You Shall Not Stand Idly By: Lessons Learned from Steubenville

The recent media frenzy surrounding the case of the Steubenville High School football players who were found guilty of sexually assaulting a sixteen-year-old girl at a party happened to coincide with National Sexual Assault Awareness Month. But now that April has come and gone and other newsworthy events have occurred, it is easy to change our focus to other issues. However, it’s important to keep our attention on the fact that one in three adolescents is a victim of physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse from a dating partner.

As a sexuality educator, I have had the privilege of working with thousands of young people and tackling some of the most sensitive and important issues and life skills. So when the Steubenville story broke, it immediately reminded me of a “What if?” scenario that I frequently use with students who attend my sexuality awareness workshops. The scenario is included in a series of statements that challenge the students’ critical-thinking skills.

At the start of a recent workshop, I began by asking the high school students a series of challenging statements. As I read each statement, the students were asked to move from one side of the room to represent that they agreed with the statement or to the other side of the room to represent that they disagreed with the statement. Not only did this get them really involved in the workshop, but they also had to think more critically because they would literally need to choose sides. The following are two statements that often lead the list:

The drinking age should be lowered to 18.

The students were split 50-50 on this statement. Fifty percent argued that there is already an underage drinking problem in this country and lowering the age would cause even younger students to start drinking. The other half believed that lowering the drinking age would change the cultural attitude toward alcohol consumption and teens would adapt a healthier attitude toward drinking in moderation.

Marijuana should be available to anyone with a serious medical condition.

Ninety percent stated that this is for medicinal purposes and therefore sick patients should have access to anything that can alleviate nausea or pain. The remaining ten percent stated that there are numerous other medications for nausea and pain, so there is simply no need to rely on an illegal substance.

The two statements above are relatively straightforward, and during this workshop, the students were pretty clear on their positions, deciding very quickly if they “agreed” or “disagreed.” However, with my next statement, things got pretty interesting. Here is what happened when I put out the following statement:

A high school student is obligated to stop an intoxicated peer from “hooking up” or having sex with another student.

Suddenly a handful of students asked, “Is there an ‘undecided’ option?” The first two statements applied to the law and offered no variables. For many teens, the earlier statements represented concrete choices that reflected their personal beliefs, as they often relate information to their own lives by asking, “How could this affect me?” This third statement, however, reflected a choice the student would have to make based on someone else’s life.

About half of the students felt they would try to stop an intoxicated peer from going off to hook up with another peer. However, after making the choice to agree to help someone, they were quick to state they were not exactly sure how they would help their peer. 

One girl who was standing in agreement asked, “Is the person a friend or someone I don’t know?” My response to her was “The other person is just a peer.” She went on to explain, “Well, then it may depend if I am friends with the person.” She then walked to the other (disagree) side of the room. 

Other students who stood in agreement with this being the right and “moral” thing to do, questioned the word “obligated” as if to say it was not an absolute yes they would help the person. Suddenly, an outspoken student on the disagree side of the room said, “Listen, if this person chose to drink, then it’s their prerogative and they made that choice. If they get themselves into trouble, I am not responsible for their behavior.”

Responses like this drive home the fact that our conversations with young people should foster their ability to empathize with another person’s perspective and emotional state. While many people believe empathy is a value, it’s also a developmental skill that must be fostered throughout childhood and adolescence or it becomes harder to acquire later in life.

The conversation that ensued following this student’s comment gave me the opportunity to raise some questions for the students to think about. I asked, “How would you feel if you found yourself in a situation in which you felt lost, confused, overwhelmed, or stressed? What would you hope would happen if you drank too much and went off with a  partner whose intention was to engage in sexual behavior? Who would you expect to help you if someone were to slip a date-rape drug into your drink?”

Suddenly, chatter broke out among the group, as everyone wanted to share his or her opinion. This opened the gateway for getting students who believed they were not responsible for another’s behavior to see the situation from the other person’s perspective. Most significantly, it helped them begin to see that the other person, friend, or peer is just as worthy as they are of receiving help when it’s needed.

Another thought-provoking response came from the “disagree” side of the room. One boy said, “If there was a guy and a girl and they are like vibing with each other, then like it’s just not my place to break it up.” 

This is precisely where we as educators and parents need to stop and listen. Our teens have their own language for expressing intimacy. In this case, the teen said, “If they are like vibing.” I went with this language and asked, “How do you know they are vibing? What does it look like when two people are vibing? What does it sound like when two people are vibing? Do you think it’s possible for one person to be vibing while the other person is not vibing and is actually uncomfortable?”

These questions then opened the door to talk with the students about consent versus sexual assault. It also gave me an opportunity to explore with them the terms “rape,” “sodomy,” and “sexual abuse.” While these are all common media buzzwords, we cannot assume that teens understand their meaning if we do not explain what they mean. In fact, I wonder how many adults can accurately define these terms.

While the focus of the discussion during this workshop was about doing the right thing by helping someone who may need help, as well as learning about what defines “consent,” it was and is important to specify how each of these offenses differs so that we do not undermine the cruelty perpetrated against the survivors. Lumping several acts of cruelty under one umbrella term can easily be misinterpreted or even excused.

In the case of teen boy who said it was not his place to stop a drunk girl if she is “vibing” with a male partner, I had another opportunity to impart a very important lesson: Sex is a two-way street, and it should be mutually consensual and pleasurable. What do mutually consensual, pleasurable relationships involve? Communication! It’s important for intimate partners to communicate by asking questions such as, “May I give you a hug . . . a kiss . . . a touch . . . may I remove this article of clothing . . .” and so on. All teens should be made aware that an intoxicated or otherwise impaired person cannot legally consent to such actions.

Conversations that begin “May I kiss you . . . may I touch your breast . . .” may seem awkward and new for most young people, but the truth is it’s only awkward because such conversations have not been part of our dialogue with our teens. It’s awkward because they have not become a natural part of the social norms we see portrayed in media, advertisements, songs, or TV shows. For us adults, it’s awkward because teaching teens to ask permission to touch someone intimately and then giving or not giving that permission opens the door to our acknowledgment that physical intimacy should always be pleasurable. All too often, teaching teens and young adults about sex has been based on trying to control teen’s sexual decision-making based on fear, shame, and guilt. And sometimes caring adults who have the best intentions may be too embarrassed to talk about the pleasures of sex. This is all the more reason we need to have these conversations whenever the opportunity arises to make them mainstream.

Another important lesson and topic of conversation is what a physically impaired person looks like when he or she drinks too much alcohol. The teens I have worked with are typically well aware of the signs of intoxication, noting very quickly that it involves slurred speech and vomiting. However, what happens when one’s intoxication level has not reached the level of slurred speech and vomiting? There are other critical warning signs of alcohol poisoning, including mental confusion, irregular breathing, and low body temperature. But it is most important that teens be made aware that they should not wait for all the symptoms to appear (especially vomiting since many believe that’s the marker for alcohol poisoning) or try to guess how much the person has consumed before calling for help.

Again, it’s important for teens to understand that a person who has consumed alcohol or other drugs cannot legally consent to sexual contact. Fostering empathy and helping our teens to recognize that if they aren’t sure if someone is intoxicated or not, the best thing to do is stop all activity and assess the situation. There are lots of options here. Ask your teens to brainstorm some ideas. Ideally, the list should include creating a buddy system among friends; checking in with friends who have wandered off; creating secret code words via text message that indicate one needs help; downloading the Circle of 6 App, which was created to help users access immediate help from at least six friends or family members; calling 911 when someone needs medical attention; calling someone’s parents if they might need a ride home; and looking out for warning signs such as seeing someone trying to persuade or pressure another person to go someplace alone.

Unfortunately, walking away and/or taking advantage of an intoxicated peer are two unacceptable norms that we need to speak to our teens about as often as possible so that they understand that these are not acceptable options. Incidents like the Steubenville case happen far too often.

To begin this dialogue, the next time you are with a teen or your emerging young adult, ask him or her, “What would you do if . . .” Listen to and discuss his or her response. During this conversation, be sure to discuss the following:

  • The meaning of “sexual violence” and “rape culture.” These terms are often recognized as an environment in which sexualized violence is normalized in the media and in everyday language. Once we teach our youth how to recognize “rape culture” in the media and our language, they will begin to see it and challenge it in their own lives.
  • Alcohol and other drugs. Talk about what your teen observes when they see alcohol advertisements on TV and when they see alcohol use at sporting events, family celebrations, and among their peers. Be sure to set clear expectations about abstaining from alcohol and other drugs. Be sure to remind your teen that you want to know when he or she has questions or concerns about this subject.
  • Discuss how your teen can help someone who is intoxicated who may or may not be a friend. Talk about creating a “buddy” system so friends always know to look out for one another and not to leave each other when they are at a party. Talk about the bystander effect and how doing nothing when someone may need you will erode civility.
  • Discuss his or her personal obligations to bring pleasure and mutuality into any and all of their own intimate relationships.
  • Create a time for teens to think about setting their sexual limits and how far they are willing to go with someone. Teens need to know exactly how far they are willing to go so they have a plan to follow. They also need to be clear about the importance of saying “no” when he or she is not comfortable or “yes” when he or she wishes to engage in a pleasurable, but safe, sexual experience.
  • Go over the signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning, which include breathing slowly, slurred speech, nausea and vomiting, cold or pale skin, beds of eyes turn bluish, and poor coordination.
  • Remind your teen that calling 911 for help could save someone’s life. Teens often say they fear they will get intro trouble with the police or parents because alcohol or other drugs were involved and therefore avoid turning to adults for help when help is really needed. However, many states have Good Samaritan Laws that provide legal protection to help someone in need. Teens NEED to hear directly from parents and local police departments about how they would respond to a call for help. Teens want to know if they will get into trouble when they make a call to help save someone else.

The quote from The Book of Leviticus, “‘Don’t stand idly by when your neighbor’s life is at stake” is often a great foundation for thinking about the meaning of helping someone who is in a potentially life-threatening situation. If one of our goals in raising our children is to encourage personal responsibility, we obviously must have meaningful conversations that underscore one’s responsibility for their own actions. But what happens when these conversations fall short of asking about our responsibility regarding other people’s actions? Our teens are faced with numerous choices all day long. Hopefully, when it comes down to the choice of stepping in and saving someone from potential harm, as in the case with an intoxicated peer, it will come down to choosing the right thing to do—moving to the side of the room that says, “I agree”!


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