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