Ethical Dilemmas for 1000, Alex

Saturday, March 06, 2010

When stuck on a plane for several hours, it is generally a good idea to have something thought-provoking to read.  Heaven knows that there is nothing else of interest going on.  With that in mind, I picked up Testimony, by Anita Shreve.  While I can run hot and cold with her as an author, I was not disappointed.  The story revolved around a sex scandal at a prestigious boarding school in Vermont, but there was more to this story than meets the eye.

Mike Bordwin is the headmaster at Avery Academy, a co-ed boarding school in Vermont.  He comes into possession of a video that will blow his world, and the world of the school, completely apart. Before it is over, the scandal will destroy the futures of three students, as well as Mike's career.  The book is an easy read, but presents major issues to think about.  The characters are all flawed, but all sympathetic-though the least sympathetic to me was the "victim" of the scandal, which I found interesting from a reader's perspective.  Clearly Ms. Shreve wants us to examine our knee-jerk reactions to certain situations involving teens, and making the "victim" unappealing is certainly one way to do it.  It could also be seen, however, as a repetition of the "blame the victim" mentality that has persisted in our society for so long.  It's been 20 years since Jodi Foster brought us her heartwrenching performance in The Accused, but despite years of gains made in the feminist movement I still hear comments saying "She asked for it" or "What was she thinking, going/being there".  Shouldn't we all be able to be in any situation and be safe?  Why should women have a different set of rules?

But I digress...The issues presented here have no easy answers.  This book has given me something to chew on for a while-and I am thankful! 

SPOILER ALERT-there is no way for me to talk about the main theme of the book without revealing some of the content.  If you want to read the book, stop reading now or parts of it will likely be ruined for you.  You have been warned!

The main issue presented in this book is whether teenagers, male or female, can be truly held accountable for their bad decisions, and to what extent they should be punished.  The "victim", a 14 year old named Sienna, is clearly troubled.  Her ultra-rich family has moved her from school to school as she has gotten in more and more trouble.  She is beautiful,  pushes the edge of the dress code, and parties with the older students.  The three "perpetrators"-Rob, J. Dot, and Silas-are upperclassmen; 18, 19, and 18 respectively; two rich kids from out of town, Silas a local who was recruited for the basketball team and is there on scholarship.  After a night of heavy drinking, the four end up back in the boy's dorm, where a strange three way ensues.  The sex acts that end up in the tape are clearly consensual, but because the girl is 14 and the boys are of age, major repercussions rain down on all of them.  The boys are expelled, two of them losing their early admissions to prestigious universities after being arrested for sexual assualt, and the other eventually losing his life as he struggles to come to grips with the hurt his actions will cause his 17 year old girlfriend, with whom he is very much in love.

Shreve's portrayal of Sienna is clearly meant to show that even as young as 14 girls will willingly give their consent to engage in sex.  This should not shock anyone-statistics on teen sexuality and pregnancy have shown this trend clearly.  The fact that Sienna actually appears to have sought out sex with older boys, and then lied about it being non-consensual once she got caught, makes me wonder if Shreve is in fact buying into the "blame the vistim" mentality.  According to the powers that be in the story, even if Sienna sought out the boys for sex, as "adults" defined by their age, they had a responsibility to resist and say no.  Regardless of the whole "blame the victim" argument, this is the point I have trouble with.  Is it fair, or even realistic, to expect 18 and 19 year old boys to stay out of sexual relationships with younger girls?  And if society says it is, then what is an acceptable consequence for that action?  Had the three boys in the book ever made it to trial it was entirely possible that they would have had to register as sex offenders for life.  Does engaging in consensual sex acts with younger teenagers when still a teen yourself really put you in the same league as child molesters and rapists?  Until fairly recently, girls were routinely getting married at 17, 18 or 19 years old.  I myself dated a junior in college when I was a junior in high school.  Would the fairly innocent acts we engaged in then earn him a sex offender label today?

As a feminist I have long believed that men in our society need to be less cavalier in their attitudes towards women and their "right" to use us for sexual gratification.  The objectification of women and sexuality troubles me because I believe it can lead to the same kind of behavior that Sienna engaged in.  She obviously learned somewhere along the way that sex is power, and that as a young, attractive girl she could use it to her advantage.  Is this not what a lot of modern media teaches us?  But when it comes to teens-and 18 and 19 year old boys are still teens, I think that a little bit of compassion and understanding go a long way.  Suspend the boys, expel them if you must, but sex this case, I don't think so.


  1. It does make you think. Having worked with that population of teens for years, my first question is why were these four kids vulnerable? It's not just biology, or ALL the 14 yr old girls would be in bed with the older guys and vice-versa. Evidently, the girl was on the prowl, but what put her there?

    The place to begin with the questions is at the real beginning - what sent her out for sex, what induced one young man to forget his true love for one night of kinks, what made the other 2 believe they were above the law? So far above that they made a video tape to document their actions.

    The answer to what the right consequences - for all 4 - are can only come when the whole story is known.

    But yeah, on the surface it looks like one more "blame the vic" tale and one more plea to let boys be boys and make girls responsible for said boys' behavior (much like the Taliban, but that's a whole 'nuther tale).

    The unhappy consequences for the boys-being branded as sex offenders for life- is one reason I advocate for sex offenses by juveniles to be part of the sealed record when said juvie hits adulthood. There are some - maybe 10% - who will continue predatory action into adulthood, but most were either unable to resist a temptation or are still young and malleable enough to change. Having the THREAT of life-long branding makes treatment easier to engage in for those guys.

  2. Jeanne, as usual you have given me a new angle to think about. Thanks for sharing-I should have posted this to the list as well. I've just been so crazy busy.

    Interestingly, the only character from the book that I thought actually seemed pathological in their behavior was the girl...she was obviously troubled. The boys all seemed pretty "normal"-until that night. Maybe that is part of why I have a hard time with the consequences-you always want to believe that "regular" people don't behave in such a way, so it must have been an aberration.


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