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Steubenville Conversations: Shaping Attitudes, Not Just Essays

Last week, I recounted my discussion with my students, in which we discussed the question of blame in the Steubenville rape trial. My students, while expressing contempt for the football players who perpetrated the rape that was at the center of the trial, also expressed a lack of sympathy for the victim, implying that she "deserved it"--not because of the way in which she was dressed, or her acting in any sexually provocative way, or any other typical victim-blaming rhetoric--but simply because, by being drunk and unconscious, she had failed to protect herself. This caused me (and many readers) some alarm, and I tried--I thought, in vain--to impress upon the kids the idea that no one "deserves" to be raped.

However, talking with the kids further and reading the comments on this blog proved instructive: It helped me to realize that my students' comments about the victim's apparent inebriation were not intended to (a) mitigate the football players' actions, or (b) state that her rape was justifiable as a punishment for or a natural follow-up to drunkenness. Rather, what the kids were trying to articulate (sincerely, if a bit unsophisticatedly) was that being "blackout drunk" puts a person at risk for all kinds of things. "She could've gotten hurt too, or gotten robbed, or had a car accident," they explained to me when I approached them further about the issue, the day before break. "Anything could have happened."

I understood that, in the students' eyes, the issue of the girl being raped was seen in the broad category of "potential dangers that can happen when you are not vigilant"--a problematic mentality to be sure, as it suggests a normalization of sexual violence in their surroundings. But it is perhaps slightly less worrisome than an idea that rape, specifically, is a logical consequence of drunkenness.

Nevertheless, another thing became apparent to me, as well: It is incumbent upon me, as a teacher in whose class these subjects are brought up for discussion, to continue to talk about this with the kids. I must continuously impress upon them that, while obviously personal safety is an important consideration, sexual violence is never justified under any circumstances. To the extent that these conversations occur in my class, I must make them teachable moments. It's not a duty I can expect to farm out to anyone else, and it's one that I must consider part of my job as a teacher and a mentor, as much as helping the kids write essays or talking with them about literature.

Hope everyone's enjoying spring vacation!

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