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A Lesson on Empathy: Why No One Tried to Help a Young Sex Assault Victim

by on March 25, 2013 7:00 AM

In a case that has rocked a small town and drawn the attention of the nation, the recent events in Steubenville Ohio are alarming on several levels. Our culture seems to be spinning downward and that spin is being documented on the internet, on our cell phones and through social media like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

An underage young woman attends a party or parties where there is alcohol. Over the course of the evening, she and others drink to excess. The girl is observed vomiting, stumbling and slurring her words. At some point in the evening, two members of the Steubenville high school football team take the inebriated girl with them to at least two different locations. At various points throughout the evening, these two young men engage in sexual activities with the young woman who is intoxicated to the point of being unable to either give consent or to fight off her attackers. Those attacks are witnessed by others and documented in both cell phone pictures and videos. The attacks are openly discussed in text messaging during and after. She regains consciousness the next morning, with no idea where she is, naked and without her clothing, jewelry or her cell phone. She has no memory of the events. Over the course of the next several days, the details of the assault are discussed, argued about, defended and allegedly shared with hundreds of other children and adults, including the young woman, her family and, through the internet, the rest of the world. The role of social media in this case, both as it was going on and as it made its way through the court system and through local and national media, is undeniable. It was alleged small town politics, a football culture and victim blaming were behind the delays in charging the perpetrators.

Last week, the two rapists were convicted and sentenced. The authorities are said to be exploring charges against several others in the case who did not report the assault, including possibly the football coach who is a state-mandated child abuse reporter.

Analysts and commentators have examined this case from just about every angle including the legal nuances, the influence of high school football in small towns and the disparity in how we assign “blame” to males and females in the instances of sexual assault, to name just a few.

For me, this case is about empathy. How could those who either participated in or witnessed these attacks and did nothing to help her demonstrate such a lack of empathy for another human being?

Empathy. Our ability to understand the feelings of others and then to put ourselves in their shoes.

Developing the capacity for empathy is a complicated process that involves genetics, our personality or temperament, how our individual brain fires as well as what we observed or learned in our environment. From babies crying when they hear other babies crying to toddlers kissing the boo-boos of their preschool friends, the process begins with first differentiating ourselves from “others” and then being able to label what others are feeling. Only after we have learned to identify the emotional responses and reactions of others are we able to respond effectively or emotionally to how others may be feeling. The physiological responses of those who feel empathy when they observe others in distress are very similar to the brain and chemical reactions when it’s happening to them. An individual’s ability or inability to develop empathy for others is a factor in disorders such as autism, where the individual may not be able to read the emotions of others and in the “psychopath” or the narcissist where the feelings of others do not matter.

While it is believed that our capacity for empathy remains stable over the course of our life, we have control over it and how we respond to it. In situations like parenting or for some professions (i.e. medicine, counseling), we have to be able to tone down our empathy to be able to teach our children life lessons and/or be effective with patients. At other times, we can be encouraged to be more empathetic -- for instance, when our friends or family ask us to join them in support of a charity or the plight of others in a natural disaster.

Empathy serves as the basis for what psycho-social researchers call pro-social behavior or behavior that we engage in to help or assist others.

How does a young man come to the place where he can have such a lack of empathy for another human being that he would not only sexually degrade her but take pictures and allow others to take pictures of it? Why didn’t the many other students who either witnessed the events or who saw the pictures do anything to help her?

The research on “doing the right thing” suggests that making the pro-soscial decision is more complicated than we think. We know that we are more likely to get involved if we perceive the person in need as being part of our in-group. Research has shown that men and women respond with empathy differently, perhaps because of our DNA but also because of what our culture tells us is okay. Our capacity for empathy involves variables such as our self-identity, our social competence and our perception of social inclusion. It involves coping skills. It involves cognitive processing skills and our individual value system. It involves our cost benefit analysis of the potential consequences of stepping in.

As parents, we start teaching empathy when our children are young. We teach our kids to be aware of the feelings of others. We read books, and describe feelings or emotions for our little ones, just like we teach colors and numbers and letters. At some point, we make the transition to “How do you think he or she feels?” We try to build a foundation of understanding and awareness of the feelings of others. We role model doing things for others and helping people who are in need.

The young men in Steubenville either didn’t get it, never learned it, or had their empathetic responses stifled by alcohol, peer pressure or an inflated sense of self, perhaps related to their elevated social status in a culture of “Friday Night Lights.” The witnesses may have stayed quiet because that status was viewed as too powerful or too threatening in that small town. Maybe the perceived cost of stepping up outweighed the benefit of helping. Perhaps they didn’t know the girl or didn’t view her as “one of us.” Maybe it was the limited decision making and problem solving ability of young adults. I might see the point when talking about teenagers but adults? In the end, it doesn’t matter. Someone could – and should have – done something.

The cultural influences of “me first” and absentee parenting, the routine dehumanization of others in video games, on TV and in popular media, and the accessibility and anonymity of technology are a powder keg in today’s got-to-have-it-now, immediate gratification society. In Steubenville Ohio, alcohol, social media and a disturbing lack of empathy provided the match.

Video: A lesson in empathy.



Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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