Eds NOTE: This letter was originally posted in 2013 and will continue to be relevant until sexual abuse ends. Please pass it to all stakeholders in youth sports.
Teenage boys have made unsettling news lately in Steubenville, Ohio and Maryville, Missouri. In March, Steubenville's juvenile court adjudicated two high school football stars for raping a nearly unconscious 16-year-old girl while a few dozen other students laughed throughout a night of alcohol-drenched partying. Now a special prosecutor will weigh allegations that two Maryville boys (including one football star) sexually abused two girls, one 14 and the other 13, and left the older victim passed out on her front lawn all night in sub-freezing weather, clad in only a t-shirt and sweatpants.
Steubenville and Maryville are both small towns, but similar felonies happen in communities large and small. Ethics taught by your parents, teachers and coaches should be reason enough to do the right thing when opportunities for impulsive sexual abuse beckon. But even if you remain unguided by empathy for the victim's lifelong physical and emotional trauma, understand that a felony record will devastate your own life after you do the wrong thing.
The bottom line is simple - keep your hands off other people, including girls. It does not matter whether you think you are a prominent local athlete with entitlement to get away with sex crimes, or whether a crowd eggs you on at a party. Nor does it matter what condition the girl is in, how she got into that condition, how she got to the party, or what she is wearing or not wearing. There are no exceptions to these rules.
The Criminal Law of Sexual Abuse
First, a lesson in law. "Statutory rape" is the name generally given to a range of state laws that criminalize sexual abuse of a victim who is under the "age of consent." Depending on the particular law, the age may be 17, 16 or lower. If your victim is underage, you have committed a felony, even if you use no force whatsoever. It does not matter that you are also underage, because statutory rape laws operate against underage perpetrators as well as against adults.
An underage victim may be what we sometimes call a "willing participant," but she cannot give legally valid consent, no matter what she says or does. She might agree, "let's do it," but you are still a felon because of her age. No means no, and yes also means no.
Where a boy takes advantage of a girl who is under the influence of alcohol, and perhaps nearly passed out, it is almost impossible to establish that she was even a willing participant. Prosecution is likely if word gets out, particularly once the newspapers or local authorities learn about the incident. You must assume that word will get out because very little public wrongdoing remains secret nowadays. High school student onlookers rarely keep secrets, and many students like to brag, tell stories, and even film their proof. In Steubenville and allegedly in Maryville, onlookers captured the sex crimes on phones.
What A Criminal Conviction Means
What lifelong consequences await once the law catches up with you? If you are adjudicated delinquent for statutory rape in juvenile court, or if you are convicted in criminal court, your life will begin a downward trajectory from which you will never recover.
The descent begins with the thousands of dollars your family will pay the lawyer who defends your case. In difficult economic times, this is money diverted from immediate household needs, and perhaps also from college savings for you and your siblings. Public shame soon follows, and often dogs the family for years, because most people do not tolerate a sex abuser for very long.
Most juvenile court felony proceedings, and all criminal court trials, are open to the public. You might avoid further public display by pleading guilty in a plea bargain, but you emerge with a lifetime criminal record. Otherwise, open court trials generate open court records accessible to anyone on the Internet. Even if you receive only a relatively light sentence, you will never be able to hide your criminal record, even long after your hair turns gray.
A statutory rape conviction will likely land you in the statewide child abuse registry, which remains open for examination by a wide audience, perhaps permanently. If you ever seek or hold a prominent position years from now, former friends and acquaintances with daughters of their own will remember what you did; they may go public at any time because the passage of decades tends to change perceptions about teenage sexual conquests. If you ever lie on an official application about earlier sexual abuse, the lie likely constitutes perjury, which is also a felony.
Want to attend a good college, perhaps on an academic or athletic scholarship? Want to attend graduate school afterwards? Want a good job before or after college? Want a military commission? Want an occupational license that requires demonstration of good character? Want to teach, coach or assume a similar position of authority among children, either as a volunteer or a paid employee? Want to convince your own children and grandchildren someday that you are a good person? By googling your name or searching Internet court records, anyone can discover in a few minutes that you are a felon and a sex abuser.
Steubenville and Maryville create specters of jock-ocracies that place high-profile local high school athletes on pedestals where they do not belong, but athletes are not the only adolescent sex offenders. The nation's police blotters are filled with adolescent boys whose sexual violence against girls has little or nothing to do with sports, but plenty to do with broader misperceptions about civility, respect, and appropriate gender roles in our society.
Potent cultural forces send subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, messages that can lull adolescent boys into impulsive sexual abuse. The messages may lower your guard not only against statutory rape, but also such indignities as groping in crowded school hallways. You need to turn down the music and zone out the video games, and athletes need to spurn the locker room jock talk that can morph into a sense of male sexual entitlement.
One of the harsh realities of adolescence is that teens sometimes must think and behave like mature adults because the law normally does not give adolescent criminals a second chance. Sexual abuse can bring irreversible consequences that ruin the rest of your victim's life, and the rest of yours.
Doug Abrams is a member of the MomsTeam Institute Board of Directors and a nationally recognized youth sports expert and professor of law at the University of Missouri, specializing in family law and children and the law.
Posted October 22, 2013 Updated June 10, 2016