In her documentary, 'Roll Red Roll,' about the 2012 Steubenville high-school gang rape, filmmaker Nancy Schwartzman reveals that we still don’t know how to talk to kids about consent. So why do we expect the next generation to save us?
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The children are our future. A little child shall lead them. The kids are all right.
I see some version of this sentiment on my social-media dashboard every time the liberal imagination latches on to a youth-led cause. Emma Gonzalez; Greta Thunberg; the list goes on and on. The generation coming up behind us, we’re assured, is not only more progressive than we are—they’re more competent, too, willing and able to resolve even the worst injustices, if we useless grown-ups would only get out of their way.
I don’t deny the existence of gifted young people. But this line of thinking does very little to help actual kids, whom it reduces to cute little mascots rather than rational actors in the public sphere. Instead, it mostly appeals to adult progressives, who embrace it because it vindicates and (more importantly) excuses us: If the next generation is full of ultra-progressive organizing superstars, then why do the adults need to do anything? Why not just stand on the sidelines, like parents at a soccer game, cheering them on to victory? After all, we’ve already done our part of the job. We’ve raised all these great kids.
But we have scarred our children just as badly as we were scarred by our own parents. We have failed them, making them live in a world full of dangers we couldn’t protect them from and problems we didn’t fix. While we were hailing the Parkland shooting survivors as superheroes who were responsible for solving all our problems, they were dealing with trauma so deep that more than one of them has since died from suicide. While we were asking teenagers to teach us how to be decent people, photos of Jane Doe being raped by two Steubenville football players were circulated to her high-school classmates, who laughed.
All of this came to mind while watching Nancy Schwartzman’s agonizing documentary on the Steubenville rape, Roll Red Roll. It’s not that her material is new, precisely—gory details of the Steubenville case were nigh-inescapable when the news broke in 2012; several true-crime stories, like Netflix’s 2016 documentary Audrie and Daisy or Bernard Lefkowitz’s 1997 book Our Guys, have explored the intersection of teen culture and rape culture—but Steubenville has obtained a kind of totemic status over the years as the moment we realized how deeply entrenched rape culture really was, and how early our children were being indoctrinated. It feels less like a real-life incident than a parable: Once upon a time, there was a town where men turned their sons into monsters.
It was real, of course, and the details (well-known though they might be) are worth recapping. In 2012, high-school football players Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond raped a heavily intoxicated and unconscious classmate while other boys watched and took photos. Several classmates had seen the boys dragging her limp body away from a party. None of them rescued her. The photos of the rape were circulated among other boys. They were treated as a joke. On social media, the partygoers made more jokes—“song of the night is definitely ‘Rape Me’ by Nirvana,” went one typical knee-slapper—and a video surfaced of baseball player Michael Nodiamos laughing hysterically about how Trent and Ma’lik had raped a “dead girl.” He used both the rapists’ names; he used the word “rape”; he was happy to describe the crime, giggling joyfully as he declared that the victim had been urinated on.
When the school heard what had happened, they left the discipline up to the boys’ football coach, Reno Saccoccia. He refused to even suspend them for underage drinking; taking any disciplinary action, he told the police later, would have made the rapists “look guilty.”
That confession is one of many profoundly infuriating moments Schwartzman has dug out of the archives for Roll Red Roll. Michael Nodiamos may look like a one-man rebuke to all those stories about millennial virtue; if I try to envision the face of human evil, I imagine him. Yet he wasn’t born a sadist. Mays and Richmond did not have to become the kind of boys who violated women for fun. We turned those boys evil—or at least, the adult men in their lives did, by passing down their own violence and ignorance intact.
Schwartzman, displaying what must be Olympian fortitude, manages to wring some truly gut-wrenching confessions out of the people of Steubenville: “When that kind of stuff happened when I was in school, you were a bad boy,” a townsman named Vinnie Fristick tells Schwartzman. “You know, you got suspended or disciplined. Now they want to put you in jail.” He seems horrified.
That ignorance is far from unique. The moment in which Saccoccia tells his interrogator that he feared making the boys “look guilty” is awful, but what comes next is worse: His questioner patiently explains to the coach what “rape” is, including the fact that sex with an unconscious or incapacitated person qualifies. The coach is stunned. He’d previously admitted that the boys “might have screwed her,” but seems to have had no idea that this particular kind of “screwing” was sexual assault.
These men were entrusted with providing guidance and discipline and care to the boys of their community, and they had no idea raping someone was wrong. How is it surprising that the boys turned into ravening beasts, when they were raised by wolves?
It’s not just the boys. In one of the documentary’s most chilling scenes, two teenage girls explain to Schwartzman why they didn’t care about the rape: “Honestly, this is terrible, but I didn’t think that much about it,” one of them says. “Yes, the boys were definitely not in the right, but she was also at a party that she probably shouldn’t have been at. She has to take responsibility for the choice she made to go to that party.”
Those girls are not bad people; they say nothing that is intentionally cruel; they even feel guilty for not caring more. They simply happen to believe that rape is an appropriate punishment for going outside or socializing with people, things they themselves do every day. It seems mystifying. But some time after we hear from the girls, we take a trip to visit Ma’lik Richmond’s defense attorney, Walter Madison, who spins a gut-wrenching web of victim-blaming, ranging from “Who raped who?” to “Giving someone access to [your] phone is a form of consent” to, inevitably, “This young girl consented, at one point in the evening, to being in the company of these young boys. People would say it’s okay for this young woman to have made this choice, but the moment the choice is wrong, it’s not her fault any more.”
Those girls are not bad people; they are mirrors of us. They’re repeating what they’ve heard adults say, or what they’ve absorbed through our actions; imitating the grown-ups who care for them, which is all children ever do. When we expect the next generation to save us, we reverse the order of obligations; we place the onus on our children to take care of us, rather than the other way around. The idea that we’re expressing “respect” by doing so is a comfortable lie, one that absolves us for all the bad lessons we’ve taught.
Roll Red Roll is about Steubenville, but it is also about the bad lessons we’re teaching here and now. It is impossible not to hear something of Michael Nodiamos in our current president’s giggling confessions of sexual assault; impossible not to see the shadows of Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond in Christine Blasey Ford’s recollection of being pinned to a bed at a party by two boys she thought she knew. Despite all the viral hashtags and anti-rape protests, the most important thing we teach our children about rape is that men can get away with it. The atrocities will keep happening, in every generation, until the lesson changes.
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