Ethically Challenged Part 2: Youth Ministers Take Note
As I have continued to ponder and worry about the Steubenville, Ohio, rape case which I blogged about last week, I came across a two very interesting pieces. First is an open letter from Melissa Harris-Perry to the survivor of the Steubenville rape: “Dear Steubenville Survivor, I Believe You.” It is written from one survivor to another in appreciation for the courage of the young woman in coming forward in spite of knowing the response she would get. Please listen to it.
As I have continued to ponder and worry about the Steubenville, Ohio, rape case which I blogged about last week, I came across a two very interesting pieces.
First is an open letter from Melissa Harris-Perry to the survivor of the Steubenville rape: “Dear Steubenville Survivor, I Believe You.” It is written from one survivor to another in appreciation for the courage of the young woman in coming forward in spite of knowing the response she would get. Please listen to it.
Second is a blog post from a ninth grade teacher whose students began discussing the Steubenville case. She reflects on her experience as “The Day I Taught How Not to Rape.”
One student expressed astonishment that the football players were convicted of rape and would lose their scholarships! The teacher observed:
“How can she be raped?” they asked, “She wasn’t awake to say no.” These words out of a full fledged adult would have made me furious. I did get a good few minutes in response on victim blaming and why it is so terrible. But out of the face of a kid who still has baby fat, those words just made me sick. My students are still young enough, that mostly they just spout what they have learned, and they have learned that absent a no, the yes is implied...I realized then that some of my kids were genuinely confused.
I had a flashback to a session I had with teens in a church youth group many years ago when we were attempting this conversation. There was the one couple (you know: boy and girl sitting together seriously entwined with each other) in the group and the boy was the most vocal. “Well, all I know is that if a girl puts her hand on my leg, then anything goes from there.” I remember immediately moving away from him. “Really. If a girl touches your leg, then you can do anything you want?” I asked. “Yeah, that’s all the permission I need.” The rest of the group remained silent as I tried to make my case for some conversation about consent. So I was most sympathetic to the teacher’s efforts with her ninth graders:
Standing in front of my classroom and stating that a woman’s clothing choice is never permission to rape her should not be a radical act. But only a few heads nodded in agreement. Most were stunned, like this was a completely new thought. The follow up questions were terrifying in their earnestness. “Ms. Norman, you mean a woman walking down the street naked is not her inviting sex? How will I know she wants to have sex?” A surprisingly bold voice came out of a girl in the back “You’ll know when she says, you want to have sex?!”
When we reversed the conversation from, “well she didn’t say no,” to “she has to say YES!” many of them lit up. “Ms. Norman,” they said, “that does make a lot more sense.” “Ms. Norman,” they exclaimed, “that way leaves a lot less confusion.” When one of the boys asked, well what do you want me to do, get a napkin and make her sign it, about four girls from the back yelled, YEAH!
Now that’s what I call moral development...right before our very eyes.
Teens are very capable of moral agency. But sometimes they need an adult in the room to provide context and ask critical questions. With just a little help, these ninth graders got it.
And this is the conversation we should be having in every youth group and classroom in this country. This is how we stop rape.
Rev. Dr. Marie M. Fortune
P.S. Here are two additional resources to check out: "Teaching Kids Consent, Ages 1-21" by The Good Men Project and "Teach Consent! (But What Good is Teaching Consent?)" on the Yes Means Yes Blog.