"I think after a girl was raped the thought goes to her head, 'Was I really raped?'
A lot of rape victims keep it secret because they're so embarrassed."
- Victoria, a high school senior
Teen Attitudes Toward Dating and Sexual Abuse
FLIRTING WITH DANGER
DEBEE TLUMACKI/The Patriot Ledger
The news trucks descended, first in Braintree, then in Canton.
In a one-week period in early February, six high school students were charged with raping four 15-year-old classmates in separate, unrelated cases.
Residents in the communities reeled at the news, shocked that the suspects, five of whom are popular athletes, faced such serious charges.
But shock quickly turned to divisiveness. Lines were drawn between those who believed the girls, and those who blamed them.
Rumors spread, along with whispers about the girls’ reputations. Petitions circulated through Braintree and Canton high schools urging administrators to allow at least some of the boys back in class.
In the quiet suburbs south of Boston, it would be easy to write off these cases as isolated incidents. But in high schools across the South Shore, confusion and casual attitudes about sex are fueling risky behaviors most teenagers keep well hidden from adults.
In interviews and surveys, teenagers paint a picture of boys who force sex despite being told no, girls who are reluctant to call the crime rape, and a social climate that encourages victims to remain silent.
As a result, experts and teenagers agree, most cases of teen-on-teen rape go unreported.
Statistics tell a chilling story
“I think there’s a lot of kids who get away with it, doing something she didn’t want to do,” said Ryan, an 18-year-old senior and one of 10 high school students who participated last month in a Patriot Ledger teen focus group. The students’ names have been changed to protect their privacy.
Rape may seem like a problem of the adult world, far removed from high school hallways and playing fields. But teenage relationships are becoming increasingly more adult in nature at increasingly younger ages, experts say.
Students begin having sex freshmen year or before, sometimes at house parties where alcohol and a lack of adult supervision mix to create the opportunity, the teenagers said. The liaisons also take place after school, when parents are still at work and homes are empty.
“In my school people did it in the teachers’ lounge.”
“I can beat that. On a bus on a field trip.”
“Everybody in our town knows about the drugs, alcohol. The thing I think they are oblivious to in the town is sex,” said Jocelyn, a senior who plays soccer and basketball and will attend college in the fall.
The teens estimate that about half of their classmates are having sex, a figure that is backed up by state and national data.
In fact, a third of all freshmen - primarily 14 and 15 year olds - have had sex, according to the 1999 Massachusetts survey. By senior year, that number swells to nearly two-thirds.
Most often, the trysts involve boyfriends and girlfriends who have been dating for as long as a few years or as briefly as a few weeks, the teens said.
“It’s not just the trashy girls who are having sex,” said Victoria, a two-sport athlete and member of the National Honor Society. “A lot of people who are in the top 20 of their class, who are star athletes, who are in the National Honor Society - they’re not sleeping around, but they’re having sex.”
Sex thought of as casual
For some, however, casual sex is on the agenda.
Victoria, an 18-year-old senior who plans to attend college in the fall, said she knows a small group of classmates who have had sex with more than 15 people.
Joe, a 16-year-old junior, said girls as young as 14 or 15 give oral sex in exchange for sexual touching.
And most students knew of at least one particularly racy rendezvous, the type that occurs once every few years and soon becomes legend.
“In my school people did it in the teachers’ lounge,” Victoria said. Countered Joe: “I can beat that. On a bus on a field trip.”
Mark, also 16, told of an incident under the bleachers at a sporting event. Added Alan, 18: “On an elevator.”
It is amid this mix of intrigue, inexperience and experimentation that danger sneaks into the equation.
Rape, by and large, is an acquaintance crime, and that holds true among teenagers.
Among girls 13 to 19 years old who reported a rape, attempted rape or sexual assault to state-funded crisis centers between 1999 and 2000, nearly 80 percent said the act was committed by an intimate partner or peer.
Schools and counselors often address the issues of dating violence and date rape together. The two aren’t always linked, but in some cases, rape can be the result of an abusive relationship, just as emotional, verbal and physical violence are.
The fact that the assailant is often someone a girl knows, likes, and may be dating muddles the issue in the victim’s mind. The girl may have had consensual sex with her rapist in the past, or she may have agreed to other acts but said no to intercourse.
Such factors can leave victims uncertain if the act committed is actually a crime, prompting them to remain silent.
“I think after a girl was raped the thought goes to her head, ‘Was I really raped?’ If it’s a relationship thing it’s, ‘Did I say no? Did I mean it? I did say no, but maybe I was teasing.’ A lot of rape victims keep it secret because they’re so embarrassed,” Victoria said.
Carol Chichetto, education director for “The Clothesline Project,” visits schools with an assemblage of T-shirts bearing the names of victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
After students view the display, Chichetto asks them to write anonymous notes about their thoughts. Sometimes, the notes provide telling glimpses of how confused students are about the issue of rape and sexual assault.
“I read from a girl that said ‘I’ve never been abused or assaulted,’” Chichetto said. “She said she felt sorry for the girls on the clothesline. In the next sentence the girl said she has been forced to do something she didn’t want.”
Fear of being ostracized - top of page
Many rape victims shy away from telling anyone about the crime for fear they will be ostracized by their peers, or because they think they will somehow be blamed, experts and teens said.
Too often, those fears prove true.
Skeptical classmates may question the veracity of the accusation, pointing to the victim’s sexual history - real or fabricated - as proof that she couldn’t have been raped, or that she somehow deserved it. Questions about whether she was drinking, how she was dressed, and why she was alone with her assailant may also be raised.
Victim-blaming enables students to explain away horrible accusations against someone they may have been friends with for years, experts say. And it allows them to say, “That couldn’t have happened to me because I wouldn’t do that,” said Marianne Winters, who handles education for Jane Doe Inc., the Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence.
“There are more women who suffer sexual assaults than there are woman who wear glasses, and yet we still won’t talk about it.”
Terri Maxfield, Womansplace Crisis Center
But for a victim, who is already struggling to deal with a traumatic experience, the effect can be devastating.
After a 14-year-old Plymouth girl was sexually assaulted during class in 1996, she and her family said she was driven from school by the taunts of classmates. The girl switched high schools in town, but the situation did not improve.
“They would talk about me in loud voices behind my back as if I couldn't hear them,” she said at the time. “His friends would all talk about it loudly and say bad things about me. Even if they weren’t going to do anything to harm me it was scary to hear them talk.”
And so, more often then not, silence prevails. Victims may tell a handful of friends with assurances that the secret remain well-guarded.
In the Ledger survey this spring, 70 percent of girls said they would tell a friend if a date or acquaintance forced them to have sex. Only 17 percent would tell a parent, and a mere 3 percent would report it to police.
It is that code of silence that keeps most adults oblivious to the problem, convinced that rape among teenagers is something that only happens occasionally, and in towns other than their own.
Education and conversation is the best way to tackle the problem, experts say, yet parents and other adults find that difficult to do when teens are involved.
“There’s a lot of controversy about who should be talking about it,” said Terri Maxfield, coordinator of education and training services for Womansplace Crisis Center, which serves the South Shore. “There are more women who suffer sexual assaults than there are woman who wear glasses, and yet we still won’t talk about it.”
Karen Eschbacher may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.