Before You Rant about the Steubenville Rape, Take a Breath and Then Point the Finger of Blame Where It Belongs

On March 17, 2013, two high school football players–Trent Mays, 17, and Ma’lik Richmond, 16, were found guilty of raping a drunken 16-year-old girl in Steubenville, Ohio. The ruling brought an end to a trial but not to media and social network’s outrage—from editorials to the blogger sphere–wherein the verdict apparently fell short as it didn’t include public whippings and stoning.  Adding fuel to those fiery pulpits  was  that many of those venting apparently  lacked any educated understanding of how teenagers, who are (usually) up right good students, can get sucked into the dark and dangerous world of alcohol and sexual abuse, photograph the debauchery, and send it out to the universe. .

The story of what actually took place in Steubenville is far more complex than the headline news. For one thing, it involved many more people than the three caught in the courts’ cross hairs. (A computer forensic expert documented hundreds of thousands of text messages alone found on 17 phones seized during the investigation—and that is the top of the iceberg.)

The most informative and honest coverage of that event is by Steve Almasy in his CNN “Two teens found guilty in Steubenville rape case” report. He observed, “Critics have accused community leaders of trying to paper over rampant misconduct by players of the powerhouse “Big Red” football team and have suggested that other students took part in the assaults or failed to do enough to stop them.” He noted in her closing arguments, prosecutor, Hemmester was having none of that: “This case isn’t about a YouTube video. This case isn’t about social media. This case isn’t about Big Red football,” she told the judge. “This case is about a 16-year-old girl who was taken advantage of, toyed with and humiliated. And it’s time people who did this to her are held responsible.”  But were they?

There was no shortage of finger pointing at who should be “held responsible.”  Many were outraged at the boys, others at the behavior of the girl, and others at not- so- innocent bystanders—or all of the above.  Yet, despite the high volume of chatter, I heard next to nothing about who might also be responsible for the driving around after curfew, drinking, blacking out and puking, sex scenario. Of course, the teens involved in the mayhem should have been more responsible, more honorable, more caring about each other’s welfare and been home by curfew—sober.  Actually, doing everything but what they actually did.  But where were the responsible—sexually and otherwise–sober, honorable, caring and compassionate adults?  What was lacking in the outrage was a lack of recognition of the roles adults–all of the adults in the community– not just the parents of teens–play in youths’ capacity to be responsible for their actions. To be fair, parents  in Steubenville are no more irresponsible or at fault than parents  elsewhere.  Teens may be the ones getting in trouble over sexual misconduct but they are deeply influenced—positively or negatively—by attitudes and behaviors of adults. Simply put, because teenage irresponsible sexual conduct is shaped and perpetuated by circumstances created by adults, it is a problem that adults need to solve. After all, it is adults, not teens, who have the power to control family life and draw the line on parties in the basement. Adults control the ways in which media, schools, businesses, churches, and community agencies define “moral codes” including the rules on what is sexually OK and what is not OK.  In Steubenville, and in a million other American towns, it is adults who promote and fund a football crazed culture (Reality check: see the TV show Friday Night Lights). And too often that culture of adults- gone- wild  feeds into athletics-gone-wild antics.  What is particularly disconcerting is the lack of dialogue about how adult choices influence teens’ attitudes and decisions about sexual behaviors and attitudes, and ultimately, the wellbeing of all children.

Our culture’s conflicting attitudes and norms about sex and gender often cloud a young person’s understanding of what it means to be sexually responsible. Teens grow up surrounded by a plethora of negative, mixed, and misleading messages about sex from their friends, neighborhood streets, the media in all forms, the Internet and yes, from their cell phones.  Responsible parents can find  themselves swimming against the tide of  a flood  of  our bizarre sexual mores .  Take for instance, the uproar over the contraceptive mandate in Obama Care and  how women who use birth control were called  “sluts.”  Then read the   recent news on, “Jon Hamm Rumor Has ‘The News’ Buzzing About His Penis” and “Is Blake Shelton Cheating on His Wife?”  Who can make sense of any of that?

Although it is difficult to untangle the intricate web of economic, cultural, and family forces that influence the life course of an adolescent, studies show us that it is abundantly clear that sexual ignorance combined with a lack of guidance on healthy sexual behavior are the biggest determinants for irresponsible sexual conduct among teens. And studies show that we are a nation of sexual illiterates. The Guttmacher. Institute  reports that while contraceptives are readily available and on the shelf in most drugstores, many teens say they know little about even the most commonly used methods of contraception, are confused about  their own reproductive systems, including when they are and aren’t like to be fertile and they harbor a number of myths about avoiding pregnancy.  But sexual misinformation or lack of knowledge isn’t just the problem of uninformed youth. Too many Americans–no matter their age—could not pass a high school level quiz about reproductive health and sex facts. And yet we have the audacity to be out-raged when young people act so stupid about sexual responsibility.

Without much life experience, young people need guidance to act in moral, compassionate, and responsible ways. And that point is often misunderstood. After the Steubenville verdict, the accuser’s mother rebuked the boys: “Human compassion is not taught by a teacher, a coach or a parent. It is a God-given gift instilled in all of us. You displayed not only a lack of this compassion, but a lack of any moral code.”  With all due respect to this distraught mother, a  “moral code” can be taught—to think otherwise is to believe that the efforts of churches, parents, youth organizations and others who provide character education to young people is for naught.

To cut through the clutter of mixed messages, adults, and parents of course, but not only parents,  grandparents, and school, church, and community leaders need to support intervention strategies which provide clear messages to help young people avoid risky sexual behavior and act more compassionately toward each other. These strategies include:

1) Support mandated Comprehensive Sexuality Education  Curricula  in public schools, approved by national groups such as SIECUS, and include character building curricula as Character Counts.  Supporting Abstinence-Only- Until Marriage curricula is a waste of resources as almost of all of them have been evaluated as ineffective.  Additionally, communities can sponsor after- school programs like those offered by  Advocates for Youth, an organization honoring teens with Rights. Respect. Responsibility.

Adults, especially parents, need to rally around a comprehensive sexuality education mandate because school boards tend to shy away from “Sex Ed” by saying it is up to the parents to talk to their kids about sex. But that is a community cop-out. Most parents, no matter how well intended, simply do not, or cannot, talk to their kids about sex. The good news is that studies  show a comprehensive approach to sexuality education empowers young people to withstand our mixed-up cultural pressures about sex, avoid teen pregnancy, and have healthy, responsible, and mutually protective relationships. The need for character education speaks for itself.

2) Stop demonizing teens—they really are more kid than grown-up. Recognize that teens are adolescents and as such do not think in the same way that adult think. Recent research demonstrates that an adolescent brain is still under construction– which means most teens have a difficult time connecting actions to consequences. That is why they need adult guidance about doing the right thing. And they need boundaries. Consider that the three teenagers in the Steubenville trial were actually adolescents, not adults. But the Judge in dealing out harsh sentences was either clueless that he was dealing with kids, or overreacted to the public outcry for “justice.” It turns out that justice is a slippery slope. The boys, despite clean track records, will have to register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives. The girl’s reputation will be sullied for years. Rather than “justice” being done, the outcome of the trial is a tragedy for all.

To avoid the possibility of future Steubenville-like cases, communities need to step up to the plate and acknowledge the fact that teenagers are adolescents and as such they need a helping hand to successfully make their way thru the maze of adolescence.  Indeed it does take a village to raise a teenager.  Ask a parent of a teen.  The hardest thing (I speak from experience as the mother of 6 kids, 3 boys, 3  girls) for adults to do, but the best thing adults can do, is to be good citizen role models and be advocates  for young people to be better educated about the “facts of life” and more.

“I Didn’t Think It Would Happen To Me”: the truth about unplanned pregnancy

            If I warned you that if you have sex and don’t use a good method of contraception you have a one out of six chance of getting pregnant, would you do it anyway?  Considering the odds of those  risks in the coldish light of day, most people would say no (or no way or you gotta be kiddin’), in short– they say they wouldn’t do it.  But in the heat of the moment, many people toss good sense out of the bedroom window and just  give in the primal desire of our hormones and thus,  take a chance.  Accordingly, half of all the pregnancies in the U.S. are unintentional—about 3.1 million every year—situations that are as underestimated as they are misunderstood. Simply put, there is an underlying  paradox here:  Why do so many women still get “knocked up” given that contraception is now so readily available?  To understand the situation, it is  time we peel back the  layers of conflict, denial, hope, dreams, myths and challenges about pregnancy and  look at the realities of this  “Knocked Up Paradox (c)”  sans rose-colored glasses.  The conventional wisdom claims that unplanned pregnancy is a mostly a teenager’s nightmare, but that’s just not the case. Most unintentional pregnancies—seven out of ten—occur to single women in their twenties, many of whom are white, aren’t poor, and have at least some college education. Among married women, one out of four pregnancies are not only unplanned, they are unwanted! It turns out that getting pregnant unintentionally isn’t just the plight of slutty or unlucky women: it crosses income, education, marriage, and racial lines.  It is dumbfounding, ironic actually, to learn that almost all women facing an unplanned pregnancy express dismay and disbelief “that it could happen to me.”  It’s not easy to sort out cause from effects, but it’s not impossible either.  For example, here are most  common reasons researchers have been given by women and in some cases men, for taking a risk/have been put at risk  about the possibility of getting pregnant include:   not being vigilant about using effective contraception every time she has sex; not being informed or being confused about what is and what isn’t effective;not using a method of contraception according to directions;a fear that contraception isn’t safe to use or will have a harmful effect;using ineffective protection because although she isn’t planning to get pregnant she isn’t exactly trying to avoid it.  In some cases this waffling may be due to thinking that a pregnancy could be her trump card to get her partner to be committed to the relationship. (The conventional wisdom of a woman getting deliberately pregnant to get a guy to marry her is also known as the Liverpool Method based upon the tradition of  hasty marriages to  pregnant girlfriends); ambivalence about becoming a mother and so she lets “nature” take its course–que sera, que sera; getting swept away by the passion of the moment and not being prepared with protection;using a good method but it failed. It turns out that the most common contraceptive failures for women are those methods controlled largely by their male partners. About one out of four women say that the reason they got pregnant was that their partner did not want to use contraception.  And among women who cited contraceptive failure, over half were using withdrawal or condoms, both male methods;and, adhering to restrictions against contraceptive use based on religious teachings.   I  recognize that it is possible for a woman to face an unwanted pregnancy because she was forced into having sex and wasn’t able to protect herself. While pregnancy can result from being raped or sexually assaulted, thankfully, the rates are low.)

     Admittedly, there are almost as many reasons explaining unplanned and unwanted pregnancies as there are people. But the most common reason is no great mystery: not using an effective method of contraception every single time you have sex, and using it right every time.  It’s not quantum physics.   Obviously, most of us aren’t quantum physicists.   The statistics on unintended  pregnancy speak for themselves.

    Of course, not all unplanned pregnancies are “unwanted;” there are those  happy twists of fate when an unplanned pregnancy was simply “mistimed” and resulted in a loved child.  If, however, a pregnancy is truly unwanted, there are no simple answers, no quick fixes. Every option, from abortion to adoption to raising the child, plays out as its own unnerving drama. And despite the Hollywood driven mythology that “everything works out for the best,” it usually doesn’t.  

  Why don’t we know the real truth about our high rates of  unplanned pregnancy?

      Over the last four decades, the divisive politics of abortion has tainted and virtually stymied meaningful discussion about the complex tangle of personal dilemmas and the far-reaching consequences of unplanned and unwanted pregnancies.  Thus, most people are not aware that here in the U.S. we have one of the highest unplanned pregnancy rates in the industrialized world, yes, even higher than Mexico, Spain, and Italy. 

         Turning a blind eye to the ramifications of unplanned pregnancies has only served to squash any potential dialogue about our serious lack of adult sexual intelligence and the need to make contraceptives more available and assessable.  As a result, too many women, especially young women (and men), are only dimly aware that the odds of  avoiding a pregnancy during unprotected sex are seriously stacked against them —even if it is ‘just this once.’”                 

      Despite the mind-boggling challenges of making a dent in our vast numbers of unplanned pregnancies, the situation isn’t hopeless.  There are  any number of effective prevention programs being designed and  implemented all over this country–only they are small in scope.   We need to  increase those efforts and promote them in our communities. And we should adapt , on a national scale,  the edgy European media campaign, Safe Sex or No Sex.  Although it  could find Americans blushing at first glance— it is successful in encouraging planned parenthood and discouraging unprotected sex.  What will make a  major difference is for all of us to push  the media  to acknowledge that we have a serious problem and then expect  leaders in our communities to help us  push policy makers to take significant actions to do something about it.

I’ve had so many requests for comments about a new study: “Efficacy of a Theory-Based Abstinence-Only Intervention Over 24 Months published in the ARch Pediatri Adolesc Med. 2010;164 (2) : 152-159.–I have to add my 2 cents.  The controversy is raging over the claims that “Abstinence-Only ” interventions work!  Many sexuality educators are critical about the methods and the conclusions of the study.  At the core, the problem is that the participants are all African-Americans with a mean age of 12.2. I can agree: the title seems “off” and the researchers could have chosen their words more carefully.  But my outrage is focused elsewhere. The parts of the study’s report, I found the most troubling is that 20.6% of the participants reported having sex in the 3 months before the study!  So most were 11 years old?  That’s really horrible. And that is the issue which  best merits our outrage and a lot more information from the authors’ of the study!