Teen Sexual Assault: Where Does The Conversation Start?

Apr 28, 2013
Originally published on October 29, 2013 4:59 pm

The narrative has become all too familiar: accusations of sexual assault, followed by bullying of the victims on social media.

The case in Steubenville, Ohio, last year drew national attention. Two high school football stars were found guilty of raping a 16-year-old girl. The assault was filmed and photographed; the images and threats circulated online.

More recently, the focus has turned to Torrington, Conn. Two football players were arrested for the statutory rape of two 13-year-old girls. Social media comments from students swarmed to protect the players, and the girls were called names like "whore" and "snitch."

Activists have been pushing for years to stamp out assault on campus through campaigns for awareness and stronger accountability. But classroom education isn't the end of the story.

At Torrington, for example, half of the high school's students had participated in classes provided by the Susan B. Anthony Project, a nonprofit that educates young people about healthy relationships and preventing sexual violence.

Project Director Barbara Spiegel tells Neena Satija of member station WNPR they taught students at the school boundaries and consent, healthy relationships and cyberbullying in media.

Cyberbullying, in particular, plays a key role in these recent assault cases; social media provides the potential to amplify the reach of hurtful comments.

Cyberbullying is a public act that now has infinite witnesses, but bullying itself is not exactly a new phenomenon.

Amanda Hess, who writes about the relationship between teen sexuality and technology for Slate's XX Factor blog, is not convinced technology can be blamed. Before Twitter, she says, kids used paper "to shame each other sexually."

"That's been going on for a very, very long time. Social media's just the new way that we talk about everything, whether it's positive or negative," she tells NPR's Jacki Lyden on weekends on All Things Considered.

It's not just how people communicate — what they say can be revealing, too. Deborah Roffman, a longtime human sexuality teacher, says she has noticed a shift in the way her students think about sex and relationships. She began teaching grades four through 12 in Baltimore in the mid-1970s.

"When I first started teaching, kids understood, almost by osmosis, that sex and relationships were really flip sides of one another," she says.

About 20 years later, Roffman says, they seemed to become separate things.

"The whole concept of sex as a meaningful form of human intimacy is really vanishing — at least in the things they are exposed to," she says. "And kids are not going to be making real choices; they are just going to be modeling what they see around them."

Roffman points to the ubiquity of pornography. She overheard two male 10th-graders commenting on how lucky they were to have easy access to porn.

"How did previous generations learn about real sex?" one asked.

Roffman told the students that once a camera is involved, the act becomes a performance. The conversation expanded to more students, and eventually others shared new perspectives.

"That's where the power is in working with groups of kids, is for them to feel safe enough to articulate differing points of view, and that's when they really pay attention," she says.

A new conversation is also taking place in Torrington, says Spiegel of the Susan B. Anthony Project. While students are taking different sides, she says, at least they are openly talking about the issue.

But in tackling sexual assault and searching for answers, Hess of the XX Factor says zeroing in on teens is misguided.

"I think it's interesting that we focus on teenagers," she says. "Rape is not a teenage problem. Cowardice in bystanders is not a teenage problem. That's a societal problem, and that's a human problem."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

You're listening to WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Coming up on the show, the genocide trial against a Guatemalan dictator gets a discouraging setback, and how do you know when a tree is thirsty? Maybe you just need to listen. And in the program, the latest hot music from Cuba.

But first, a sobering subject which has befuddled, appalled and appeared with increasing frequency in the news lately. Teen-on-teen sexual assault recorded and then distributed online. That's our cover story tonight: teens, rape and shaming on social media.

It's tough to think that something like teen-on-teen sex assault could be posted, commented and shared online. Let's start with the case in Steubenville, Ohio, which gained notoriety last fall. A 16-year-old girl inebriated and unconscious was raped at a party by two of the high school's star football players. Last month, the men were convicted. The assault was filmed and shared online. And the victim was bullied, intimidated and threatened. Two other girls were later arrested for threatening the victim via Twitter.

Teens, rape and Twitter aren't just a U.S. phenomenon. In Nova Scotia, a teenager committed suicide after she was raped, photographed and harassed online. Let's take a recent case in Torrington, Connecticut. Two high school football players there are awaiting trial for raping two young girls, as Neena Satija of member station WNPR reports.

NEENA SATIJA, BYLINE: It's spring break this week in Torrington, a town of about 36,000 people in northwest Connecticut. That's given students and school staff some relief from the chaos that erupted here a few weeks ago. Two 18-year-old football players from Torrington High School were charged with sexually assaulting two 13-year-old girls who had snuck into the boys' apartment complex. The local newspaper broke the story and found comments posted by students on Twitter, calling the girls names like whore and snitch.

Matt DeRienzo is an editor at the Torrington Register Citizen.

MATT DERIENZO: The real troubling thing that made it a much more important and bigger story was the widespread bullying of these kids.

SATIJA: Police are calling the alleged incident statutory rape. And two more 17-year-old football players have since been similarly charged. But with many details of the cases still sealed, the town and students are divided.

At a skate park near the high school this week, Anton Dziedzic and Cody Walton were testing out their bikes and skateboards. Dziedzic is a freshman at nearby Wolcott Technical High School. Walton graduated from Torrington High last year. They both say the alleged sexual contact between 18-year-olds and 13-year-olds isn't surprising.

ANTON DZIEDZIC: I think it happens all the time.

CODY WALTON: Yeah, I really do. I think it happens a lot.

DZIEDZIC: Yeah.

WALTON: Like, I mean...

DZIEDZIC: Because I know kids at my school that are dating middle schoolers.

SATIJA: But they also say that a few kids and a few posts on Twitter don't reflect Torrington as a whole. Many students are outraged at the way their classmates acted and at the hateful comments they posted online. And now, Walton says, they just want their lives to get back to normal. After all, the alleged perpetrators aren't in school anymore.

WALTON: They're in jail. Things are going on. It's all over with. Like, they got their freaking punishment.

SATIJA: Actually, one of the 18-year-olds is in jail awaiting trial and the other is out on bail. What happened in Torrington - the alleged assaults, the slurs on social media - was especially heartbreaking for Barbara Spiegel. She directs the Susan B. Anthony Project, a nonprofit that teaches school kids about healthy relationships and preventing sexual violence. In the fall, Spiegel's staff reached more than half of Torrington High School students in various health classes. Here's what they were teaching.

BARBARA SPIEGEL: Cyberbullying in the media for ninth graders, boundaries and consent for 10th graders and healthy relationships for 12th graders.

SATIJA: Clearly, Spiegel says, those lessons have not yet sunk in. In the last few weeks, the project's educators have gone back into the school. Student responses have been mixed.

SPIEGEL: You know, I think people are having a reaction like, you know, I'm on this side, I'm on this team, I'm on that team, I think the whole thing's stupid.

SATIJA: Spiegel says she hopes the recent conversations in classrooms made a difference. But it's hard to reach teenagers. Over at the skate park, Anton Dziedzic of Wolcott Technical High remembers when the Susan B. Anthony Project visited his health class.

DZIEDZIC: They always talk about the same thing: bullying, sex, you know, sexual harassment...

WALTON: Yeah.

DZIEDZIC: ...rape, all that stuff.

SATIJA: He says no one really took it seriously.

DZIEDZIC: They all think it's a joke. I admit, I used to think it was a joke too.

SATIJA: Dziedzic says as he got older, he realized it wasn't funny.

DZIEDZIC: It just kind of hit me. I was, like, wow, if that happens to someone, I'm not going to be laughing, you know?

SATIJA: And it does seem like some others are getting that message. A number of people in the community have opened up to Barbara Spiegel about sexual assaults they've suffered. And she says not enough people talk about this stuff. So at least now, Torrington is talking.

LYDEN: That's WNPR's Neena Satija.

Such education may be more vital than ever, but it isn't new. Educators say what is new are the earlier and earlier ages at which it should be required. Deborah Roffman is a human sexuality teacher in Baltimore where she helps students understand the highly sexualized world that is all around them.

DEBORAH ROFFMAN: Well, I've been in the field actually more than 40 years. I've been a classroom teacher ever since 1975.

LYDEN: Roffman says she's seen exponential changes in the way her students think about sex. She began teaching grades four to 12 back in the mid-1970s.

ROFFMAN: Well, when I first started teaching, kids understood, almost by osmosis, that sex and relationships were really basically flip sides of one another. And I would say about maybe 15 years later, 20 years later, I started to hear, well, this is sex, and that's relationships. And if you want to bring them together, well, you could, which was an enormous change.

So the whole concept of sex as a potentially meaningful, at least, form of human intimacy is really vanishing, at least in the things that they're exposed to, and kids are not going to be making real choices. They're just going to be modeling what they see around them.

LYDEN: We know what kids see because we see it too. What we're learning is the disturbing way sexuality is interpreted to blur with pornography in TV, movies, on magazine covers and advertisements, on Web pages. Online pornography, says Roffman, has come to influence an increasing number of students at every younger ages. She gave us a striking example.

ROFFMAN: So I was doing an exercise where there were these two 10th grade boys who were talking about pornography. I said: May I listen in? And one of the boys was saying: We are just so lucky - our generation - to have pornography so easily available to us. How did previous generations learn about real sex? And the other boy said: Yeah. I pointed out that: Well, you know, it's not exactly real. Once there's a camera in the room, it becomes a performance.

And a couple girls came by and I said to the girls: Well, what do you think about that? And one of the girls said: Those women make a whole lot of money doing that, and they're liberated. They're choosing to do what they want to do.

LYDEN: Wow. What was your own meter on that as you're reading your own internal meter?

ROFFMAN: My internal meter was that I wanted to scream. Scream or shake them, I guess. So I just continue to ask questions and brought more and more kids into the conversation until, finally, there were kids who stated points of view that were not the same as the kids who initially started the conversation. That's where the power is in working with groups of kids, is for them to be able to feel safe enough to articulate different points of view, and that's when they really pay attention.

LYDEN: And kids are paying attention. Seventeen-year-old Tavi Gevinson is a high school student and blogger who lives in a suburb of Chicago. She says she talks about these teen sexual assault cases with her friends. Her high school teaches self-defense to girls and has a class for the boys that teaches respect for women, which Gevinson says she appreciates, but admits that it can take a real-world event for the hypothetical to hit home.

TAVI GEVINSON: You know, like a guy sent around - at my school sent around a list a couple years ago where he ranked 50 female students and gave them offensive nicknames and rated their body parts and included rumors about their sex lives. And he wasn't the only person who - I mean, he wrote the list, but so many people shared it on Facebook, and a lot of people were really angry about it.

LYDEN: Online sharing is such a troubling aspect of these cases that it's easy to blame social media and smartphones for exposing our kids to online harassment 24/7.

Amanda Hess writes about the relationship between teen sexuality and technology for The XX Factor, a blog of Slate.com. I asked her if social media is making this type of incident easier.

AMANDA HESS: I don't think so. I went to high school before the Internet was really a powerful aspect of teenagers' lives, and, you know, we used paper for that sort of thing. High schools are really small communities, and so kids don't really need social media to learn how to shame each other sexually. That's been going on for a very, very long time. Social media is just the new way that we talk about everything, whether it's positive or negative.

What I've seen through looking at communities of teenagers on the Internet who never would've been able to find each other before this moment in time, a lot of those teenagers speak openly about sexual harassment, about sexual assaults, about being harassed on the street. They have this opportunity to engage with a community that's making positive conversation about teen sexuality.

LYDEN: What about the idea that kids are willing to be not only passive bystanders and not intervene to stop something like a rape, but that they'll film it or pass it around and comment on the photos and the videos?

HESS: I think it's interesting that we focus on teenagers. Rape is not a teenage problem. Cowardice in bystanders is not a teenage problem. That's a societal problem, and that's a human problem.

And so I think when we talk about teenagers, we're really fascinated by them and we're kind of scared by them. But, really, we're talking about ourselves. And I think there's this misplaced focus on technology because it's something that we don't understand as opposed to focusing on all these other human elements that adults are suffering from as well and passing on to our kids.

LYDEN: And maybe that's where this conversation starts for adults. It's disturbing to think that the victims and perpetrators are all our sons and daughters, amplifying their most tormented moments online. Maybe all these cases will make teens, friends and parents start a dialogue, bringing more and more people into a difficult essential discussion.

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