Saturday, October 10, 2015

What are Young People Hearing? Getting the Message Right

Social rules and laws around interpersonal sexual conduct are culturally defined but locally enforced.  It is up to adults to help young people know the expectations, navigate the hazards of interpersonal sex, and understand that there are a lot things that can go wrong.  When sexual violations occur, it is also the responsibility of adults to help young people make sense of what happened, and whether they might be a victim or an offender, help guide them through recovery.

Sometimes sexual violence is so horrific that culpability is clear.  But other times sexual violations occur under ambiguous or mitigating circumstances.  When this is the case, too often adults ignore the social complexity of interpersonal sexual behavior, overreach with interventions, and send distorted, polarizing messages to young people.  When kids are involved in sexual violations, as a victim or an offender, what are the messages that they are getting from adults?   Do these messages help young people understand what happened, or do they just leave them more confused, full of anger or shame, or feeling hopeless?  Three cases to illustrate…

(A) In September, 2010, a federal judge in Minneapolis sentenced a man to 30 years in prison for taking sexual pictures of two teenage girls (he had also molested one of them and faced separate charges in state court).  When asked if he would like to make a statement before sentencing, the offender expressed remorse, apologized, and said that he prayed for the girls; which prompted the judge to say:

“These victims are never, ever, ever going to recover.   No matter how much you want God to do that, no matter how much you pray, it is not going to happen.”

The judge’s message was intended, of course, for the offender, but the judge’s comments were heard by everyone in open court and broadcast by the media.  Imagine the secondary trauma that the judge carelessly inflicted on the girls, their families, and friends...  that these kids are never, ever, ever going to recover, and not even God can change that?  Wrong message.

A better message might have been, “No child should ever have to endure the sexual violations that you inflicted upon these girls.  I’m sending you to prison for a long time to ensure that you will not have the opportunity to do this again.  You, sir, are a bit late in wishing the best for these children, but I will leave it to the girls and their parents to determine the sincerity of your message.  But let me assure the girls, and their family and friends, that these courageous teenagers will get the help they need that turns victims into survivors.  With support and guidance, these events and the sense of having been violated will fade with time, and these brave young ladies will move on with their lives.  Court adjourned.”

(B) In the fall of 2013, as a prank at a Sparkman High School football game near Huntsville, Alabama, 15 year old Christian Adamek ran naked across the football field.  Classmates cheered, and the next day they called him a “legend.” But the school proceeded to expel him and referred him for prosecution for lewd behavior.  A conviction could have resulted in Christian being put on the state’s sex offender registry.  Alabama has lifetime registration for sexual offenders, including juveniles.  The school moved quickly to expel Christian and, after he was cut-off from his friends, perhaps he decided not to wait to see if he was also going to be a “sex offender.”  Five days later Christian killed himself.  His father later reported that Christian was a troubled kid, but that does not change the message that Christian apparently got from the school.  One incident of streaking and he lost his school, his peers, his hope, and his life.   Wrong message.

One can only wonder if there would have been a different outcome with a different message, “Hey Christian, pretty funny streaking at the football game Friday night.  I totally understand why teenagers do those things.  Some staff have suggested that you should be charged with disorderly conduct, or maybe even indecent exposure, because we have to discourage that kind of thing – some people are offended and it is quite disruptive to football games.  But I am trying to not overreact so I’m going to suspend you from school for a couple days and if you do that again, you will be banned from participation in school sporting events.  Understood?   Great, thanks.  Game over.  See you on Wednesday.”

(C) Over this last summer a very public trial unfolded in New Hampshire regarding two prep school students who engaged in some sexual behavior.  He was 18; she was 15.  This was not the “Romeo and Juliet” situation that is quite common in high schools.  It seems he was participating in a school “tradition” that students called, “senior salute.” There was evidence presented at trial that she had agreed to getting together, but “only if it’s our little secret.”  Unfortunately, rather than keeping a secret, he was keeping score.  As often happens in cases of equivocal sex, it’s difficult for any third party to know the truth.  But even if there was some measure of sexual consent, there was clearly an absence of sexual respect.  He was charged with several misdemeanors and felonies.  The jury had to determine what versions of events to believe and decide each count.  After several hours of deliberations the jury delivered a split verdict.

The jury acknowledged that she was, in fact, underage, but apparently believed that there was some level of consent.  He was cleared of the most serious charges, but when he is sentenced on October 29, 2015 he still faces up to 11 years in prison and lifetime registration as a sex offender.  Both teenagers broke down in the courtroom.  He thought he was on his way to Harvard; now he is most likely on his way to prison.  Whatever the judge decides, everyone has lost – both the students, their families, their friends, and everyone at the prestigious prep school.  While the school administration has disavowed any “tradition” of “senior salute,” it apparently was well known to students over many years.  This story is another reminder that adults need to get ahead of any indications of hazing-like activities that often go unrecognized by kids and young adults, and help young people navigate interpersonal relationships, and the nuances of social acceptance. 

Sexual misconduct might not be the worst thing that kids have ever done, or the worst life experience that they have encountered, but the messages that young people too often get is that sexual abuse is so horrible that, whether they are victims or offenders, they will forever be defined by it, and they might never recover.  Professionals and other adults need to be vigilant about the messages we send, and ensure that young people, and their families, hear the important messages of hope and restoration. Whether it’s part of prevention, or part of recovery, people of all ages need help to understand the simplicity of sexual consent and the complexity of sexual respect.

Jon Brandt, MSW, LICSW

A Post Script:  On 10/29/2015, the young man convicted for his role in the “senior salute” received a suspended sentence of seven years in prison for the felony conviction of using a computer to lure a minor, and was sentenced to serve one year in jail on the remaining misdemeanor convictions.  He will be on probation for five years and must register as a sex offender for at least 15 years.  He was released pending appeal.  During sentencing, the young woman expressed that, “What he did to me made me feel like I didn’t belong on this planet and I would be better off dead.”  The judge expressed that both their “lives have been destroyed,” but quickly noted that they were both young and that he hoped he was wrong.  It is now up to adults to reframe the personal and social context of these events with a narrative of resiliency – one that will help both young people to get their lives back.  [JB]

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