The Steubenville Verdict and Ending Rape Culture

Warning: The content below contains information on sexual assault and may be upsetting or a trigger to some people. Please read on with careful consideration and sensitivity. The views expressed in this op-ed do not necessarily reflect those of the “!” Student Newspaper.

In all honesty, I am surprised that the Steubenville rape trial, where two small town high-school football players were convicted for not only sexually assaulting a young girl at a party, but for video-taping it, is still provoking so many heated debates about rape culture and victim-blaming. I was hopeful that after the media was flooded with “legitimate rape” stories thanks to Todd Akin during the 2012 election, people finally understood a very basic concept: rape is rape. That means that no matter who did it, celebrity or football player, who they did it too, drunk girl or valedictorian, or how they committed it, rape is a heinous act and the offender should be put to trial and sentenced accordingly.

Steubenville, Ohio

Steubenville, Ohio

Yet here we are again. The trial ended on March 17th when the two boys, 17-year-old Trent Mays and 16-year-old Ma’lik Richmond, were convicted of rape. They will serve a minimum of one year at a juvenile correctional center and will be required to register as sex offenders. Trent Mays was sentenced an additional year for the pornographic pictures he posted of the victim, only known as “Jane Doe” to protect the young woman’s identity.  Let’s review the basic facts. A 16-year-old female was raped and then constantly reminded of the horrors through videos and pictures of her circulating around social networks. There were other students cracking jokes about the rape and even boasting about it. The assault was the main event of the party and no one stood up to say, “Hey, this is wrong.” And that’s exactly what it is: wrong. What these boys did was simply inexcusable. Rape is immoral just like murder or theft is and needs to be dealt with and addressed as such. However, it is only a small victory that they were convicted—we would be facing a very different problem if they had been found innocent. There are two main issues that can’t simply be fixed by the rapists being convicted. One is that the tragedy was ever allowed to happen and two, that media and our society has handled it in a way that only continues to support rape culture.

Rape culture, a term used to describe a culture where sexism is prevalent and thus fosters sexual assault and tragedies such as these, surrounds the Steubenville case.  From the jokes made on social networks to the football coaches and other students who attempted to conceal the crime, society has not responded in a way that will prevent something like this from reoccurring.

Even with the unspeakable images of the girl being carried by her feet and arms and screenshots of the horrendous tweets showing little regard or concern for the victim, one of the most disturbing aspects of the case is how media is making up excuses for Mays and Richmond. Networks such as CNN, ABC, and NBC have presented the two boys as exceptional students and athletes who simply made a small mistake that will now ruin the rest of their lives.  The Associated Press and USA Today have stressed that the victim was inebriated, suggesting that it was her fault for not being able to defend herself. Networks have also focused on how the town has been torn apart by the trial rather than the fact two of their star football players committed such a horrible crime and others tried to cover it up.

Jane Doe had to stand in a courtroom and defend herself against claims that she was just immodestly dressed and therefore “asking for it,” and prove that even though she was drunk, alcohol is not an excuse to rape someone. If she had been sleeping, would it have made her being raped somehow less excusable? This is a classic case of “victim-blaming”: rather than holding the rapist or rapists accountable for what they did, society tells the victim it was his or her fault for being drunk, alone, or wearing too short of a skirt. This sort of victim-blaming fundamentally suggests one of two things: that men as a gender are either so blinded by their sexual urges and hormones that they have no self-control and that “boys will be boys,” or that some quality a woman has can make her deserving of rape. In a sense, victim-blaming is both misogynic and misandric.

I would like to add a bit of a disclaimer before we continue any further in such a sensitive discussion. I understand that anyone can be raped, regardless of their gender. This is a very important fact because it is often overlooked when discussing sexual assault. Both males and females of any age or type can be victims; however, the fact is that the majority of victims are women and the majority of perpetrators are men.  This being said, the majority of men will never sexually assault someone. Likewise, the majority of people will also never murder someone. But it is not plausible to simply try to pinpoint which men are likely to be murders or rapists and talk to them about it, because this is also discriminatory and would give way to even more issues. So instead, society chooses to avoid the subject entirely. I would like to propose a different solution.

Andrea Gibson has a moving poem on rape. While every word and line is full to the brim with passion and emotion, a few lines stand out amongst the rest because of how they pertain to rape culture:

Already she can hear the broken-record of the defense:

‘Answer the question, answer the question, answer the question miss’

Why am I on trial for this?

Would you talk to your mother, your daughter, your sister like this?

…She’s not asking

What you’re gonna tell your daughter, she’s asking what

You’re gonna teach

Your son.

We talk to our sons and daughters about lying, stealing, cheating, killing, and the dangers of drugs and alcohol, so why aren’t parents, coaches, teachers, and counselors talking about sexual assault more openly since it is just as afflicting of a problem? When we do offer rape-prevention, it is often a long list of precautions geared towards teaching women how to not be raped. An example of this is the common saying,  “don’t walk alone at night”. Many argue that this is not a bad thing because the goal is to prevent rape, so why not give women the tools and armor they need to keep out of harm’s way? While rape happens frequently at alcohol-fueled parties, it also happens to women who are completely sober and modestly dressed. To suggest that the best way to prevent rape is to remain sober and dress modestly is utterly absurd, when date rape drugs exist and women are raped outside of these circumstances as well, including sexual assault that happens within relationships or families. We do not teach people how to not be killed because even when all precautions are taken, it is still possible to be murdered. Similarly, it is still possible to be raped when all precautions are taken. No matter how good intentions may be: teaching girls how to not be raped is feeding victim blaming and rape culture.

The goal should then be redefined as not just preventing rape, but encouraging a society that does not foster it and allows women of all sizes, races, and types to walk around safely without guarding themselves with this armor. Sexual assault is, indeed, an act of violence, but we don’t prevent violence by teaching people how to avoid being a victim of a violent crime. Instead, it is imperative to  create a society and culture that does not foster violence.  Teaching safety measures to avoid situations where rape may be more likely would be more effective if accompanied by implementing programs in high-schools similar to the ones already established on drugs and drinking and driving. In order to prevent sexual assault, we should target the root of the problem by raising our children with morals that are firmly against sexual assault. We already teach our kids to respect their elders and teachers, so why don’t we teach boys about respecting women? We already teach our kids about not engaging in violence and deception, so how would adding rape to this list of violent acts be any different? It is not a radical change, but it will cause a radical shift in a society that has always been sexist. We will begin to see men being held accountable for sexual assault, more women reporting the crimes committed against them, and a decrease in questions such as “Well, was she drinking? Was she alone?”

We can address the problem at the root by adding seminars and classes about rape geared at teaching men and women what consent is and what does not qualify as consent and what the consequences are from both the victim’s and offender’s side. For example, in the case of Steubenville, a girl is incapable of giving consent if she is passed out, even from an excess of alcohol. We must teach teens, both male and female, the power of “no” and that anything but “yes” is not consent and means “no”. This is not meant to scare or intimidate anyone, but rather encourage better understanding for the topic and its implications. If we talk about the consequences of rape as openly as we talk about not doing drugs and not drinking and driving we can put a stop to it.

Discussing the emotional damage rape causes and the impact it has on the victims’ lives will help prevent further sexual assault cases as well as allow victims to step up and not be afraid of reaching out for help. It will allow many unreported rapes to come to the surface, and once men see others being prosecuted for their actions the consequences will become clear and deter them.  Another important reason to talk more openly about rape is related to my earlier point that anyone, man or woman of any type, can be raped. Making this clear will allow victims to stop blaming themselves, wondering if they can even say they were really raped, or hiding their trauma and seek comfort and help. Addressing rape culture as a whole will break the cycle by creating a more supporting community where teens feel comfortable enough to discuss the issue with the counselors, parents, and even their peers.

Rape is not a women’s problem, but society’s problem. Discussing the emotional damage rape causes and the impact it has on the victims’ lives will lead to several benefits to the society as a whole. It will help prevent further sexual assault cases, allow victims to unashamedly reach out for help without blaming themselves, as well as encourage victims to report sexual crimes. Moreover, the zero-tolerance attitude will eventually discourage potential rapists from committing sexual crimes. The need to address rape culture as a whole will undoubtedly foster a more supportive community and allow teens to comfortably discuss the issue with counselors, parents, and even their peers.

Our society’s notion that rape will only stop when women dress in longer skirts, not walk alone at night, or learn self-defense is flawed. It is about teaching men to respect women’s boundaries and that it is never a victim’s fault. A woman should never have to worry if her skirt crosses the line from, or if her heels are too high to run away fast enough when she is walking home at night. When a society that has always enforced gender roles and stereotypes quits applying them to sexual assault, we will see real change. When the media stops portraying rapists as the football playing, straight-A high school student who simply made a mistake, we will see real change. When the society stops blaming females for being too immodestly dressed, too drunk, or in the wrong place, we will see real change. Most importantly, when we stop calling them football players and start calling them what they really are — rapists — we will see real change.

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You can read more about the trial and ways in which the media has portrayed the rapists as good kids who made a small mistake here:

http://thinkprogress.org/hInebriatedealth/2013/03/18/1732701/media-steubenville/

You can read more about efforts to take on rape culture and teach about rape in schools here:

http://www.upsettingrapeculture.com/workshop.html

http://www.generationfive.org/

http://safercampus.org/

http://www.ihollaback.org/

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Categories: Opinion