The following article includes discussion of rape and sexual assault, and details from the Steubenville rape trial.
On Sunday, feminists, online hacker group Anonymous, sexual assault and rape victims and survivors, and the entire town of Steubenville, Ohio, collectively held their breath as a judge read the final verdict of a court case that could forever change how we perceive rape culture.
Two boys, aged 16 and 17, were found guilty of raping a 16-year-old female classmate at a party last August, and could serve sentences in juvenile detention facilities up to their 21st birthdays, and will register as sex offenders. A grand jury will convene this spring to potentially file additional charges. We finally have justice and someone – or someones – to blame for perpetuating sexual assault in the absence of the word “no.”
Or do we?
The more than a month long trial has fluctuated between something straight out of Law and Order: Special Victim’s Unit, and the worst nightmare of any woman, regardless of age. Briefly (the least apt word to describe the trail and events that led to it): An unnamed 16-year-old Steubenville High School student attended a party where she consumed enough alcohol that the following day she was unable to recollect the evening. For contextual purposes, the party was thrown as an end-of-summer blowout before another school year cheering on Big Red, the Steubenville High football team and its championship-winning athletes, which the town, where futures aren’t particularly bright, worships. Also worth noting, in a 2011 study, the Center for Disease Control found that in the past 30 days, 22% of high school students binge drank, calling underage drinking “a major public health problem.”
The fact that a student at a high school party got blackout drunk is not a rare occurrence. In all likelihood, neither is what happened next:
Fellow party attendees photographed, Tweeted, and recorded videos of the 16-year-old girl “in various states of undress,” being carried while seemingly unconscious, vomiting, and discussed her “sloppy” and “slutty” behavior with terms such as “so raped.” Retellings from those at the party included details such as two particular partygoers, who were also footballer players for Big Red, penetrating the girl vaginally with their fingers.
In non-courtroom/news jargon: A young woman was raped. She was not in a condition to give consent for sexual activity. Other people saw her being raped, and no one attempted to stop the perpetrators, perhaps because what they saw didn’t register in their minds as rape.
If you don’t feel sick to your stomach reading this, you should.
I’ll tell you why I do: I believe there is absolutely no reason for a person to force any nonconsensual sexual activity on another person. But I am not so naïve to recognize this isn’t the world we live in. Sadly, we live in a world where consent has to be constantly defined, and where 76% of high school boys and 56% of high school girls think forced sex is acceptable under some circumstances. Which, even more sadly, means that the world Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond live in hasn’t taught them that when presented with the opportunity to have any kind of sex with an unconscious girl, it will never be acceptable under any circumstance to do so.
Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond are the 17 and 16-year-old boys, respectively, who “had such promising futures, star football players, very good students [who] literally watched as they believed their life fell apart,” as CNN’s Poppy Harlow said during Sunday’s newscast.
Hold on a second: Two boys raped a classmate, of whom pictures and videos of her blacked-out drunk, partially naked body were posted on almost every social networking platform, and all three had to participate in a trial where those damaging images and violations were recounted in detail, then reported on for the entire world to follow. Would you like to rephrase whose life was ruined?
Even Judge Thomas Lipps, who handed down the verdict, focused his final comments on alcohol overconsumption “as a particular danger to our teenage youth,” and “how you record things on social media that are so prevalent today.”
It is so easy to place blame on the tangible elements that surround the Steubenville rape trial: The two football players who felt invincible in a town that lauds their athletic talents and shuts down threats to their beloved sport; the easily obtained and easily consumed alcohol that illegally finds its way into the red Solo cups of children who don’t understand their limits or the ramifications of overconsumption; the smartphones and social networks that document our lives, even the moments we’d rather forget, and remain forever on the Internet.
It is so easy to feel vindicated through visible evidence of “solving” these problems: Mays and Richmond could be in jail until the reach the legal age to consume the same alcohol that was abundant at that disgusting party. Hacker group Anonymous spread the photos and videos of the 16-year-old girl to draw media attention to the rape report that could have very well been swept under the rug.
Who we don’t see is 16-year-old Jane Doe, whose attorney Bob Fitzsimmons says, ”just wants to get back with her normal life.” The problem is, Jane Doe doesn’t get to return to any kind of normal life. No one who is raped or sexually assaulted does.
What we can’t see is the mindset that because a girl with vomit stains on her shirt and called “dead” by those who saw her in that state didn’t say “no” when two boys shoved their fingers into her vagina, those boys were in the right. Though we can see the threats being made to Jane Doe’s life via social media from Big Red fans, or the blame being placed on Jane Doe for being an “alcoholic whore,” and worse.
The abundance of media coverage and editorial responses the Steubenville rape trial has amassed proves that there are people who understand that the rape culture that permeates our society is a very real threat to the safety of women and men. These people want to do something to change the way we view sex and consent. But that motivation can’t end with the football careers of two high school boys. Passing the blame between the rapists, the news anchors, the alcohol, the Instagrammed and Tweeted photos, and everything but the invisible war we’re fighting against ideas, not individual people or events, doesn’t change how rape culture is leading to the horror of rape of unconscious 16-year-olds.
The verdict is in, but we’re not even close to closing the case. Now’s the time to focus our anger on dismantling rape culture altogether. Use the case as a conversation starter for explaining what rape culture is to your friends and family. Be brave enough to call bullshit on excuses for enabling rape culture (“It’s just a joke!” “It’s not that big a deal.” “Oh, everyone says that!”) Add your voice to the public dialog through writing to your local government representatives encouraging them to create and support legislation that protects victims and survivors of sexual assault.
Don’t stand by and watch like the high school students at that party, or the Steubenville residents who stood by their football team instead of the victims of rape culture. I won’t consent to rape culture, and neither should you.
Written by Lauren Slavin