(WARNING: This is a really long post, and pretty inconclusive at that. But it will make you think. Even if it is really, really long.)
It's pretty common knowledge that law enforcement of sexually based offenses is, well, lacking.
Even in the fantasy world of TV, on Law & Order SVU, this is made absolutely clear. Rapists are sometimes not convicted, or if they are, serve little time, and get out, and most of them offend again, and the process starts all over again. (Well, if it's even reported in the first place, but that's another rant...)
People often get longer jail sentences for possessing a little bit of marijuana than they do for rape. Of course, there is a hierarchy among the categories of sexual offenses; a pedophile luring children into his home and raping them carries a much more severe social stigma and punishment than a frat boy who rapes a drunk girl at a frat party. And even among incest cases, fathers raping their daughters is a more grave offense than brothers raping their sisters, or mothers raping their sons, etc etc.
I don't pretend to be an authority on criminal law as it relates to sexually based offenses, but I think that the law, ipso facto, distinguishes less among the offenses in regards to hierarchy than the judges in specific cases do. More than that, though, in the beginning of these proceedings, the police officers investigating these crimes distinguish a great deal as well, and only really pursue the cases they find "heinous," which relies a lot on the social stigmas applied to the different crimes.
And while we live in a rape culture, there are certain forms of rape and sexual assault that are considered less ok than others. If there is any potential to blame the woman for the rape, that potential will be seized upon, however little it may be. If she wore lacy underwear, if she drank more than she should have, if she didn't say "no," or didn't say it forcefully enough. If any of these criteria or similar are present, she will be blamed, and so, the rape will be "ok." It will be accepted, either as a "necessary evil" or as something she brought on herself.
But our culture does distinguish some sexual assaults as absolutely not acceptable. Pedophiles, for example. We, as a culture, glorify children and their innocence so much that these children, in (almost) every case, cannot be blamed for the assaults, and therefore the assaults are not ok.
Does this hierarchy really help anything, though? Does it accomplish anything?
Lots of evolutionary psychologists view rape as an evolutionary tool to propagate the species. Which is, of course, absolute bullshit for a lot of reasons I won't go into right now, but maybe it can be used to explain this hierarchy...
The rape of a female college student, then, is perfectly acceptable in this culture, because this rape could produce offspring, and so ensure the continuation of the human race.
The rape of a 10-year-old child, however, is absolutely not acceptable. Her body is not yet ready to bear children, and so has no value to the propagation of the species. It is pure perversion, with no "redeeming" qualities.
I don't like using this schema to explain this hierarchy, though. For one, it leaves no room for same-sex rape, because it has no propagatory value, but is still considered "ok" in a lot of scenarios. And for another, it has no real scientific value. It's been proven in numerous studies that the chance for pregnancy is much higher in consensual sex than in rape scenarios, for some reason that involves something about the cervix. Rape is not an evolutionary tool, and not an effective way to propagate the species. So really, this whole explanation is null and void.
The only other way I can think of to explain this hierarchy, then, is simple misogyny, and the absurdly high level of importance we place on our children's "innocence" and our denial of children's sexuality.
Because while women's sexuality is basically inconsequential when not immediately connected to The Penis, they still have sexuality, and perhaps it's this immutable sexual nature of "adult" (read: of child-bearing age) women that makes our culture so accepting of the abundance of rape involving them. Because, after all, no woman would really reject The Penis, since that is her main desire in life.
Maybe it's because children in this culture are defined as so absolutely asexual that the sexualization of them through sexual offenses is so loathsome. I've often wondered what would happen if our society changed nothing else but its attitude towards childhood sexuality. I've wondered if that would change our attitude toward child sexual abuse. If we seem so willing to accept that women are raped every day, why is it so much more loathsome that children are, as well?
But not even all children are presumed to be innocent. Of course, if an adult abuses them, it is automatically the adult's fault. But what if it's the child's peer? Or a slightly older child? Then, you see, it's perfectly acceptable. It's just children "being curious." It's not really a crime. I have no raw data on this, and even data collected would not necessarily be reliable, since sibling and/or non-adult sexual abuse is so severely underreported, but I would venture to guess that even if these allegations were brought to law enforcement officials, it would be significantly harder to prove (and less likely to be believed and taken up by these officials to begin with) than an adult-perpetrated case. It seems that it's only when we cross that generational gap that things are clear-cut. Child/peer attacks are in much murkier waters.
I was sexually abused throughout my childhood by a boy who was 3 years older than me. It started when I was 6 or 7, and ended when I was 13. When I was 15, and finally told people about what had happened, I encountered a lot of "Oh, it was just experimentation" or "All kids do that kind of thing."
My parents did not want me to file charges. For a short period of time, also when I was 15, I thought that I should, I thought that would help bring me closure, that it would help in "the healing process" or whatever. So a teacher helped get me in contact with this Child Advocate service, which had lawyers that took on cases like mine, mostly pro bono, where the clients had no parental support.
I called this place, and they connected me to a person who took down my information as a part of the intake process. I told them how old I was when it happened. I told them what happened. Finally, they asked how old he was. I told them he was three years older than me.
"Oh, well that's going to be much harder to prosecute. Are you sure you want to do this?...There's a good chance you won't win, with your ages so close."
It didn't matter that from most people's perspective, what happened to me was a fairly clear case of sexual abuse. What mattered was that our age difference wasn't great enough, and couldn't create an airtight case.
I told them I would think about it, and never called back. I didn't end up pressing charges. I didn't do anything. It would not have been worth the inevitable pain I'd go through in the process, because the law doesn't see what happened as a very reprehensible crime.
Where does this hierarchy come from? Why is it given so much credence, so much reverence?
What does it really accomplish for the patriarchy? The adult part makes sense; it's useful for the patriarchy for people to see women's bodies as not belonging to them, as purely sexual objects, with no right or place to object to this treatment. But what about this hierarchy of child sexual abuse? Why is it ok for a "peer" to rape another child, but not ok for an adult to do so? Why is childhood sexuality conditional on the age of the person said child is being sexual with?
And does the cultural perception of childhood sexuality even shape our cultural perception of what constitutes sexual abuse?