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.