5 Questions from the Steubenville Rape Case

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.

(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 victime, 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. On 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, houses of worship, or around the dining room table. On the other hand, 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.
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Christian Piatt (www.christianpiatt.com)
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  1. wellokaythen says:

    The way that “abstinence only” gets taught today and redefined by kids today may be part of the problem here.

    There are many teens today who define “sex” somewhat differently than teens might have in earlier generations. There are teenagers out there taking celibacy oaths that don’t include oral or anal sex in their abstinence. They tend to define “sex” primarily as “vaginal intercourse,” which come to think of is a pretty old blind spot in American ideas about sex, so maybe this is hardly a new thing at all. For a lot of young people today, if the activity has the word ‘job’ in the phrase, then it doesn’t count as sex, as in “it’s just a job.” So, it stands to reason that some young people might convince themselves that if it’s not a penis in a vagina then it’s not really rape. They may have warped views about the definition of rape because they have warped views about the definition of sex in the first place.

  2. Thanks so much Christian for a very thoughtful article. These are ALL disturbing questions that need to be asked. The first question you brought up seems to be the MOST disturbing, especially with all the (now discredited) coverage of many in the media who were over-sympathetic with the perpetrators. I agree what Julie said about about the situation being “humiliation as a bonding exercise.” I also wholeheartedly agree with your concern about compassion. You could also use the term “connection” – not having a sense of connection with others. This lack of connection makes it easier for individuals to commit rape, murder, and other violent crimes. They have no sense of connection with the victims, and therefore in the moment they do not have a sense of horror over what they are doing. The victim becomes an “other,” something to be used to acquire power, control, or even esteem.

  3. I'm Being Honest, No One Else Will says:

    It’s funny how if a man rapes a boy he is EVIL, but when men or boys rape females people just make excuses for them and blame “society” instead of blaming the perpetrators. I bet Jerry Sandusky wishes people had tried to humanize him instead of calling him “evil” and a “monster.” If he had raped girls people would make so many excuses for him like they do with Roman Polanski and the Steubenville assholes but people hate him because he likes boys.

    • Remember the outrage over Larry Vick? Apparently, people also place DOGS above female human beings. That thought gives me, as the father of two young women, a lot of comfort (sarcasm most definitely intended). We live in a sick society, indeed.

    • It’s funny how if a man rapes a boy he is EVIL, but when men or boys rape females people just make excuses for them and blame “society” instead of blaming the perpetrators.
      I suppose this is where mileage may vary when it comes to perspective.

      The way I see it when a man rapes a boy there isn’t that much mention of rape culture and how we need to change our attitudes about sex (thus decreasing the number of boys that are attacked this way), but when a man rapes a girl all of a sudden the rape culture sirens go off and every has an idea of how to alter the culture and our attitudes (thus decreasing the number of girls that are attacked this way).

      I bet Jerry Sandusky wishes people had tried to humanize him instead of calling him “evil” and a “monster.”
      And I also bet that his victims wish there has been this massive outpouring of how the culture needs to change in order to reduce these attacks.

      • Very good point Danny.

        It’s a shame we can’t discuss rape without it being tainted by these concepts which are so inconsistently applied to society.

  4. Beyond the crime itself, I think we should take a harder look at crimes committed by athletes, and how they are somehow less punishable (in the media and in the courts) than the same crimes committed by nonathletes.

    IF you’re an athlete you can literally get away with murder, and you will be called a “pillar of society” — which although no one really explains why being able to catch a football or dunk a basketball makes you anything other than an athlete — and are therefore somehow exempt from consequence.
    It happens ALL THE TIME.

    My advice, if you’re going to be a sociopath who gangrapes an unconscious female, is make sure you have football players with you, so the worst you can get is probation or a lighter sentence. I’m being sarcastic here, but nonetheless what I’m saying is true.

    Want to kill a pedestrian? be a drunk athlete, a “pillar of society”, and everyone will talk about how unfair it would be to cut your life short by consequence.

    Want someone to look for you if you go missing? Make sure you’re a cute white cheerleader. That way authorities will spend time looking for you. If you don’t make sure of that, be prepared for no one to care.

    My point is, WHY oh WHY have the media and the courts, and police, decided that athletes, cheerleaders, etc, should be some elite class? Statistically, they commit more of these types of crimes than other people, BECAUSE THEY’VE NEVER HAD TO FACE CONSEQUENCES. — end rant

  5. BornAgainPagan says:

    As much as we’d like to believe Steubenville was an isolated incident, alas, it is not. The problem isn’t even particularly new.

    I was a high school senior 25 years ago, in an affluent suburb or a redder-than-red state, the kind of place people moved to because “bad things don’t happen here,” when an incident took place that was not unlike this case. A party was held at the home of a member of the football team, a handsome, popular “good kid” who came from a “good family.” His father was a bishop in the local ward of the LDS church. His parents went out of town, apparently for some church function, and left their son home alone for the weekend, apparently trusting their precious little Eagle-Scout, Honor-Student, football player “good kid’ to behave himself.

    Yeah, right. Those of us in the high-school trenches knew that this “good kid” liked to party, and was a regular at the weekend bonfires usually held in isolated parts of the hills and canyons outside of town. Parties where teenagers–“good kids”–gathered to do what bored, apathetic, affluent teenagers everywhere did (and still do) behind the backs of their clueless, oblivious, in-denial parents: drink, smoke weed, and fuck.

    By Monday morning, the grapevine was buzzing about the weekend’s “legendary” events: at least 50 people present (by the end of the day, some had the total up to 100.) 4 kegs of beer procured from god-knows-where (some said a teacher actually showed up with them.) At least one broken toilet that somehow got replaced before Mom&Dad got home….and the pictures.

    Apparently, a girl who was a grade behind us, who was new to town and probably desperate to get in with the popular crowd, showed up for the party, and got so drunk she passed out. Depending on the version of events you heard, she was either found unconscious on a pile of coats in one of the bedrooms, or she was found elsewhere in the house and dragged there by two or three guys…who proceeded to take off her clothes, write the word “SLUT” on her stomach with either lipstick or a red marker, arrange her in poses straight out of Hustler, and take pictures with a Polaroid camera. The “good kid” whose parents owned the house was supposedly the photographer.

    I wasn’t at that party; I was a high school outsider, never invited to the parties of the popular crowd. I was probably home that night, listening to Rush, practicing my bass playing and wishing I was as good as Geddy Lee. That’s how I spent most of my high school Saturday nights. But the pictures were covertly passed around school for a few days, and eventually I was shown one. To this day, I wish I had never seen it. I didn’t tell anyone either, another regret I will always have. I don’t have a good reason why, other than just being a high school dweeb with the self-esteem of a slug who was terrified that if I told someone what I had seen, it would somehow get back to the guys involved, and they would beat the crap out of me…or worse.

    Fortunately, one of the pictures eventually fell into the hands of a teacher, who showed it to the principal, and within a few days an investigation had been launched, students had been interviewed, parents had been contacted…and in the end, nothing was done. The pictures did disappear, and were supposedly destroyed, but no one was punished. The school said they could not suspend or expel students for activities that happened after school hours, and the if the cops were even called, they did nothing. Everyone was outraged, or at least pretended to be, but in the end the golden boys remained golden, and those of us not so privileged knew that they would never be touched because they were “good” kids from “good” families, and they were jocks to boot, and in the eyes of the community, they could do no wrong. And so it all died down, once the next scandal or controversy came along.

    I have no idea what happened to the girl involved; she hadn’t been at our school for long and seemed to sort of drop from sight after the pictures surfaced, and I think I heard from a friend of a friend that she eventually dropped out of school and went back to whatever town she came from, to live with relatives. And as for the “good kids” who assaulted her and probably ruined her life? Well, they’ve grown up to become pillars of the community, with “good kids” of their own… who are probably out drinking, toking up and fucking at the bonfires, just like their fathers did back in the day. It would not surprise me at all if the boys are raping girls, just like their fathers did, too.

    As for me, I left that town after high school, and for this and other reasons, I never went back. I also never had kids, and to be honest, I’m not sorry. I know that being a parent was hell when I was growing up. And it seems to be even worse now.

    The more things change….the worse they get.

    I wish it were not so.

  6. Thank you for this Christian. All questions I have. I am cynical enough to think there was more than alcohol going on, perhaps even rohypnol, but all those questions are things I ponder and wrote about at GMP as well.

    • Well I’m wary of any conversation of alcohol because of the way it is so widely used to victim-blame (though I do not think that’s what you’re doing here, Christian).

      What I will say is that I grew up in a small town. When I was 12 I was already considered pretty weird because I didn’t occasionally get totally shit-faced at parties (I didn’t even go to parties). When I was 14, a friend of mine very nearly died of alcohol poisoning at a house party. The parents were completely complicit in the party…their argument was that they’d “taken the keys so no one could drive,” so it should have been fine. Also at the age of 14, I had one class where a girl brought in a water bottle full of vodka and proceeded to drink the whole thing over the course of the class. This is the same class where girls and guys would come in bragging about how they’d spent the weekend totally high and drunk and had no idea what they’d done. When I was 16 or 17, three people who were all about the age of 18 nearly died of alcohol poisoning at a state fair. They had to be rushed to the hospital. – I’m sure there were a lot more instances like this, but these are what come to mind.

      I’m 26 right now…so we’re talking a decade ago, or more like 15 years ago when it all started. And, of course, my generation is hardly where it started. So we definitely have a problem of an “alcohol culture,” that intersects with “rape culture.”

      • Right, and two decades ago when I was in high school it wasn’t any different except the girls who wound up raped didn’t report it and no one took pictures. So yes, alcohol is something that has always been abused and used to release whatever inner nastiness is already there. I’m far more worried about how social media and the use of online tools flattens our experience of those online as “real people” and allows us to be pretty horrible to others under the veil of anonymity. If we think about compassion as a muscle and we don’t have to engage that muscle in our online encounters, well, does that have an effect? The internet is a tool so I’m not blaming it, I want that clear. But I wonder where all this callousness comes from.

        • “If we think about compassion as a muscle and we don’t have to engage that muscle in our online encounters, well, does that have an effect? The internet is a tool so I’m not blaming it, I want that clear. But I wonder where all this callousness comes from.”

          Yup! Right now it’s generally agreed that people behave nastily online in ways they never would in real life. But do that enough, create enough of a culture that accepts trolling and what-not…and it’ll bleed into the real world too.

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