Sexual violence of any kind is a grievous crime, particularly when committed by someone placed in a position of trust.

The Kansas statute making unlawful sexual relations a felony is designed to hold such offenders accountable. The statute applies to police officers, teachers, corrections officers and others in positions of authority over others. If someone in such a position engages in “consensual sexual intercourse, lewd fondling or touching, or sodomy” with someone they have authority over, the perpetrator can be charged with unlawful sexual relations.

However, the word “consensual” has been construed by one attorney to mean the statute does not apply to forced touching.

This language is coming to light in the case of former Topeka Correctional Facility dental lab instructor Tomas Co, currently charged with five counts of unlawful sexual relations. Co’s attorney is arguing that because women at a preliminary hearing last month testified they had not agreed to sexual contact with Co, the unlawful sexual relations statute does not apply and charges should be dismissed.

That would leave Co able to be charged with sexual battery, a misdemeanor that would likely result in a much lesser sentence.

Whether the defense is in line with Kansas law is up to the courts to decide, but it certainly defies logic. Consensual sexual acts should not be punished more harshly than non-consensual acts.

The word “consensual” was likely placed in the statute to make clear someone in a vulnerable position can never truly consent to sexual activity. An inmate in a correctional facility may agree to a sexual relationship out of fear or obligation, but such an agreement is not meaningful consent. Legislators did not intend for perpetrators who force victims into sexual acts to get a lesser sentence than those who coerce or persuade.

At the preliminary hearing, one woman testified Co compelled her to touch his penis. Other women say Co touched them inappropriately, put his tongue in their ears and told dirty jokes, all while they worked under his supervision at the dental lab.

“That type of conduct is and should be a felony and needs to be punished as such,” said Rep. John Carmichael, a legislator who serves on the Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee. He indicated support for clarifying the law in the coming session regardless of the outcome of Co’s case.

Clarification may be a wise step to prevent this type of defense.

Individuals placed in positions over authority must not abuse our trust and must be held accountable when they chose to abuse those under their care.