The Steubenville verdict is still echoing through the chambers (guilty, jail, registered sex offenders, the whole nine yards) and amongst the general
assholery opinions the internet over is the one where it’s “kids today” and hell in a handbasket and not at all us failing our youth in teaching them a basic respect for fellow human beings. Obviously what Jane Doe endured on August 11th and in the wee hours of August 12th was extreme, not to mention cruel and unusual. And I’m glad that at least two of those involved in her attack will pay bitterly. But what’s most disturbing to me about the national reaction to Steubenville is that we all seem so quick to separate ourselves from the community this happened in, the families this happened to, when I can’t help but think that in our age of oversharing, this is just the first time it happened so publicly.
I don’t know what you remember from High School, but for all the shock and awe and apparent loss of communal adult innocence this trial has brought to the forefront, I’m wondering if we don’t have a collective case of national amnesia, or if my teenage experience was just ahead of it’s time. Gird your loins for this walk down memory lane, because it’s not going to be a pleasant one. [Trigger alert.]
I grew up in Los Angeles in the 90s. And in a pre-social media late 90s Los Angeles, teenagers were…well, partying like it was 1999…because it was. LA isn’t small town Ohio and although my private Catholic High School had a state champion football team, the drama boys and the water polo players were just as likely to expose themselves to you in 3rd period or stick a finger in your underwear if heaven-forbid you were walking up the stairs ahead of them without spanky pants under your uniform skirt. And forget keeping your bra on throughout an entire school day. Front clasps or back, the boys in my class were masters of unhinging in a single over-the-shirt swipe.
Perhaps surprisingly, it wasn’t just the girls who were disrespected and casually violated. My freshman year of high school, several Jr. Varsity Football players were “initiated” by members of the Varsity team in a locker room attack that involved ramming broom handles up their asses. Rumors were everywhere, jokes were a-plenty, but no charges were ever pressed…no disciplinary action was taken.
When I was sixteen, while attending a Summer art program in North Carolina, I accompanied a local friend home for the weekend to her very small town. It was in the midst of a house party in the woods that I discovered that the camera she’d been lamenting the loss of over the past few weeks of art camp was that much more important to her because it contained photos of two boys she counted as friends violating her while she was passed out at a party several weeks prior. They’d recorded it using her brand new birthday gift while others looked on and then absconded with the evidence…at least until they could finish the roll and have the photos of their antics developed. She spent the entire fourth of July evening pleading with them, insisting she wasn’t mad…she just wanted her camera back.
My Jr. year of High School, one less-than-popular girl decided to press charges against a popular guy in her class after she woke up on the floor at a party to find him in her sleeping bag with her. She was ostracized for being a liar until several of the girls in the “in-crowd” came forward saying they’d also woken up to find him taking advantage of them on separate occasions themselves. Because she was a family friend, I was privy to the details of the trial. In the halls of our high school, those same girls who came forward as witnesses continued to ignore her.
Graduation didn’t stem the flow of peer sexual abuse. Our first winter break off from college, after the early return home of a friend’s father had broken up one particularly rowdy reunion party, I quietly returned from a 3am waffle run and crept back in to the foyer of the house to collect one of my very best friends who had been working through a rough evening somewhere upstairs. Instead, I was met in the empty downstairs by someone I’d known casually for years — the older brother of the girl whose house we’d been partying at. “Oh, sorry!” I whispered, “I just came back to pick up the stragglers…” He smiled, friendly, not creepy. “No worries, everyone’s already gone home. No one’s left.” And so I hopped back in the car with my girlfriends, who dropped me at my boyfriend’s house, even though my parents thought I was sleeping elsewhere.
But someone was left. Someone who woke up not twenty minutes later with that very same friendly familiar face inches from hers, penetrating her in places she hadn’t given him permission to go. Someone who rushed out in to the night and called two other lifelong friends…friends who — not unlike the girls in Steubenville who reportedly failed to support Jane Doe in the aftermath of her very public and prolonged attack — went back to a party at the very same house and drank with the very same friendly familiar face the very next night, despite knowing that our violated friend was quite possibly at that moment sitting in a sterile hospital room enduring the collection of his DNA for her rape kit.
Less than two years later after that friendly familiar face was long behind bars, I personally downed a fifth of Vodka in the wake of a rough breakup despite being one of only two females at a frat party in Ann Arbor Michigan. Many of us have made dangerously bad decisions from time to time. Within the hour I had blacked out and shat myself. To this day, I am grateful that that same someone who woke up alone being violated by a friendly familiar face in a friendly familiar place also happened to be the only other girl at that frat party. As I vomited (and worse) all over myself and the bedroom of our host she refused to leave me alone for a moment. Not even with guys we’d known for years. Not even with her own boyfriend. She didn’t fail me, despite how egregiously she’d been failed by all of us just eighteen months prior.
The stories don’t end there. I could go on, but I’ve grown nauseous.
The point is this: Teenagers are half adult, half toddler. We’re the grown ups here. Generation after generation, we’re failing our children. If they’re going to hell in a handbasket, then it’s our handbasket they’re riding in. RAPE IS NEVER THE VICTIM’S FAULT. If we continue to allow that one simple falsity to permeate the messages we’re passing on to our youth, then we’re not effectively teaching them right from wrong. A crime of opportunity is still a crime. Victimizing these boys because their lives will be negatively impacted is blurring the lines for youth to come and will only serve to perpetuate a problem that we’re lying to ourselves if we believe is new.
Justice for Jane Doe began in the courtroom. But it falls to all of us to ensure that what happened to her never happens to, or at the hands of, our children again.