Why Is It All Right to Blame All Teenagers for Rape?

Why Is It All Right to Blame All Teenagers for Rape?

March 20, 2013

The guilty verdicts are in, the outraged commentary is abating, but a big question remains: How did Steubenville’s rape case become the one that “stunned the nation” and won relentless national media coverage?

The definitive National Crime Victimization Survey projects hundreds of sexual assaults every day, including more than 100 completed rapes, against Americans age 12 and older. Child Maltreatment reports more than 60,000 substantiated rapes and sexual abuses of children and youths in their homes every year.

“Rape is rape,” each brutal and devastating to victims, a host of commentators have correctly assured us. All sexual violence is vicious.

So why did Steubenville’s rape merit national attention and outrage while thousands of others remain obscure? The commentary indicates which cases become nationally infamous, like New York’s falsely reported Central Park “teenage wilding” and Glen Ridge, N.J.‘s “our guys” rape, among others. The reason isn’t edifying.

Fixating on a “teenage rape case” allows commentators to indulge in comfortable finger-pointing, freely express sweeping prejudices they couldn’t voice about other groups, adopt loose (or no) standards of evidence, and engage in sensational, entertaining speculations about popular culture.

Steubenville had the media attractors. A supposed teenage “rape culture” fostered by entitled jocks, drunken parties, and online cruelties. Multiracial defendants allowed reporters to excise inconvenient social issues. Some nasty tweets and posts were handy to generalize as “everyday teenage behavior,” as Forbes Magazine’s Bob Cook said. A quotable judge blamed “our children” and their “profane and ugly” doings for abetting the rape.

“Those Steubenville kids are not so different from kids across America,” summed up Time Magazine’s Susanna Schrobsdorff, charging TV’s Family Guy with molding rapist kids.

What evidence was offered for any of these statements—repeated in various forms by many commentators—that all of Steubenville High School’s 700 students, and by extension all of America’s 30 million teenagers, were rape-loving psychopaths driven by jock privilege, pop culture, scary social media, and just-plain youthful nastiness? No evidence offered, none required.

Imagine the outrage if Cook, Schrobsdorff, and fellow herd-journalists had indulged the same mass disparaging that, say, Steubenville’s African American youth convicted of rape wasn’t so different from all black people across America, reflecting everyday minority behaviors? They’d be forced to apologize profusely, then drummed out of their jobs in disgrace—as they should be.

That young people are seen as unentitled to standards of fairness and decency, a group treated as a free-fire zone for adults’ whims and prejudices according to what the worst fraction of their number do, and attributed all kinds of stupidities and savageries that would be branded hate speech if hurled at any other group in society, remains a backwardness that hasn’t changed in decades, perhaps millennia.

When I was a ninth grader at Oklahoma City’s Harding High School in 1965, seven members of the boys’ tennis team, ages 16 and 17, were arrested, and six were later convicted, for the brutal gang rape of a 15 year-old runaway girl. Promptly, grownups pronounced all in our young age group and generation guilty of the crime and meriting collective punishment. Family Guy and Facebook weren’t around to blame back then, but commentators urged banning drive-in restaurants, modern music and dancing, and other teen activities of the day blamed for fostering rape.

There were local adults arrested for rape as well in 1965. But I don’t remember the elders taking collective blame, indicting their own generation, or punishing themselves for their rapist peers.

Today, the FBI reports that many more adults in their 30s, and more even in their 40s, are arrested for rape than are teenaged youths. Are teen-bashing grownup commentators willing to accept the blame for their own rapist peers and “rape culture” extending well into middle age, then, just as they would impose on students?

Steubenville’s detractors didn’t let adults completely off the hook—though the tone was completely different than applied to students. The school football coach was alleged to have laughed off the rape. But even if true, the coach was not held up as typical of grownups. Rather, the main criticism (where voiced at all, such as by Jackson Katz) was the “failure of adult men’s leadership” for not properly educating boys to refrain from sexual violence.

Yet, Katz, Salon’s Irin Carmon (who insinuates that middle-schoolers and youths are sexually victimized only by their peers), ZNet’s David Zirin, and a host of others seem frightenly ignorant of the fact that rape isn’t simply an adult-teen socialization glitch. The tens of thousands of sexual abuses and rapes inflicted on children and teens by adult rapists, mainly their parents and caretakers, every year remain completely unmentioned.

Most troubling to the comfortable us-versus-them discourse, the FBI now reports that only 11 percent of all rapesinvolve youths—the lowest proportion in half a century of records. Both FBI and crime victimization surveys indicate that despite (or perhaps because of) broadened legal definitions of rape, awareness campaigns, more intensive law enforcement attention, and perhaps healthy generational changes, rape and sexual offenses have fallen sharply to thelowest levels ever reliably recorded. Young people show by far the biggest declines.

We can learn a great deal from the large decline in rape and sexual violence among the young over the last generation—if politician, interest group, and media standards evolve to require a fair and honest discussion instead of yet another round of 19th century demographic scapegoating. Perhaps they should be educating us.

Mike Males is senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, San Francisco, and co-founder of YouthFacts.org.