When Justice Isn’t Served, What Do You Tell Your Teens?
There’s a big story in the news right now, and I’m not going to link to it—both because you likely already know to what I’m referring, and because I could link that story today, and another will replace it in a few months, and so on—but the refrain is, unfortunately, heartbreakingly, a familiar one. Stop me if you’re heard this before: Smart, popular, likable young person with a bright future sexually violates another young person. In addition to being dragged through months of “is she telling the truth” and “what sort of girl is she, really?” while the victim is placed on trial and the perpetrator is painted as simply an angel who made a “small mistake,” justice is served… or not. In this case, the assailant was convicted but given a ridiculous sentence “so as not to impact his life.” In too many other cases, conviction never even occurs. [I lied. I’m not going to link to any coverage of the perpetrator, but if you haven’t read the victim’s letter to her attacker, do.]
In every case: He was a “nice guy.” She should’ve known better. She should’ve been sober/not been in that place/worn something different/kept her legs closed/not made a stink just because she was embarrassed.
Every time I think there cannot possibly be any other mind-boggling defense of this rapist, another one surfaces. Because he’s so nice. Because it was just a misunderstanding.
What I want to do is curl up on the couch with my family and never leave. I want to scream, “Stop the world, I want to get off,” and have that do something to change how our culture views rape. Neither of these courses of action are realistic. Much like the tightly-held belief that “everyone likes him, therefore he couldn’t possibly be bad,” it’s a fiction I want to be true, but it isn’t.
What I can do—the only thing I can do, at this point, really—is talk to my teenagers about sex. Again. And again! They will roll their eyes at me and protest, “Mom. Mom. We know!” but I will do it anyway, because there’s nothing else I can do. I will talk to them until I’m blue in the face about…
I know I’ve linked this a hundred times, here, but I love Laci Green’s “Consent 101” video for teens. More recently, there’s also the fabulous cup of tea as a metaphor for consent video. I watched these videos with my teens. I talked about these videos—and more—with my teens. Consent is mutual and enthusiastic and if it is not both of those things, stop, because chances are you don’t actually have consent. In my state, if you are under 16, you cannot legally consent. People who are inebriated cannot consent. And (although this is self-evident to anyone who isn’t a predator) unconscious people cannot consent. This isn’t rocket science, and my teens have no difficulty understanding it.
People have sex because it feels good, and also (sometimes) as a means to connect with another person. If everyone’s in agreement about what’s going on, then you have adequate consent and what you do from there on out isn’t my business. But if you just want the “feel good” part and the “other people” part is not so clear, well, masturbation is a much safer option. (My kids just love hearing their mom talk about masturbation, as you might imagine.)
none of us can 100% guarantee our safety in this world, and if that safety is violated by another person, the blame rests with the violator, not you.
Alcohol and other perception-altering substances
Listen, I hope my kids never touch drugs and don’t even think about consuming alcohol until they’re of legal age (and I hope that they’ll be responsible about it then, too), and I’ve told them that, but they have to make their own decisions. My job is to make sure they can make those decisions in an informed manner. So here’s what I tell them:
- Under the laws of this country, until you are 21, drinking is illegal. (Technically, drinking under the age of 21 with parental consent in a non-liquor-licensed venue is allowed in our state, but let’s not split hairs.) If you are caught drinking while in college and underage, you will most likely be kicked out of school, if not prosecuted under the law. Is a drink and/or a night of “fun” worth that sort of risk? I don’t think so. (And yes, I know you think you won’t be caught. So did aaaaaaaaall the other kids who got caught!)
- People do not change when they’re drunk. People have looser inhibitions and fewer social filters, but they are still themselves. Ever hear the expression “When someone tells you who they are, listen” or “in vino, veritas?” Drunk people are still themselves. Don’t give them a pass.
- Should you ever choose to drink or otherwise alter yourself to the point of not being in full control of your faculties, you must plan to do so somewhere safe while you’re still sober. A party is not a safe venue for drunkenness, even if you have a wingman or bestie there with you. There are too many things you can’t control in a crowded place, and too many people you don’t know.
- Drunkenness is temporary, judgment is often forever. Aside from very real educational or legal consequences, if you make an ass of yourself in front of people while drunk, they’ll remember it. Maybe some of them will make excuses for you, but assume they won’t. Memories of stupid behavior tend to be long. Just sayin’.
Mistakes: we all make them….Violating another human being is something else entirely.
Choices and Safety
I tell my kids they have the right to do whatever they like as long as it’s not illegal or hurtful to others… but that doesn’t mean everything is a good idea. If my daughter wants to wear provocative, revealing clothing? Absolutely her choice, and I will defend her right to do so. But she needs to understand that she can choose to do that, but she doesn’t get to choose how other people react to that choice. The reality is that if she makes that choice, other people will assume things about her, her sexual history, and her motivation/intentions. It’s not fair, but there it is. So: make the choices you want, but understand how others may react. (This is, of course, an easy object lesson to discuss, because my daughter has never been a “sexy dresser” and it’s all hypothetical.) This is not the same, by the way, as telling them that “women who dress like that deserve what they get.” You can, in fact, talk about making good choices without saying or implying that poor choices necessarily lead to unfortunate consequences. This seems like common sense to me, but wowza, recent news has made it clear that a lot of folks fail to grasp the difference.
Similarly: You can choose to go to a party and drink, and that doesn’t give anyone the right to hurt you, full stop. However, maybe try to choose your activities in a reasonable way to minimize the chances of something bad happening. Start with good choices to maximize your chances of staying safe. But understand that none of us can 100% guarantee our safety in this world, and if that safety is violated by another person, the blame rests with the violator, not you.
The flip side, of course, is discussing our own natural bias and how we can work on not having these sorts of knee-jerk reactions, ourselves, to others. If someone makes a different choice than we might, that doesn’t make them wrong or bad. And it never, ever entitles us to treat people with a single iota less respect than every person deserves just for being human. Furthermore, I’ve made it clear to both of my children that if they see someone in harm’s way—as a result of their own poor choices or not—they have a duty as a fellow human being to intervene (as long as it won’t jeopardize their own safety, of course). That means my daughter knows to run up to a drunken female and throw her arms around her and say, “Oh my gosh, I’ve been looking all over! for you!” if she’s being preyed upon and my son knows he can offer to call someone a cab, or suggest to a guy that he back off, or simply that he ask someone else to intervene if he feels uncomfortable doing so but is worried about someone’s safety.
Mistakes: we all make them. A mistake is an offhand comment that hurts someone’s feelings, or forgetting to do something we promised to do, or lying to get out of a sticky spot. Violating another human being is something else entirely. My kids know we expect mistakes will be made and reparations will be offered once those mistakes come to light; they also know the difference between a careless mistake and predatory behavior. They know the former will be forgiven and the latter will not be tolerated.
They also know there is no mistake large enough for the reasonable “punishment” to be a violation of their very selves. That’s a lie society wants us to believe and I’m not having it. No one has the right to violate them, no matter their mistake. Period.
If The Worst Happens
No parent wants to find themselves facing a child who has been assaulted, sexually or otherwise. Here is what my teens know will happen if we find ourselves in that situation:
- We will believe you. You’re too smart to lie about something this serious, we know. We believe you.
- It’s not your fault. There is no mistake you can make that warrants a violation of your person. This is not your fault.
- If you don’t tell, it will happen to someone else. It’s possible it happened to you because someone else was afraid to tell. Telling is scary. Tell anyway. We will stand with you.
- The human brain has a remarkable capacity for healing, but it requires time. That sucks but it’s true. You will be okay again, eventually. It will take longer than is fair. It will hurt too much for too long.
- The human brain also has a remarkable capacity for justification. Your brain, for example, may try to tell you it was your fault, because that somehow makes more sense than accepting that the world is a scary and unfair place. The friends and family of the person who violated you may similarly believe all manner of ridiculous things about how it’s “not so bad” or you’re a bad person to try to maintain their current view of the perpetrator as a good person. This is a whole additional level of victimization and it’s awful but it’s not true.
- The world is full of good, but there are also monsters, and the fairy tales lied to us. Real-life monsters aren’t scary looking. They look like you and me and people love them. They get away with evil because good people don’t want to believe evil exists or is sneaky. It may feel easier to believe there is something wrong with you than to accept that life is scary in this way. Don’t give in to that way of thinking.
- We will get through this as a family, regardless of what the law or society ultimately deems “the truth.”
Talk to your kids. Make sure they understand what’s at stake for them when it comes to these issues. Don’t watch the news and just get angry—use it as a way to educate your children and hopefully help keep them safe and part of the solution.Published June 7, 2016. Last updated July 15, 2017.