Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Bad kids

I hadn't written anything about Steubenville thus far because I felt I had nothing to add. Rape is terrible and deserves to be punished. You do not need WWPD to tell you this. Institutions don't like making a fuss and allow terrible things to happen. Indeed, indeed, but my anecdotal evidence in that regard is sufficiently different from the Steubenville case that I had nothing to add on that account. I was prepared to find this upsetting, to discuss it privately, and not to respond to it on here unless I thought I had something to contribute, some way to better explain what happened and how things like it might be prevented. The big issues - victim-blaming, football culture, and more - have already been addressed elsewhere.

Then something occurred to me listening to a report about the case, where someone was calling in to say that whoever gave or sold these children alcohol needed to be held responsible. While there may be nothing to it, which could be why I haven't seen it addressed elsewhere, here goes:

Under the most ordinary of circumstances, teenage behavior in America is criminalized or deemed illicit. Teenagers (20-year-olds) who have a beer at a party, just the one, regardless of their car access or lack thereof, are bad kids. In my life, to my knowledge, I've met exactly two people who waited to drink until they were 21 (others, of course, didn't drink before or after). That's a whole lot of bad (nerdy) kids! And teenagers (anyone not yet married) who have entirely consensual sex with a significant other are engaging in premarital sex and are thus not being abstinent, and are thus bad kids, if not criminals like the underage drinkers. How strongly these taboos are felt depends on which region, but if they made it to the godless cities where I spent my youth, they're out there.

In some other parts of the West, too much drinking is bad, sexual assault is bad, but there's no sense that one can cross over from pure to impure simply by acting like everyone else your age. But for teens in the States, as I remember it, this leads to an atmosphere at parties and such where it feels like simply hanging out is being bad, breaking rules or laws, being a Youth, a criminal. Even the good kids feel they're being bad. Much that happens, if were to emerge on social media (which, I shall repeat for the zillionth time, happily did not exist in my own youth), would be devastating. A good kid with a drink in his hand! A photo of a party where a whole group of kids are acting silly - does that mean they're drunk? A reference to contraception announcing not responsibility but sexual activity! Things that having nothing to do with blacking out drunk, let alone with rape.

Once there's a sense among teenagers that a normal weekend is a weekend of illicit activity, lines can blur. Kids baseline feel like criminals, baseline feel like their behavior, if it reached authority figures, would damn them for life. If kids are at the top of some hierarchy (football or other), their being able to drink without punishment will already place them above the law. But the "law" threshold is so low that, while I don't believe there's genuine confusion over the difference between a beer at a party and sexual assault, there's a sense in which the mindset of 'I'm being bad' may contribute to how kids who do genuinely bad things justify their behavior to themselves in the moment.

None of this, I should note, is a policy prescription. For all I know, lowering the drinking age would so increase the number of fatal traffic accidents as to render all of this almost irrelevant.


caryatis said...

Did you read that the judge in the Steubenville case advises Today's Young People to "to have discussions about how you talk to your friends, how you record things on the social media so prevalent today and how you conduct yourself when drinking is put upon you by your friends"?

That reflexive urge to blame modern technology, when in fact modern technology is part of the reason the criminals in this case got convicted.

I think. I'm kind of intentionally avoiding the details of this one.

At that age, parents' rules have more impact on your life than the law, so I'm not sure a rational drinking age would help with this particular problem.

Phoebe said...

"At that age, parents' rules have more impact on your life than the law, so I'm not sure a rational drinking age would help with this particular problem."

Maybe? Obviously sex between 17-year-olds is often legal, yet controversial. But with alcohol consumption, the lack of a cultural taboo against drinking from one's 21st birthday on suggests that with alcohol, this really is about the law being one thing and the culture following suit.