(Note: This post contains some frank and graphic discussions of sex and sexuality.)
Two boys from a Steubenville Ohio high school (I’ve opted not to use their names, though they are readily publicized by other media) have been sentenced to time in a juvenile detention center for the rape of a 16-year-old classmate who was reportedly so drunk at a party that she could no longer stand on her own. Aside from “digitally” raping the girl with their hands, reportedly multiple times, one of the boys took photos of the girl without her clothes, shared them via social media, and both young men bragged about the incident to their social networks following the incident.
As the father of both a boy and a girl, I was particularly angered and disturbed by this story. The very fact that such things happen in a supposedly civil society is a stark reminder that we have only a tenuous hold on the well-being of our kids once they leave our sight. We can only hope and pray that we’ve empowered them with the sense of autonomy, respect, compassion, and restraint to keep them either from becoming victims of such violations, or perhaps even perpetrators of it themselves.
But once I get beyond my initial feelings about the whole situation, I’m left wrestling with a number of questions that still feel terribly unresolved.
- How do we understand rape in our culture? During the investigation of this crime, dozens of high school peers were interviewed, many of whom were in attendance at the party. A shocking number of them confessed that they did not consider what the boys did to this 16-year-old girl to constitute rape. For me, this raises similar concerns that I’ve had in reading about the so-called “hook-up” culture, in which many teens (if not perhaps a majority) don’t consider things like manual or oral sex to actually be sex. This is our fault. We’re letting peer groups and media define for our children what is appropriate behavior, how they should establish and maintain boundaries for themselves, and how they should respect the rights of others’ bodies. Rather, we risk distilling one another down to sources of pleasure, to be exploited like any other commodity.
- Where do our children learn compassion? I was profoundly troubled by a statement made by the victim’s mother after sentencing, in which she said, “Human compassion is not taught by a teacher, a coach or a parent. It is a God-given gift instilled in all of us.” Granted, I do agree that we are inborn with some innate sense of concern for one another, but to suggest this isn’t taught, modeled, or even enforced by parents, teachers, or other figures of authority is ridiculous. We bear a daily responsibility to model compassion in word and deed for your children, and to instill in them a sense of responsibility to do the same within their respective peer groups.
- Why didn’t anyone stop them? In a social setting such as this, bystanders are implicitly responsible for allowing such violations to take place. Further, in so much as they share images of a victim, they are complicit in the crime to an extent. And finally, if they are found to have deleted messages, responses, “shares,” “likes” and such, they are liable for tampering with evidence in an ongoing investigation. There are so many points at which those witnessing the event itself and the related fallout should have brought this to the attention of authorities, parents, or school officials that it points to a systemic breakdown of collective accountability.
- Where did they get the alcohol? I’m not naive. I drank at a few high school parties, and certainly in college before I was of legal age. But for a group of small-town high school students to have access both to a home to throw a party and enough alcohol for a young woman to be unable to walk on her own points not only to the failure of the parents of the perpetrators, but also the parents of all children in attendance. It’s one thing to allow minors on given occasions to drink; it’s entirely another to put them in a situation where they have relatively unlimited access to alcohol and are unsupervised in a private home.
- Isn’t it time to talk about sex yet? We are both a sexually repressed and a sexually obsessed culture. One the one hand, we cling to puritanical values that suggest “good people” don’t talk about sex and sexuality – certainly not in detail – in places like schools, churches or around the dining room table. On the other, we consume more pornography than any generation in the history of the world before us. We speak in generalities, lean on vague moral lessons from Sunday school and hope that the high school gym teacher’s six-week sex education class will suffice to equip our kids to deal with sexuality through the most confusing, emotionally charged, hormonally volatile, and socially confusing time of their lives. And then we’re surprised when they don’t think oral sex is as big deal, or they wonder if they can get pregnant if a boy ejaculates in a hot tub they’re in. Until we’re willing to answer EVERY question our kids have about sex, and even to anticipate others they’ve yet to formulate, we’re equally responsible when such tragedies take place.
Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date. Via Patheos.