In the wake of the Steubenville, Ohio, case and the suicides of 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons and 15-year-old Audrie Pott, I’ve been thinking about how to talk to teenagers about the toxic brew of binge drinking, unwanted sexual encounters, and photos of those encounters (some of them rape) that carry disgrace as they travel from phone to phone. It’s a dismal narrative that casts boys as predators, girls as the objects (and perpetrators) of slut-shaming, and a lot of other kids as witnesses who didn’t step up. And we’ve had too many high-profile versions of this lately.
So how can we help kids do better? How do we talk to them, in particular, about the aspect of these stories that’s not familiar from our own teenage years—the images that travel via technology and magnify the original incidents?
The first step is deciding to have the conversation in the first place. “It’s so striking to me how reluctant we are to talk to our sons about the possibility that they might be involved in this kind of situation,” Rosalind Wiseman said when I called to discuss this. Wiseman is known for her work on girls: Her 2002 book, Queen Bees and Wannabes, is the basis for the movie Mean Girls.* Now she’s about to publish a book about boys, Masterminds and Wingmen.
I understand that reluctance: I haven’t talked to my 13-year-old son about Steubenville or the other cases because parties and alcohol aren’t on his radar yet. I don’t want to rob him of his innocence. “I understand that feeling,” Wiseman said. “But that always means the moment of losing their innocence doesn’t happen with you, and they have to deal with it in the moment, and they’re completely unprepared for what to do.” She said I could wait until my son is 14, but probably not much beyond that. And then what to say? Wiseman suggests having him read an article about a case like Steubenville and saying something like:
“I know this is not awesome to talk about, but we have to. There are people who try to dominate and degrade other people, and some boys resonate to that. There’s a possibility that you will see something like this in your life. By being there, you’ll have to make choices. It’s really important to think through your choices beforehand, so you don’t feel so overwhelmed. What would you like to do in that situation? What would we want you to do?”
For girls, the intro is slightly different. “My focus for girls is about why they turn on each other,” Wiseman said. Mean Girls famously captures this dynamic in a scene in which the teacher played by Tina Fey asks a gym full of girls how many of them have been called sluts. They all raise their hands. Then she asks how many have called a girl a slut. They raise their hands again. “That’s the thing I’d have parents talk to their daughters about,” Wiseman said. “Can we talk for 10 seconds to our daughters about how they should present themselves online and then 45 minutes about why you do not go after people when they’re identified as a victim. That is critically important.”