The state of Montana doesn’t often make the national news. But it did recently when a judge there sentenced a man to just 60 days in jail after he repeatedly raped his 12-year-old daughter. In the three weeks since the sentence was issued, over 80,000 people have signed an initiative seeking to have the judge impeached.
The New York Times’s Express desk caught up to the news on Friday, but it put a headline on its story that drew its own protests: “Montana Judge Criticized for 60-Day Sentence for Man Who Has Sex With His Preteen Daughter.”
In the view of many Times readers, that was a poor attempt to sum up the story. Among them was Elizabeth DeHoff, who homed in on the problem with the headline:
“Has Sex With”? We have a word for “sex with a preteen.” That word is “rape.” This man committed incest as well, but incest (while still a crime) can be consensual when both parties are adults. Children cannot consent to any kind of sex. Newspaper headlines that fail to take note of that fact contribute to rape culture — perhaps not as directly as this judge did when he essentially let the rapist off the hook, but contribute they do. (I should know, having worked as a newspaper copy editor for many years.) Perhaps if the judge himself had thought of the defendant as a rapist, he would have handed down a more appropriate sentence.
DeHoff, of Littleton, Colo., articulates well the concerns of many of the readers who emailed me on Friday. Editors were clearly struggling with the headline, changing it five times over the course of the day. About three hours after the initial headline went up, a new one was put on the story, getting a little closer to the mark, but clunky: “Montana Judge Criticized for 60-Day Sentence for Man for Incest With Daughter, 12.” Finally, after three more tries, the headline read: “Montana Judge Is Criticized for 60-Day Incest Sentence.” (Still later, the headline was changed again, to “Outrage Follows 60-Day Sentence in Incest Case Against Father of Girl, 12.”)