Kathleen Parker

When most of us hear the words "sex offender," we imagine a beast who kidnaps little girls from their bedrooms and rapes and murders them before dumping their bodies in a remote ravine.

We see the adorable faces of Polly Klaas, Samantha Runnion or Jessica Lunsford and can think of no punishment cruel enough for their killers.

But what I've just described is, in fact, a "sex predator" - one who commits a sex offense that is either a capital, life or first-degree felony - not merely a "sex offender," which relates to a less serious offense.

More to the point of this column, "sex offender" also refers to those convicted of "date rape," which is invariably a case of "he said/she said" and often involves young people caught in the throes of a debatable moment.

She was drunk, he was confused. She said "stop," he didn't stop fast enough. Sometimes he's a brute justifiably accused of rape. But sometimes she's not the victim she claims to be. Sometimes, alas, morning-after remorse morphs into a defensive claim of rape that sends college boys to prison for an offense that falls somewhat short of what most of us think of as rape.

I opened the floodgates recently with a column about Rich Gorman, a former Florida State University student who is serving a five-year prison sentence for a "rape" that involved a 5- to 15-second sex act. He stopped immediately when she said "stop," and asked, "What's wrong?" - not the usual query of a rapist - and then gave his soon-to-be accuser a ride home.

Rather than rehash the details, suffice it to say that Gorman's case raises questions about how we prosecute date rape, questions that I intend to explore in future columns. I've learned, meanwhile, that Gorman is not unique. I've heard from dozens of parents around the country whose college-age sons have wound up in prison because their dates decided that what he understood as consensual, she understood as rape.

I have no idea how many of these claims are valid. Most parents naturally believe the best of their own children, while few prisoners admit to guilt. But the special circumstances of "date rape" - especially among college students immersed in a permissive culture of drinking, drugs and "casual" sex - raise concerns about how we label those accused and convicted.

Should a young man like Gorman, for example, be treated the same way as Alejandro Avila, the sexual predator who kidnapped and murdered 5-year-old Samantha Runnion?

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
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