What Steubenville Tells Us About Rape Culture

By Meredith Whitfield

Here’s the thing about rape culture. It’s scary.

It reminds us that sexual assault necessarily involves the dehumanization of victims, and it reminds us how callous the world can be to those who need help. Rape culture’s MO keeps its players largely silent, so it hasn’t overtly reminded us of its unreasonable expectations about about how women should handle our bodies. In advancing the state of the ongoing dialogue about sexual assault and explaining the problem of rape culture to those who might not understand what it’s like to be a victim, the mainstream media reaction to the Steubenville case has served to reassure us that, hey, rape culture is still scary.

If you haven’t been glued to the internet, here’s the Cliff’s notes version of what’s been going on. Two high school football players, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, raped a female classmate in Steubenville, OH, last summer. They photographed and videotaped the incident and posted the photos online, and they were tried in juvenile court in March. The trial involved the introduction into evidence of the horrifying and exploitative internet posts, which were shared online by the victim’s classmates. She testified about waking up in a basement, confused and disoriented, and learning what had happened to her through this series of photos.

The verdict came down on March 17, 2013, stating that each defendant will serve a year for the rape itself, and Mays will serve an additional year for “illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material.” In the media, the rapists were painted as victims, bright-eyed football players with their whole lives ahead of them, futures crushed by this unfortunate circumstance. Candy Crowley of CNN offered this particular commentary: “…Regardless of what big football players they are, the other one just seventeen, a sixteen year old victim, they still sound like sixteen-year-olds… The thing is, what’s the lasting effect, though, on two young men being found guilty in juvenile court of rape, essentially?”

CNN and other major media outlets have come under fire for their twisted treatment of the story, which heroized the rapists, engaged in rampant victim-blaming, and, in the case of FOX News, even outed the victim’s identity. Bloggers and online sources have dissected the problem ad nauseam, through the lenses of rape apology, of intersectional phenomena, from the athetic-hero angle, and, my favorite, Henry Rollins’s lengthy rumination on the contributing forces of female objectification.

This is where the idea of rape culture transcends the specifics of an exploitative situation: the media. Not everybody knows what it’s like to be a victim, to know a victim, or to watch someone be victimized, and we, societally, rely on media coverage to form opinions and appropriate postures about events. This creates the situational analogue that includes rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. I swap stories with my gay friends and female friends about the first time we told the straight dudes in our lives what it’s like to walk down the street alone. Most of them reacted the same way: disbelief.

The way our society works ensures that some people have no firsthand knowledge of stares or comments or touches. No understanding of the subtle intimidation of being outnumbered, of sizing up the people passing you on the street, just in case. No familiarity with an unsupportive community of hemline watchdogs and conspiracy theorists.

Steubenville has a lot to teach us, and the competing cacophony of would-be lessons and persistent rape apologists makes the takeaway hard to digest. And that’s very fair. A balanced understanding of how Steubenville affects rape culture in the US requires an appropriate placement of the incident in a feminist framework. It raises issues of anger and revenge, of the lack of media coverage of LGBT sexual assaults, of the interplay of class and race. The issue is complex, and it deserves a complex and thoughtful call to action.

Here’s what I think the Big Takeaway Question from Steubenville needs to be: “How do we keep this, and stuff like it, from happening again?”

It requires institutional change and allies, it requires an unwavering concerted effort to change the mantra “don’t get raped’ to “don’t rape.” It requires the uncomfortable courage of talking back. It requires respect and patience and education. It requires every sixteen-year-old kid to know what consent is, to know what abuse is, to know what boundaries are, and to understand that certain actions dehumanize. It requires a strong counterculture led by strong advocates who understand the crucial nature of subtle defiance. Healing this disease requires creating a culture of empathy, which can only be achieved by treating people like…. people.

At the time I’m writing this, the AP broke a story out of Torrington, Connecticut about two 18-year-old male football players sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl.

There’s work to do.

Meredith Whitfield is a fairly new transplant to DC from Tennessee. She works for the Department of Justice and shares passions for feminism, knitting and ethiopian food (okay, maybe feminism wins).

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“My Streets, Too” is CASS’s ongoing series on personal writings on street harassment by members of the DC community. Email Renee to submit writings using your full name, initials, or anonymously (just let us know). Please be sure to use the subject line “My Streets, Too.”