Another Teen Sexually Assaulted
The recent Rolling Stone piece “Sexting, Shame and Suicide” tells the story of a teenage girl from Saratoga, California, who got drunk at a party, passed out, and woke up the next morning covered in Sharpie marker drawings. She frantically pieced together the story: she had been carried to a bedroom where three boys stripped her, fingered her, drew all over her skin in Sharpie—all while capturing the whole thing on camera.
As the images spread around her high school, the victim found herself publicly shamed and abandoned by her friends, lamenting in a Facebook message, “My life is over…I ruined my life and I don’t even remember how.” Days later, she committed suicide.
As horrifying as this story is, it is nothing new. An LA Times article suggests just how common these instances are, reporting that 8% of Americans aged 14-21 admitted to perpetrating some form of sexual assault. This same group had a higher than average rate of consumption of pornography, especially violent porn. In light of the Saratoga incident and the prevalence of sexting at large, one wonders how many of those images are really self-produced, or made by others, and how many teenagers who view these images will go on to commit sexual assaults of their own.
It is important to remember that creating or possessing sexually explicit images of anyone under 18 can be illegal, whether or not the subject(s) ostensibly consent. Even if the producers and viewers are teens themselves, their young age cannot negate the fact that they committed a crime.
Even worse is the actuality of what was captured on camera in this particular instance: a collaborative physical and sexual assault of an unconscious young woman. And yet, as in so many similar instances, not everyone seems to recognize the problem with this behavior. “Boys will be boys,” as the conventional wisdom says.
In this case, not only did their high school reinforce this notion, it practically handed girls’ sexuality over to teenage boys on a silver platter. The school repeatedly looked the other way as boys ridiculed girls’ developing bodies while simultaneously demanding topless photographs. And it’s no wonder that—steeped in a culture where men are still taught that women’s bodies are their property and act as the gatekeepers of female worth—young women tend to oblige.
In Saratoga, this dynamic sometimes escalated to physical altercations—in one instance, a boy unzipped a girl’s sweater, exposing her, and faced no consequences, as if her body was a present for him to unwrap however and whenever he wanted. When the girl fought back, however, she was disciplined and subjected to further harassment.
Similarly, a student at another Saratoga high school killed herself in 2009 when a topless photo became fodder for public consumption. Despite the similarities between the incidents, the 2012 suicide victim’s high school refused to acknowledge any connection between the suicide and the assault and photos. By doing so the school, in effect, told its female students that their bodily integrity was a worthwhile sacrifice to reinforce the privilege of the boys who hurt them.
Even after the suicide last year, almost half the town of Saratoga was unwilling to question this norm, defending the crimes as mere pranks:
“These boys are not bad boys!” says the mother of a friend of one of the boys at the party. “They are goofy and silly. If there is a sleepover, one of the boys might put whipped cream on someone’s hand. They are not malicious, mean criminals. This is costing their families thousands and thousands of dollars, and we are not all rich.”
It is disturbing that committing sexual assault and producing child pornography of an unconscious underage girl is considered as “goofy and silly” as putting shaving cream on someone’s hand. These excuses perhaps serve as an easy out for commentators: soul searching is hard. Admitting that there is a problem in your community, maybe even in yourself, is scary and difficult. It is perhaps easier to shrug off responsibility than to identify causes and implement solutions.
Nevertheless, sexual assault is still sexual assault, and rape is still rape, no matter the age of the victims, or perpetrators, or the seeming complexity of the surrounding circumstances. And clearly the leniency these boys received taught them nothing; seven months after the suicide, the attackers were caught with additional sexually explicit images of teenage girls.
Alcohol consumption is often cited as another justification for sexual assault. While alcohol can create an opportunity for an assault, alcohol itself is unable to make any sort of decision. Given the ubiquitous nature of excessive drinking in American high schools, sexual assault is becoming a disturbingly normal part of the high school experience. (Another recent LA Times piece details the results of a University of Minnesota study on teen binge drinking rates—one in five high school students reported binge drinking in the past two weeks, and half of those consumed 10 drinks or more.)
And when alcohol is involved in underage sexual activity, meaningful consent is impossible. Sadly, this does not seem to represent current normative thinking. Last week, Slate.com’s Emily Yoffe wrote this piece oversimplifying the relationship between alcohol and sexual assault, and saying that these incidents will stop if young women will simply stop drinking.
But there is a larger problem that this seemingly logical narrative does not address. Susan Hayes, an art teacher at Saratoga High School, reports that during discussions of the suicide, one excuse that often came up was, “She was drunk and I’m sure she liked it.” Assuming consent for a young woman who is incapacitated and therefore unable to provide it dehumanizes the victim. It allows the attacker to justify the immediate gratification of his impulses through the false belief that he knows the victim’s desires better than she does herself.
The bottom line is that engaging in unwanted sexual activity, or sexual activity where consent is unknowable and impossible, is always the perpetrator’s choice. And it’s the perpetrator who should face criminal consequences. It is a bedrock principle of Anglo-American law that intoxicated individuals cannot consent to sex. When that happens, it is a crime called rape. And the consequences are (and should be) severe.
The challenge for all of us is this: Children and teens have to be taught early and often about personal responsibility, sexual boundaries, making good choices, and the reality and context of the pornographic images they will inevitably encounter. Otherwise, as the Saratoga tragedy demonstrates, the results can be devastating.
Indeed, the author of the first LA Times article suggests that the prevalence of violence perpetrated by teens underscores the importance of ‘bystander’ training and intervention in U.S. high schools and colleges. Everyone needs to learn that we are all responsible for what happens to other people, that inaction is a form of wrongdoing, that part of the reason injustice occurs is because we as a society allow it to happen. Passivity in the presence of abuse and exploitation sanctions these crimes. It allows perpetrators to escape justice and denies the basic human dignity of the victims.
Ultimately, however, bystanders are not to blame for the rape and sexual exploitation that occurred in Louisville, Steubenville, Maryville, Saratoga, Halifax, Notre Dame, and at high schools and college campuses across the country, not to mention every branch of the United States armed forces.
The perpetrators themselves are responsible for the behaviors they choose and must be held accountable by the criminal justice system. Educating people to respect each other and changing the public conversation around abuses that do occur are essential elements of preventing rape and sexual assault in the first place. Perpetrators should not be allowed to deflect blame onto victims.
Classmates should not tolerate sexual abuse, slut shaming, and coercive sexting. Parents and educators should reinforce moderation in alcohol consumption and informed consent as an integral part of sex education. And leaders must take an active role in developing a culture that seeks to heal victims and stop such crimes from happening.
On this front, the state of California has taken an admirable first step with its “My Strength Is Not For Hurting” campaign, which explores changing notions of masculinity and challenges young men to actively work to reduce sexual violence. While it may be too early to analyze the results, it is this author’s hope that federal and state governments embrace similar lessons and explore better ways to both punish and prevent sexual assault.