Steubenville: Who’s to Blame?


The national outrage being directed at the Steubenville boys is understandable. Who isn’t disgusted at the sordid story of their rape of a young female party-goer? But it also strikes me as a little disingenuous. Or perhaps we just haven’t been paying attention to the culture we adults have created and then plopped our children into.

To point out the obvious:

  • Teenagers are impulsive, and in groups, they become more impulsive still. Self-control isn’t their strong suit. Add alcohol to the mix, and we’re fooling ourselves if we expect good judgement and reasonable behavior.
  • Let’s remember that in this case, the party (or at least one of them) was actually hosted by an assistant football coach. Coach, indeed. Where was he? Where were these kids’ parents? Was  no one concerned about teenagers driving from party to party after downing the ‘slushy vodka drinks’ thoughtfully made available to them?
  • Teen boys (and girls, too, to some extent) have grown up steeped in internet porn. At 15 or 16, this is pretty much their only sexual education and point of reference. The boys obviously knew that it was wrong to engage in some porn of their own with an unconscious girl (their uneasy recorded banter demonstrates as much), but how wrong could  it be when images of females as disposable sex toys are so ubiquitous, so institutionalized? Teens don’t make the porn, they just consume it. If we don’t like the lessons they’re learning from it, we have only ourselves to blame.
  • And what about the 16-year-old victim? Truly she was a victim, not only of the boys but of her own naivete and bad judgment. Was there no adult who talked straight to her about her own vital interest in protecting herself by staying sober enough to say no? Was there any straight talk in general? To either boys or girls?

Adolescence is a journey to self-understanding and self-control, and it takes time to get there and caring adults to show the way. The bacchanalia we plunge teens into — the bacchanalia of the enlessbooze-filled Friday night parties, of the culture itself — is a journey in the opposite direction, toward self-gratification and loss of control. And it doesn’t take any time at all for things to go horribly wrong.

Lest you have any doubt, I’ll say it plainly: I believe that we adults are to blame. We allow teens to be pushed into adult sexual scenarios; indeed, we profit from it and celebrate it. Who, having eyed the tiniest slice of our media culture, can dispute that? And meanwhile, we remain squeamish about sexuality education, about honestly talking with teenagers about power, sex, respect, and self-discipline. We can’t bear to engage in this most truly intimate discussion, so we close our eyes, cross our fingers, and just hope they make it through unscathed.

It’s right that we pause now and ask ourselves how that’s working out for us. As a society, we’ve made teenagers into a marketing demographic, exploiting them for their dollars, worshipping them for their physical beauty and athletic prowess, titillating them (and ourselves) with false ideals of the no-risk sex with throwaway strangers and near-strangers. And then we wonder: how could rape have happened?

It happened because these boys and girls are still children. We’re adults. So what’s our excuse?

~ Melanie Wilson


Posted in news, uncategorized

2 reactions to “Steubenville: Who’s to Blame?

  1. From a LinkedIn reader:

    I agree that our culture contributed not only to the assault of this girl, but to the ongoing victimization to which she has been subjected. We must examine ourselves to understand how to change the culture. The notion rape is an impulse that boys just cant control if a victim is passed out, or wore a short skirt, or danced naked on a table is beyond offensive. By no stretch of my imagination can I minimize the rape of an unconscious person due to “impulse”. I cannot not even implicitly blame the victim of an attack by guys who felt entitled to take her while she was unconscious and then crowed about the incident to the world. Posting their conquest to a social network was not an impulsive act. Giggling afterwards about the attack of an unconscious person was not an impulsive act.

    If those individuals had brutally attacked a gay student, if they had stomped a baby because they were drunk and wanted to know what that would feel like, we would not tolerate those victims being called names like a “drunken fa&$ot slut” or “stupid baby in the wrong place at the wrong time.” God forbid if they had killed a puppy.

    My response:

    My point is not to justify rape on the basis that teenage boys are ‘impulsive.’ That would indeed be offensive (as well as ridiculous). It’s to say that, given what we know about neurobiology and the adolescent brain, it’s unrealistic to expect drunken, porn-primed teenage boys to necessarily make intelligent and ethical decisions about sex. I’m not saying they can’t make good decisions, just that, given how poorly they’re educated on sexuality, I wouldn’t count on it. I say this both as a social worker and as a mother and stepmother of teen boys. As parents and professionals, I don’t think we can have it both ways — if the impetus behind trying adolescents as minors rather than adults is that they’re not fully mature, then we have to realize that, hey, all teenagers, boys and girls, are at a stage in their lives where they need guidance and sometimes even protection from themselves. That’s why adults need to be in control. So are we? I don’t think so. We sexualize girls in every media platform that exists; create and funnel porn to teens; legitimate and even celebrate casual teen sex in our media; refuse to provide adolescents with ongoing, fact-based comprehensive sex education; hand them bottles of vodka and keys to a car; and then say, ‘We’re out of here. You can handle all this, right?’ Wrong.

  2. I really appreciate your articulation of this point and the call for adults to take collective responsibility. I shared this blog post in one of my LinkedIn groups (as you mentioned above) to get the conversation going. If anyone’s interested in following along, here’s the link to do so:

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