A young girl gets drunk at a party. She is, for all intents and purposes, unconscious. In this state, she is raped by (at least) two young men who subsequently 1) brag about it on social media and 2) post naked pictures of their victim. And make no mistake: she was a victim.
Why, then, does a major news outlet cover the story of the poor young boys whose lives are ruined by the guilty verdict? CNN basically made an after school-special of the fellas in the courtroom, sobbing and collapsing into the arms of their parents and lawyers. Discussion of the sex offender status that will follow them for the rest of their lives; the sure-thing athletic scholarships, down the drain; job prospects grim, football careers over, reputations destroyed. “It was hard to watch,” said the reporter. “A very emotional scene in that courtroom.”
And the world utters a unanimous “WTF?” as the victims—I mean, rapists—begin their term in juvie.
Where is the media storm of support for the victim and her families? Where is discussion of her future and her recovery? Where is her story?
Our faith tells us that there is no shame in feeling compassion for criminals. Those boys are someone’s children, too. Yes, the promise of their young lives is greatly diminished. They are products of a culture that glorifies violence, diminishes women, and sanctifies football. There’s no denying the many layers of heartbreak present in this story.
Still, it’s irresponsible reporting to excuse the behavior of the perpetrators and not even mention the young woman involved.
In the church that I serve, our favorite question is “who’s it for?” For every decision we make, every dollar we spend, every program we build… It helps us avoid petty disputes over things like worship time, paint colors, and the outreach budget. It helps us constantly focus our vision, our mission, and our message on those we hope to reach, to serve, and to engage in ministry.
As I hear this story with mixed feelings, I ask myself…who’s it for? Whose story is this? Or rather…whose story SHOULD it be?
What about the young woman? Should this be her story? My sense is, no. While I hope there is a time and place for her to share her story, a girl who has been the victim of sexual assault deserves some privacy and time to heal. She’s already had her (naked) picture shared all over the internet. Perhaps leave her be for now.
At the same time, it doesn’t seem right to venerate the ‘poor, helpless, misguided rapists,’ either. I mean…Christian compassion is one thing, but making a dang Hallmark movie about their tragic choices is another matter. The word ‘enabler’ comes to mind, alongside visions of priests, child sex scandals, and a hierarchy that worked to push the whole thing under the Vatican rug so as to preserve appearances.
What does lie at the heart of this tragedy? A narrative of great potential. It is a cautionary tale of epic proportion. And not for young women… As a matter of fact, I’m sick of the ‘how to not get raped’ messages that we send our girls, implying that, if you do get raped, it’s somehow your own damn fault. Sure, we need to teach women to protect themselves from these situations. However, shouldn’t we—and I mean ‘we’ in the broad, cultural sense—be putting a whole heck of a lot more effort into teaching men not to be rapists? Here is the story we should be telling.
Here is a story for young men of standing. Young men of natural ability. Men whose God-given talent comes with a certain sense of entitlement, a certain place in community, and a certain set of ‘givens.’ And the moral of the story is: nothing is given. NOTHING is guaranteed. Not the right to do whatever you want, to whomever you want, and be excused from the consequences. Not your college scholarship, your athletic career, or your signing bonus. You might be talented, everyone might love you, and your daddy might know people who know people. But absolutely nothing is guaranteed, and even you will be subject to justice. The world is (slowly, but thankfully) changing. Women no longer just accept the fact that abuse is a fair price to pay for being in your godlike presence. Communities no longer sigh and say ‘boys will be boys,’ or wink and say, ‘just get us a W come Friday.” Nothing is guaranteed. You are responsible for your actions and it matters—it effen matters—how you treat people.
I feel compassion for these boys, but compassion should not drive the story. Neither should ratings. (Hear that, CNN?) Sure, take those cameras in there. Broadcast these boys in the weeping, ruined heap of their lives… Not because they are martyrs, and not because it makes good tv…but because we have daughters too. Because we have sons, too. And we want a better kind of world for them. We want them to see the absolute worst that can come of…well, all sorts of things. Of irresponsible drinking and partying. Of unhealthy gender role reinforcement; of the glorification of masculinity and the objectification of women. We want them to see the liabilities of social media, and the responsibility that comes with talent and recognition.
Let them see that the world does not owe them anything, and that being good/smart/athletic/beautiful/popular/rich—does not protect them from the consequences of just generally being a negligent human being. Let them see that life, embodiment, and relationships have value, and that tremendous heartbreak can come of taking it all so lightly.
I hope, and fervently pray, for a better kind of story for my children. And for yours. If showing the ugliest possible side of a ‘morning after’ story will keep it from happening to just one more kid—or bunch of kids—then tell it, air it, shout it from the rooftops. Nothing is given but life itself. And while life is the most tremendous, miraculous gift we will ever receive, even it can be taken away. Or given away of our own free will.