It doesn't take much to conjure up memories of Natalee Holloway and Joran van der Sloot as we contemplate the fate of Robyn Gardner at the hands of Gary Giordano in Aruba. Although the facts are still being collected in Gardner's case, it's worth revisiting these cases and taking away some life lessons.
Joran van der Sloot is a killer, having confessed in Peru to the murder of 21-year-old Stephany Flores Ramirez. It is likely that he is responsible for the death of Natalee Holloway, who disappeared at the age of 18 during a high school graduation trip to Aruba.
Nothing justifies the death of either girl, although van der Sloot did attempt to cast Stehany's death as accidental -- the result of an argument they had when he caught her researching him on his computer without his permission.
When we hear these horrific tales, our hearts break. We shake our heads from side to side in disbelief and sorrow and thank G-d it wasn't our daughter. We swear we'll never send our daughters to exotic vacation resorts or any place else on Earth. We clench our teeth and raise our fists in the name of justice while champing at the bit for the killer to be caught and aptly punished. These are natural and common reactions.
But does anyone ever discuss why these young women put themselves in such precarious and vulnerable places and times, with young men they barely know? And let me clarify right off the bat I am not in any way suggesting that these girls asked for it or got what they deserved. Not even remotely.
While Robyn Gardner was a grown woman, one has to wonder, "What was she thinking taking off to Aruba with a man she barely knew?"
We have to stop kidding ourselves: the behavior each one of these women engaged in is risky and we have to start telling our daughters that when they are on their own, they cannot put themselves in such high-risk situations, and not just because of the sexual risks. Literally, this behavior can kill.
Young women find themselves in these life-threatening situations simply because they exercise bad judgment. This poor judgment stems from years of misguided sexual messaging and education.
In today's world, the messaging to our children is that anything goes -- what they wear, how they act, what they need to do to fulfill their sexual needs. They can wear and say almost anything they want in school today. They are supposed to fulfill sexual needs on demand. Sex begins at increasingly younger ages and results in greater STD risks than ever before. Because having sex at a young age is so commonplace and sex itself is no longer considered as private as it should be, one university had to require students to sign contracts stating they will not have sex in front of their roommates. We have so failed our children that we actually have to tell them that! Are any warning bells going off here?
Our sexual indoctrination starts young and teachers are prohibited from imparting to their students any values or behavioral expectations regarding sex. Few parents realize that these components to sex ed have been eliminated from the curriculum and, thinking the school is taking care of it, neglect to provide those values or behavioral expectations at home. In the end, children are being taught only the mechanics of sex and are left with the impression that this is what is expected of them -- and at a young age.
Parents need to take the time and explain to their children that someday they will probably be under pressure to have sex, but (1) sex at a young age is not healthy, (2) sex with multiple partners is not healthy, (3) sex with someone you don't know involves high risk, (4) sex with someone you don't know when you are drunk or high is off the charts in terms of risk, and (5) every time you get drunk or high you put yourself in a vulnerable sexual position and forfeit any ability to make good judgments or exercise control.
The classic retort to this is that they are going to do it anyway. Wrong. Some will do it anyway. Most are dying for these boundaries, crave the advice, want to know their parents care (even if they act contrary), need the tools to make good choices and exercise control, and are generally reluctant to engage in such risky behavior.
Most of us do not want our kids to drink in college, but how many of us actually tell them never, ever let someone else get you a drink -- either drink from a can or bottle you open, or bring your own drink. Booze is spiked all the time and the date-rape drug is still in use. It's good advice and kids will take it, if you offer it to them.
Same with sex: don't go off with someone you barely know, all alone, to the beach or a hotel or dorm room. If you don't know the person well, he could hurt or even kill you.
As experienced as young adults think they are, if you tell them this it will lodge in their memory banks so that when confronted with certain choices, the ammo to make good decisions will be available. A few minutes of your time, and maybe some eye-rolling, could save a life.
As a society we have made some colossal errors. We put too much decision-making pressure on our kids at a young age, by putting them in situations that are rife with choices and freedoms, mistakenly thinking they are mature enough, worldly enough, and informed enough to choose the right paths. They aren't. We put them in situations where they travel alone, staying at hotels or hostels where the expectations are drinking, partying, and hooking up. Since we facilitate these arrangements, in their minds, we approve.
We send them to colleges with co-ed bathrooms and absolutely no supervision -- where sex is so commonplace, they don't even realize it is supposed to be private. Some colleges like UC Santa Barbara have student ghettos like Isla Vista where unsupervised young adults live on their own, drink, do drugs, and couple as they will. It's like a scene from Lord of the Flies -- only the college edition. Sure, it's a big party, and all fun and games until someone gets hurt, develops an addiction, fails out of school, or gets an STD.
What is lacking in this entire equation is the notion of self-control, that what distinguishes us from the animals is our ability to reason and exercise restraint. Learning how to control one's urges is part of becoming an adult. We need to remind our children of that.
Back in the '50s, colleges had dorm mothers who lived in the dorm and saw to it that no boys came in after a certain time. Boys were not allowed in a girl's dorm room. These were rules of behavior that protected young women and men. Yes, some young men and women found ways to circumvent the system, but most welcomed it.
Parents also laid out expectations -- most young women knew not to invite a young man to their room/apartment, would never attend a man's apartment alone, wander the streets alone at night, or take off with a virtual stranger. And most young men wouldn't extend such invitations. I'm not saying these things didn't happen. They did, but they were infrequent. Today, this kind of behavior is not only expected, but it is the norm.
Knowing what your parents expected of you as a young woman, while not foolproof, did result in a society where the number of rapes, sexual assaults, out-of-wedlock pregnancies, abortions, and STD transmissions was much lower than it is today.
There are some things parents can do. Insist that this wanton and reckless way of life on college campuses be stopped; insist that young men and women live in separate buildings; do not allow them to share bathrooms or floors or suites; insist on curfews for guests; demand that schools do something about the drinking and drugs on campus. If resident advisors won't enforce the rules, then maybe we should go back to the concept of dorm mothers.
Parents, tell your daughters that when they go to a bar or party and drink, at home or on vacation, they are more vulnerable not just to having sex, but to being abused, getting hurt, and even being killed. If a guy wants to get together, meet him in a public place at a reasonable time. Don't go into his room or apartment, even if you want to. Wait until you really know someone before you do that.
And just because you are a grown woman doesn't mean you are immune from the risks and can take off to an exotic paradise with a man you barely know.
This is all about self-control, self-respect, and taking control of your own safety.
Not Natalee or Stephany or Robyn had to die at the hands of a monster. Feminists talk about empowering young women by focusing mainly on sexual expression and liberation, but do they ever talk about empowerment through self-restraint? A little restraint goes a long way towards empowering women and is much more effective than a condom or pepper spray.