What We Can Learn from the Steubenville Media Circus

Alexandra Eisler

Alexandra Eisler

Eleven years ago, I was a high school senior and about the same age as the boys in Steubenville, OH, who last week were found delinquent (the juvenile court version of “guilty”) of sexual assault and distributing nude photos of an acquaintance. I remember being their classmates’ age and trying to figure out (like they are now) how to be an adult and learning what it meant to make adult decisions like how to handle alcohol and drugs, sex, and my friends.

I remember being told that if you didn’t want to have sex, you were to very loudly and very clearly say, “NO! I do NOT want to have sex with you!” Which, while probably effective, at the time didn’t seem practical when you factor in the social codes that go along with maintaining friendships and learning how to date. What that message did reveal to me was a nasty grey area: If someone doesn’t say the word “no,” then is he/she saying “yes”?  (And we’re not talking only about women: data show a surprisingly high number of men report being sexually assaulted.)

Clearly, these young men were found delinquent and are headed to detention, but many messages circulating about their crime are disgusting: their coach told them “not to worry about it”; the media seems more focused on the ruin of the boys’ “promising careers” than the friend they violated; and we’ve heard an awful lot about how drunk the victim was and whether or not she had previously hooked up with someone.  If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you’ve been hearing this in heavy rotation.

The Steubenville case illuminates how our stunted understanding of consent makes it impossible for young people to learn what it means to give consent and to get consent–most of these students’ classmates didn’t realize something bad was happening, so they recorded it for fun. (Wait. What?!)

When we talk about sexual health, we talk about anatomy, STIs, pregnancy, HIV, and how to say “no” to sex when we don’t want to have it. The problem with that list is, in addition to learning facts about our bodies, it puts the responsibility for consent solely on the person who doesn’t want to have sex rather than pointing out how partners can pay attention to each other. “No” comes in many forms.

This is where we need to change our dialogue. We need to recognize that sex is supposed to be fun; it’s not a game that someone wins (…and therefore one that someone loses). We’re talking about human relationships and the practice of valuing other people’s lives. To raise generations of compassionate, kind human beings, we must show those around us what that looks like—and that includes discussions of sexual expression.

We can start very young, as young as one year old, and to be successful we can’t ever stop the conversation.

How do you talk about consent?

Alexandra Eisler is a Training and TA Coordinator at Healthy Teen Network.

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