A lot of good things have been written in the wake of the judgment in the terrible Steubenville, OH, rape case.

Mia McKenzie of Black Girl Dangerous writes (in response to CNN’s hamfisted and insensitive trial coverage that focused on the feelings of the two boys) that she feels “very sorry for these boys. Just not as sorry as I feel for the girl they raped.” Which I think is about right. And she also correctly points out that prison likely won’t make them better people.

Henry Rollins takes a more systemic approach, asking how we can better educate young men about rape (and, more generally, the humanity of women).

And the Ohio Attorney General has taken a hard line on reprisals against the victim: “Let me be clear. Threatening a teenage rape victim will not be tolerated. If anyone makes a threat verbally or via the internet, we will take it seriously, we will find you, and we will arrest you.”

All that is good, and I don’t have a lot to add.

I guess I just want to say that some of this is wrapped up in the way we deal with sex and alcohol and kids.

I think there’s a weird kind of double-talk about pleasure in our society; the culture is simultaneously very titillating about it and rather punishing — especially toward young people. This is not a new insight. But let me draw a few facts from the New York Times’s story about the rape:

– The victim attended a “religion-based” private school.
– The victim lied to her parents before going out, telling them she was spending the night at a friend’s.
– The victim was drunk fairly early on, according to witnesses — yet no one around her took responsibility for her, tried to get her home, or called her parents.
– No one thought anything was wrong when the victim was carried out, “asleep,” by two young men and put in a car.
– No one thought anything was wrong when the young men exposed and fondled the sleeping girl.
– One friend made a feeble protest when one of the assailants actually penetrated her with his fingers. But one of the boys told him not to worry, that everything was “all right.” That was the end of his protest.
– Both the victim and her rapists went to three parties, the first of which was attended by 50 high school students and all of which were awash in alcohol.

From these facts I derive three inferences. First, the victim, the rapists, and all the other kids were under a fair amount of pressure to hide their partying from adults. Second, it’s impossible — given the alcohol and the large number of students present at three different houses around town — that adults didn’t, on some level, know these parties were happening.

I don’t think that’s atypical, and I think kids know that adults know that they’re partying. But they also know that partying — at least in public — is forbidden. (And, indeed, it can carry real legal penalties, so the level of social opprobrium is fairly serious.)

What should kids make of this strange duality about partying? Tolerated, yet strictly forbidden! A coming-of-age ritual, yet one that is harshly condemned by tribal elders! Fun, yet wicked! Some, of course, will simply chalk it up to adult hypocrisy. But I think many kids internalize the duality — and in doing so unchain themselves from from both their own consciences and the society’s ostensible norms. They become comfortable with doing “the wrong thing” — maybe even find it exciting — and that makes it easier to do genuinely wrong things.

This is the third inference — that the moral compasses of these students were somehow warped by circumstances. Different kids reacted to the warping in different ways, of course. The alpha males of the group — football players lionized by their community — seem to have reacted according to a sense of privilege. There are rules, sure — but I’m kind of above those rules. That explains the duality. Less-confident kids seem simply to have understood that, at least in the party space, the normal rules of behavior were suspended. Stripping and fondling a sleeping young woman at school or at church would be beyond the pale; but in the bacchanal, as far as you know, it’s just the new normal. Even when they felt uneasy, they were unable to mount or sustain an articulate objection. A few words of reassurance from a confident kid (“It’s all right. Don’t worry.”) were enough to reset the parameters of what could be considered acceptable.

The typical high school party is largely harmless; the Steubenville assault involved a confluence of cultural conditions not present at every party. But across the board, we elevate the pleasures of sex and alcohol to both a symbol of adulthood and The Most Exciting Thing A Young Person Can Do. And then we add, “But do it in darkness.”

Get drunk, but with no one around to make sure everybody’s exercising good judgment.

Have sex, but don’t plan ahead for it or have serious conversations about how to protect yourself or what constitutes rape.

We want you to do these things — you have to do these things — but we’re not going to be there for you when you do.

Here’s what I would like to be able to do for my kid. I’d like to have multiple honest conversations with him about sex and women, and to explain to him that women are just people, too, who want to have sex, too, and not objects or targets or defenders in a game. I’d like for him to have sex for the first time when he’s ready, with a birth control plan worked out, and under my roof or in some other equally safe place. I’d like for him to drink for the first time under my supervision and to smoke weed for the first time under my supervision. Even better, I’d like for him and his friends to learn to drink as teenagers by going to bars, where there are adults present to enforce the social norms of responsible bar behavior.

Much of this is, of course, completely illegal. And much of the rest is considered embarrassing — much too difficult. But this is what I want for my kid — to go through his formative, bacchanalic experiences in the light.

Maybe it will be dorky. Maybe it will give everybody vague feelings of awkwardness. But goddammit, I would rather have the awkwardness than to signal to him that pleasure must be associated with rebellion, with guilt, and with that swimming sensation of wrongness. I don’t want him to feel pushed into the shadows, where morality is hard to make out.

In a case affirming the right of children to hear political speech, Judge Richard Posner pointed out that “Now that eighteen-year-olds have the right to vote, it is obvious that they must be allowed the freedom to form their political views on the basis of uncensored speech before they turn eighteen, so that their minds are not a blank when they first exercise the franchise.” The same thing is true of adult life in general. Kids have to be allowed to exercise their adult capacities before we set them adrift to make judgments on their own. Truthfulness about teenagers pursuing pleasure isn’t the only thing needed to prevent future Steubenvilles, of course. But eliminating the moral twilight zone around that pursuit would certainly help.

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One Response to Steubenville

  1. Grambear says:

    of course we know now that the human brain doesn’t mature until the early 20’s so perhaps we need to rethink the 18 age for everything.

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