Of monsters and men in Steubenville

This is not usually a space for politics, but the Steubenville rape case has hit the YA community hard, and I have thoughts.

(Note: I did blog about this previously, though not as directly as I’m about to.)

When the verdict came down yesterday, I was not happy. I was not pleased. I did not feel that justice was served or that anybody had won. I believe it was the correct decision, but I do not believe it was a victory or a cause for celebration.

Because nothing can truly right such a wrong as this.

Twitter had some strong opinions. Apparently no one is allowed to feel sympathy for the two boys whose lives have been forever altered. Apparently the girl is a slut and deserved what she got — was asking for it, even. Apparently it’s a conspiracy and the whole world is against one small town in Ohio. Apparently this is really about alcohol, or football, or privacy in the digital age.*

Sometimes Twitter is stupid.

I worry that for most of America, this will be the end of the Steubenville case. I worry that the wave of righteous indignation will crest and then ebb, and we will go back to whatever else we were doing before. I worry, because this should be just the beginning. The beginning of an important nationwide discussion — and a million smaller conversations in homes, in offices, in schools. This should start a movement to understand and educate one another.

That would be the only silver lining to this overwhelmingly sad situation.

If I’m being honest, I do feel sorry for the two boys. What they did was reprehensible and inexcusable, hence the verdict and the sentences. But what now? Do we wash our hands of them, let them “rot in jail”?

I find that attitude particularly abhorrent coming from the YA community. We, who immerse ourselves in teen stories, should know better. We understand exactly how mature teens can be, and at the same time we recognize how young they still are. We know the tremendous power and turmoil of coming-of-age, and we believe in the opportunity for growth and redemption. We know that life is not about picking sides like a dodgeball game. When it comes to improving teen lives, we are all supposed to be playing on the same team.

What I’m saying is, people are not born monsters. Monsters are created. I hope that these two boys will not be sent farther and faster down the path to monster-hood. I hope we will do everything in our power, over these next few years, to find them, turn them around, and bring them back here with us where they belong.

The survivor, too, must learn and grow. (I think it’s possible to express concerns over her decision-making without saying she caused or deserved her rape.) In my training as a sexual assault advisor in college, I learned that we call them survivors, not victims, because of the strength they show in dealing with and hopefully overcoming their assaults. This girl has endured much more than anyone should have to, and I hope she will continue to draw from whatever well of courage has gotten her this far. But of her I also ask, What now? Will she try to put this behind her and return to her “normal” life? Or will she perhaps find an even better course to pursue from here on forward?

Those are the questions that I hope everyone involved will be asking themselves. The other partygoers who saw and said/did nothing. The parents. The teachers. The town.

Indeed, those are the questions we should all be asking, as I said earlier.

And to those who say, “They’ll never change,” I say in reply, “They sure won’t if we never try.”

*As an aside, I know a lot of people worry about the younger generations and how they use social media, how they view privacy or lack thereof. Frankly, I’m starting to wonder if maybe it’s not such a bad thing for their lives to be open books. Yes, their mistakes will haunt them — but maybe then they’ll learn to make fewer and smaller mistakes as they mature. At the very least they may not be able to hide things as easily, and that leaves the door open for people older and wiser to keep an eye on them, and step in when needed.

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  1. Good post about a difficult subject.

    I agree that monsters are made, not born. And the plain fact is that, for all the attention that this case has received, it is not all that unusual. And, in some ways the most horrifying aspect of all is that people apparently made decisions afterwards based on the possible impact on the school and the athletic program. I can understand concern about the boys, but I can’t understand that (though of course we’ve seen that before, too).

    “We know that life is not about picking sides like a dodgeball game. When it comes to improving teen lives, we are all supposed to be playing on the same team.” Well put.

  2. Sarah Wedgbrow

    Really important discussion. I enjoy reading your take on things, Kristan, and you knock my socks off with your thoughts. Just going to comment on your “aside.” Privacy is a real issue with me, and I don’t have much faith in “older and wiser” people “keeping an eye on things.” Sorry, that’s really cynical. I’d rather there were more examples of justice (which, to a degree, did occur) and individuals modelling correct behavior. I guess that’s just as naive?

  3. Sarah Wedgbrow

    Found this article…thought it should be linked. http://goodmenproject.com/ethics-values/the-necessary-evil-of-humanizing-rapists/

  4. In reference to the “aside,” I’m quite leery of the lack of privacy these days (and the fact that everything shared is in effect permanently available to everybody everywhere forever), but this article points out that in this case (contrary to what the judge said) it was social media that made the case prosecutable:

  5. Whew. Very difficult topic. You are much more forgiving than I am, Kristan. I have little compassion for the rapists and think that they need to suffer the consequences of their actions. The bottom line is that they won’t rot in jail. They’ll be out soon enough, hopefully having learned something. I don’t think they are “lost causes;” they can be rehabilitated and NEED to be.

    As for sexual assault victims (a term we used during my many years as a sexual assault advocate), it is reprehensible that any of these victims are further victimized by having their assaults broadcast on social media. I may be an old fuddy-dud, but I think anyone who posted images of her, or slandered her in the media should also be charged with invading her privacy.

    Rape is a crime. Rapists are criminals, and should be treated as such.

  6. Sarah-
    Great link, thank you!

    Yes, while the social media exposure was definitely a secondary violation for the girl, it’s also what allowed her to prove her case — something that is ordinarily extremely difficult for rape survivors to do. So it’s a double-edged sword… :/

    I haven’t forgiven these boys, and I agree they are rapists/criminals. Nothing I said contradicts that. I do think it’s important that we recognize how these boys came to be rapists/criminals, though, and that we identify and address the root problem/causes, not just the effects/symptoms. The link Sarah provided does a good job of further exploring that point.

  7. Excellent post about a horribly difficult topic.

    I have so many issues with this case from so many angles, I can’t even organize my thoughts enough to figure them all out. One thing I cannot stop thinking about is the adults who attempted to cover this whole thing up because of the school/town’s athletic culture. I grew up in a tiny town and our high school football players were GODS, and the way they were treated in school and worshiped makes me think that things wouldn’t have gone a whole lot differently if something like this happened there.

    That being said, I definitely agree with what you’re saying about social media making these kids lives more open and susceptible to adults peeking in on it. As long as it is the right adults. I’ve had a situation in my family where someone very close to me probably would have died if their parent wasn’t snooping on their social media/journaling and found out they were attempting suicide, so in a way I am very grateful for these outlets. I just hope the kids who are bullying the survivor and expressing extremely hateful thoughts realize that putting their words in public like that will likely bite them in the ass in the future, which will hopefully hold them more accountable and cause them to think deeper about how they feel and what they are doing in the future.

  8. Interesting post. Brava for wading into politics.

    I agree that most monsters are made, these two certainly seem of that variety, but I do believe a small, TINY, TEENY minority of individuals are just born psychopaths.

    I can’t say I have any sympathy for them, and I’m relieved they’ll have to register as sex offenders.

    But the case itself? Typical arrogance. Popular kids thought the rules didn’t apply to them. For once, they were wrong.

  9. Marci

    As always, your posts make me think a lot. As we both know from being SAAs, our culture and attitudes toward sex/sexual assault can project a blurry line of acceptable/not acceptable sexual behavior. If we don’t educate firmly on where that line is, improperly educated young people (not “monsters”) will inevitably cross it. I do hope you’re right on the education part – that would be the silver lining.

    If I’m being honest, I feel some pity for those young men. But, given limited resources (physical/emotional/financial), I’d rather put an effort toward education and then helping the people who are victimized by SA, not rehabbing the offendors.

  10. Mandy-
    Yes, the role of the many, many adults in this situation is a huge concern to me. The *failures* of the many, many adults in this situation…

    As for your personal example of social media snooping leading to someone’s life being saved (thank you for sharing that, btw) — exactly. I’m not saying Big Brother is the solution to society’s problems; I’m saying that if people are CHOOSING to share more of their lives online, then I think there could be some positive repercussions. It scares many of us who grew up with more privacy, but change can be scary without being bad.

    Sadly, I agree. There probably are a number of people who cannot be reached, or who are just born with hardwiring that isn’t compatible with living in society. I don’t know what the solution is there… but all I’m getting at, as you said, is that I don’t think that’s what we’re dealing with in Steubenville.

    I’m not certain whether these kids didn’t think the rules applied to them, or whether they truly didn’t understand the rules. One of the witnesses who testified was asked why he didn’t try to intervene or report the rape, and he more or less said that he thought rape was violent and forced, and that this didn’t look like that to him. I get the feeling he is not the only one, in that town or in this country, with grievous misconceptions about sexual assault.

    The issue of resources is a good point, and one that isn’t easily solvable.

    In this particular case, I read that the survivor has received lots of offers for financial aid, but since her lawyer is working pro bono anyway, she and her family have requested that all donations go to a nearby center that helps survivors of sexual assault. I thought that was nice.

  11. Well said, Kristan….you spoke a lot of truths and brought up points that hopefully will make people pause and think.

  12. Julia


    I agree with many of your comments, especially about the failure of the adults. I would add, the adults failed miserably before the rape, not just after. I spent 17 years as a prosecutor and 9 as a defense attorney. Here is what I learned, people do what they know. Someone taught those boys that an unconscious girl is fair game. Someone taught them to respond to defenselessness with savagery. Someone failed to teach them empathy.

    Sadly, I also agree that what happened in Steubenville is not unusual. Nor that surprising when you really consider how adults in public act, what kids see on television, at the movies, in the newspapers, how we treat athletes, how we treat women. If they are monsters, they are our monsters. I do not think those boys are beyond redemption, but I’m generally an optimist. I’m less hopeful for the rest of us.

  13. Julia-
    Oh yeah, I was definitely referring to both before & after. Thanks for sharing your perspective from your career. I hope… I hope at the end of your career, things look better than they did at the beginning. Like you, I’m generally an optimist.

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