What is this madness? That’s the question I’ve heard over and over on Friday from people who care about the lives and health of teenagers. This week, Canada is in an uproar over whether a group of boys should be prosecuted for sending around humiliating photos of 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons, a girl from Halifax who said the boys raped her. And on Thursday, three 16-year-old boys were arrested in San Jose, Calif. for sexually assaulting 15-year-old Audrie Pott, who was also humiliated by online photos.
The worst of the awful similarities in these stories is that both girls killed themselves. Audrie hanged herself about seven months ago, eight days after the assault. Rehtaeh hanged herself last weekend, months after the police said they would not prosecute anyone. On Friday afternoon, the Halifax police, citing “new and credible information,” said they would reopen the case.
That is a relief. Still, as we pick through the wreckage of these sad stories, I’m trying to think about a better way to get at some of the harm.
Set aside, for the moment, the alleged assaults. There is a long-standing problem of proof when allegations of rape are made, especially among people who know each other and when drinking or drugs are involved—though the convictions in Steubenville, Ohio, show it can be done.
Maybe the Steubenville result, in which a judge found the boys guilty for a sexual assault that the victim could not really remember, will wind up being the just ending to Audrie and Rehtaeh’s cases, too.
But there is also the circulation of the compromising photos, which created a trail of digital evidence. In light of that, we should have a clear way to bring charges against the instigators—a way that recognizes that the boys involved were teenagers, not adults.
Whoever is responsible for circulating the photos of Rehtaeh could be charged under Canada’s child pornography laws. A conviction would come with a mandatory minimum sentence, Canadian Attorney General Rob Nicholson emphasized in a statement about Rehtaeh’s case Thursday.
In a situation like this, where outrage is understandably everywhere, it’s hard to think about tempering justice with mercy. Believe me, I know that. And for these boys, child pornography charges may well be warranted. But most of the time, charging teenagers as child pornographers shouldn’t be the only option. We should have laws that offer a middle ground between no charges at all and heavy prison sentences with a lifetime on the sex-offender register. We should have laws that specifically and deliberately address teen sexting.
The key is to distinguish between one kid consensually sending one other kid a sexual photo and one kid sending out a photo that the pictured teenager has not consented to at all. It’s not that the first kind of sexting is a good idea—it’s that kids shouldn’t get caught up in the criminal justice system for it, whereas nonconsensual sexting is a different story. “We should draw the line between my daughter stupidly sending a photo of herself to her boyfriend and her boyfriend sending it to all his friends to humiliate her,” Marsha Levick of the Juvenile Law Center told me. “The first is stupid. The second is more troubling and should be criminal.”
In the U.S., states have been trying to sort out sexting laws for the past few years. Levick says that not enough lawmakers are picking up on the distinction she makes. Pennsylvania, for example, passed a law with criminal penalties for juvenile sexting with malicious intent—helpful—but also made consensual sexting a misdemeanor.
I am in total agreement with the thought that society's values should be expressed in good, workable laws that protect the vulnerable. This is very, very important. The problem is always going to be, though, that creating law is a reaction to events that have already occurred. And events are going to continue to occur, in all kinds of ways we cannot envision or predict. People are always going to be tormented from within or without, in millions of different ways.
Furthermore, it is just a fact of life that in many cases, there is no solution in the law. What can the law do, for instance, about helping people overcome terrible events in their lives - or even just their own flaws? How can the law help anybody learn how to live? How can the law prevent the descent into alcoholism or addiction or madness, when a person is overpowered by some tragedy in their lives? How can the law help people find their equilibrium when people they love die? What can the law do, in fact, to prevent people from ruining their own lives in any of a thousand various ways? How can the law prevent almost any kind of personal cruelty you can name?
How, in other words, can the law help people thrive at times they feel they can't even stay alive anymore?
I saw a better way on Sunday: a notice about "The dangers of sexting" in the parish announcement bulletin. This is to be a presentation designed for "all kids in Sixth through Ninth Grades," offered from 10:30-11:45 a.m. on Sunday, in the parish hall, after the main service and during the late service. The priest will speak "to the sacred ground of our personal bodies that have been given to us by God."
Can you find anything like that anywhere except in the church? Well, no - I don't think so.
The question ends up being, then: how do people outside the church help their kids to find something like this, a kind of protection that no law can ever offer? And how, further, can they do this for any of the thousands of other problems their kids are going to face in growing up?
Aggressive secularism is simply failing kids when it attempts to dismantle religion (at worst) or to belittle it (at best). Can people really not see the direct connection between a loss of the protection of the spiritual life - and the question asked in the article above,"What is this madness?"?
Of course, the church itself is also implicated in failure, as it inflicts its own pernicious kind of cruelty on kids who happen to be gay. It is, effectively, casting gay kids and adults out from the kind of basic protection it should be offering them.