuse, most therapists say, is about power, not about sexual orientation.) It suggests that the victim may be gay. And finally, it’s irrelevant (Why not say “rough sex” or “naked sex?” Because this has no bearing on the crime itself: a grown up sexually exploiting a youngster. )
And how about the word “accuser?” As I read these articles, the rabbi never denies that he “had sex with” a sixteen year old. So doesn’t the word “accuser” also minimize or mischaracterize what happened here.
Finally, there’s the question of emphasis. If a bank robber parked improperly during his crime, the headline would not read “Alleged criminal parked illegally and robbed bank.”
So why did some coverage stress Rabbi Starr’s alleged financial crimes and minimize his sexual crimes? Shouldn’t the headline have read something like “Rabbi is accused of child sex abuse and theft?”
It helps predators and hurts victims when we describe child sex crimes in ways that diminish or downplay these crimes.