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The Verdict on Steubenville: My Students' Reactions to Rape and Jock Culture

This week, the students in my Honors English class have been avidly following the news: specifically, the trial of two high school athletes for the rape of another high school student in the town of Steubenville, Ohio. The connection to our reading was circuitous, though no less thoughtful for that: In Montana 1948, the novel they've just finished reading, most of the major conflicts center around a charismatic, handsome, war-hero doctor who is molesting and raping the Native American women during routine check-ups. Because of his high social status in the town, and because of the institutionalized prejudice against Native Americans, the doctor's crimes have gone unpunished for years. My students likened this to high school and college athletes whose social status on their respective campuses renders them seemingly impervious to normal social rules--in this case, rules concerning the treatment of women as sexual objects.

It is important to note that no such "jock culture" exists on our campus. I believe this is due to a couple of factors: the division of the campus into many "small schools" (thus undermining a type of jingoistic unity on which I believe jock culture thrives), and the fact that--with the exception of the lacrosse team three years ago, which the vast majority of students looked at with perplexity--none of our sports teams are stand-outs in our league. The kids who play sports enjoy them, and even sometimes gain scholarships in the process (we have had some individual stand-out athletes); in addition, the sports teams serve as an effective means of pushing kids to keep up their grades. But there's no widespread idolization of a football team, or football players. The kids know about this phenomenon, but their knowledge comes from TV shows like Friday Night Lights and other popular media--not from experience.

So, when we discussed the trial in Steubenville, the kids expressed absolutely none of the sympathy that some of the media outlets have espoused for the now-convicted football players. However, they took an equally critical view of the victim: Their assertion was that, if she was getting "blackout drunk" at a party, well then what did she expect to happen? They maintained that it was her fault for putting herself in such a vulnerable position. I attempted to explain that, while I agreed that drinking excessively (especially in high school, as they had been quick to point out) was a terrible idea that could put a person in all kinds of danger, that didn't mean she "deserved" to be raped--no one deserved to be a victim of sexual violence. Well, the kids maintained, by drinking too much, she had put herself in that position. Tough luck.

I wanted to talk about it with them more, to try to impress upon them that one could condemn a behavior (drinking excessively, especially underage) while still not concluding that one "deserved" an outcome (the rape) that was enabled, in part, as a result of that behavior. But it was a semantic argument that, whether because of this crew's particular code of street-wise behavior, or because of their equally particular sense of high school-specific moral absolutism, they were unwilling to indulge. And then the bell rang, before I could get any further. It's an issue I would like to try and talk with them about further, though I'm not certain this is the appropriate forum (or, for that matter, where the appropriate forum is--Health class seems like the likeliest option, but not all of them take Health this semester.) This is one of those situations wherein the paltry 45 minutes a day that I see the kids never seems like enough to discuss everything important.

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The opinions expressed in View From the Bronx: An Urban Teacher's Perspective are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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