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).

MORE FROM “My Streets, Too”:


“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.”

BREAKING: Arrest made in December 2012 Uber rape case

In December, a Yahoo! Group for DC’s Cleveland Park neighborhood, posted a message detailing a rape allegedly committed by an Uber cabdriver a few days prior. According to the listerv post, a 20-year-old woman who used Uber, an “on-demand” cab service accessed via a smartphone app, was attacked, knocked unconscious and raped by her driver after receiving a ride to her home in Cleveland Park.

We wrote about the case in January, noting the strong need for violence prevention and safer travel options for women.

Today, Prince of Petworth announced that an arrest has been made in the case.  We at CASS send our hearts out to the survivor and wish her the best. We hope that Uber pays close attention to this tragedy to learn how others can be prevented.

Details below, along with a statement from Uber. 

Reposted from Prince of Petworth, 3/15/13:

Back in mid-December there was a report on the Cleveland Park listserv of an Uber driver who had allegedly sexually assaulted a woman on the 3200 block of 36th Street NW. An arrest in that case has now been made.

From MPD:

The Metropolitan Police Department has announced that an arrest has been made in the First Degree Sexual Abuse that occurred in the 3200 block of 36th Street, NW. 

On Saturday, December 8, 2012, at approximately 3:00 am, an adult female who had hired a cab service was sexually assaulted while in the 3200 block of 36th Street, NW. 

After an investigation by members of the Sexual Assault Unit, a warrant was issued for 35 year-old Anouar Habib Trabelsi of Alexandria, VA, charging him with First Degree Sexual Abuse.

On March 13, 2013, Mr. Trabelsi was arrested by members of the Capital Area Regional Fugitive Task Force.

Ed. Note: Representatives from Uber will be releasing a statement shortly at which point I will update here.

Statement from Rachel Holt, Washington, DC General Manager, Uber:

Immediately upon being told that a driver for Capitol Limo, a limo company utilizing Uber technology, was suspected of committing a crime, we deactivated the partner account. He has not done a single ride through Uber since then. We have worked closely with the police and prosecutors investigating this incident, and will continue to help them in any way possible. The safety of our users is absolutely paramount, and we will continue to be vigilant that riders’ safety and security are protected.


GREAT NEWS: Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) Gains Sponsorship to Reach Senate!

CASS is happy to report that the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) has achieved the 60 votes necessary to bypass a filibuster! VAWA is the 1994 law central to the nation’s efforts to fight domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. A floor vote is expected as early as next week.

Please share our photo if you’re *THIS HAPPY* to hear that policymakers are moving in the right direction in taking violence against women seriously!

Human Rights Watch (HRW) Report Faults DC Police on Sexual Assault Investigations

On Thursday, January 24, CASS staff attended a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, to mark the release of Human Rights Watch (HRW)’s report, “Capitol Offense: Police Mishandling of Sexual Assault Cases in the District of Columbia.” (See video below.) According to HRW, which is an international nonprofit that conducts research and advocacy on human rights, initiated research into Metropolitan Police Department’s (MPD) handling of sexual assault cases after observing the unusually low numbers of sexual assaults that the MPD reported to the FBI. HRW’s resulting report, which is based upon 150 interviews and over 250 internal investigative files for sex abuse cases between 2008-2011, contains heart-wrenching narratives of survivors who allege that MPD detectives discouraged them from reporting, posed victim-blaming or inappropriate questions, questioned their credibility, or told them that they were wasting the detective’s time. Since its release Thursday, the report has garnered considerable attention, and it has increased the momentum for demand for improvements in how MPD responds to cases of sexual assault.

HRW Report: DC Police Mishandle Sexual Assault Cases

An investigation of the Metropolitan Police Department’s (MPD) by Human Rights Watch (HRW) found that sexual assault cases are too often not properly documented or investigated and victims may face callous, traumatizing treatment.

At Thursday’s press conference, Sara Darehshori, senior counsel with the US Program at Human Rights Watch, reviewed findings from HRW’s two-year investigation. The investigation found that MPD failed to document a great number of sexual assault complaints, as there exist no incident reports for a substantial number of cases recorded by Washington Hospital Center. HRW also found that MPD regularly failed to write reports for cases when detectives did not believe victims, and often disregarded cases involving alcohol or drugs. MPD also often misclassified serious cases of sex abuse as a non-sex offense or a misdemeanor, minimizing the victim’s experience and also potentially denying the victim access to support services. What’s more, even in those cases in which MPD detectives did document sexual assault complaints, detectives often failed to conduct investigations.

Roger Canaff, former Special Victims Prosecutor and board member for End Violence Against Women International (EVAWI), said that HRW’s investigation reveals a “disturbing pattern of substandard response.” The consequences of a “substandard” response, or a response that is of a quality lower than that prescribed by law, are many, and impact not only the survivor, but also the community at large. Many survivors can be retraumatized by insensitive police interviewing, and their healing processes are hindered when they receive negative or non-empathetic responses. From a legal standpoint, a substandard response from law enforcement also poisons cases, as survivors who do not feel safe or relaxed during a police interview may not be able to recall important details. Lastly, inadequate police responses to sexual assault result in a continued danger to the community because not only are perpetrators not brought to justice, but a loss of community trust in law enforcement can have a devastating effect on crime reporting.

CASS echoes HRW’s recommendation that MPD move toward a more survivor-centered approach to sexual assault cases. However, we also feel strongly that MPD’s mishandling of sexual assault cases should be viewed as just one piece of the many problems with our community’s response to sexual assault. Beyond fostering more transparency and accountability in the DC police department, we need to increase collaboration amongst all the various institutions and individuals who respond to sexual assault survivors. We also need to work to eradicate a culture of tolerance and normalization of sexual assault, and work to create a community in which survivors feel safe and validated when they come forward and report – and thus are not afraid or hesitant to do so.

“No, because you never know when a woman is going to scream rape around here!”

Image by cadab via Flickr

A few months ago, I was returning from an errand at work when I realized I had left my key card to get back to my office as well as my cell phone on my desk. A short, heavyset man with white hair, glasses and a mustache walked into the lobby after his lunch (I guess) and I had recognized him from before. I told him I left my phone at my desk, so I asked him if I could use his cell phone to call my office so they could send someone down to get me. He said, “No, because you never know when a woman is going to scream rape around here,” and walked away!

I was reminded of this when my co-worker just had her second encounter with this man and both times he said the same thing. Ugh, it just skeeved me out. Not only is he an asshole, but he’s a sexual harasser. We reported him (without a name or knowing which office he works in) to the building manager and our bosses.


Submitted by AG

Location: 20th and K Sts., NW

Time of harassment:  Day Time (9:30A – 3:30P)

Do you have a personal experience with gender-based public sexual harassment or assault you would like to submit? Just click here and fill out the online submission form. All submissions are posted anonymously unless you specify.

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