I originally wasn’t sure if I wanted to write about the Steubenville rape trial; I imagined that everything I want to say on the subject would be pretty obvious, and it’s not exactly a fun topic of conversation. But my wife pointed out that the people who need to hear most about the subject are the ones who are least likely to listen to the people currently talking about it. She specifically asked me to write about it, and I trust her judgment.
The first thing that stands out about this whole event is how bizarre the media reaction has been. For those of you unfamiliar with the trial, or the events leading up to it, a group of teenage football players at a party repeatedly raped a teenage girl who had passed out. (They may also have drugged her drink, which would suggest premeditation, but that was not proven.) They took photos and videos of themselves in the act, posted them to their Twitter and Facebook feeds, and shared photos and recordings of the act. They were confident at the time that their coach (who was something of a legend in the local sports scene) would be able to make the issue “go away”. Instead, two of them were charged with, and convicted of, rape. (There is currently a grand jury deciding whether further indictments need to be handed down, as well as possible civil suits that are yet to play out.)
Many people, particularly news reporters, have attempted to portray the two young men as remorseful. They point to the way that both broke down in tears at their sentencing, their apologies to the girl after sentence was passed, and to the consequences to their futures (both were tried as juveniles, and will be doing a remarkably modest amount of jail time given the severity of their crime. But they are now registered sex offenders, which will follow them for the rest of their lives.) The victim, and the effects of being raped on her life, have not come up much in the national conversation as conducted by the 24-hour news networks. (Except for the accidental reveal of her real name by Fox News.)
I can’t see any of the remorse that CNN saw in these boys. They didn’t break down in tears at what they’d done; they broke down in tears when it became obvious that they weren’t going to be able to get away scot-free with the horrific crime that they joked and bragged about. They aren’t foolish young boys who made a mistake; they are cruel, arrogant, callous, self-entitled brutes who assaulted a young woman and assumed that their connections within the community rendered them immune to the consequences of their actions. I don’t believe them to be irredeemable, but I think the first step in making them decent human beings is confronting them with the truth of their actions and their attitudes and not letting them justify themselves. This is not a time to give them sympathy. This is a time to hold their ugliness up to a mirror and let them see it.
The victim, on the other hand, deserves all our sympathy. Some of the worst elements of this case have involved the treatment of the victim, not just at the hands of the media but at the hands of the public. Much of the commentary on the Internet has revolved around what the victim “should” have done to avoid the rape–she “should” have avoided underage drinking, she “should” have dressed more modestly, she “should” have acted in a way that didn’t “incite the boys’ hormones”–all of which colossally misses the point. The point is that every human being has the right to an expectation that being vulnerable, whether due to circumstances or decisions, should not be taken as an excuse for predation. One blogger stated that the boys were “helpless” (his post has apparently been taken down) to avoid having sex with the victim when she was in that state, and that she should be ashamed of herself for putting temptation in their way. Rape is the only crime to invite this kind of spurious asshole logic. Nobody says to a stockbroker, “You got mugged? Well, you were walking through this neighborhood dressed all rich, and you even paid cash for your drinks at that bar! Frankly, someone as poor as your attacker had no choice but to steal your wallet.” Nobody insists that Richard Ramirez was the real victim, because those women should never have let themselves be alone with a man knowing that some of them are serial killers who are pathologically unable to avoid killing when they can get away with it.
This is rape culture, the idea that women are responsible for policing their sexuality because men are incapable of doing so. It’s dehumanizing, misogynistic and misanthropic; it demands an impossible standard of perfection from women, blaming them for the actions of others by suggesting that rapists only assault women who violate the unspoken rules of conduct that govern our society. Likewise, it infantilizes and dehumanizes men, suggesting that they’re incapable of acting with any kind of good judgment or ethical behavior and there’s no point in expecting it of them. It argues that men are nothing more than mindless animals, driven by their lusts, and it’s up to women to avoid anything that might be construed as “leading them on”. It’s a standard no woman can possibly meet, and it allows the worst of men to get away with their crimes secure in the belief that a silent crowd exonerates their every action.
It stops one person at a time. It is up to men everywhere to stand up and say, “Hey, guess what? I don’t think with my dick. If I can do it, you can do it. If you can’t do it, then maybe it’s not so much that ‘men are helpless against their hormones’ and more that you’re just an asshole.’” It’s up to all of us to say, “No, sorry. If your friend passed out drunk, then it’s your duty as a human being to keep her safe, get her medical attention if necessary, and get her home. ‘Not raping her’ is actually below the minimums of human decency, and ‘raping her’ is below even that.” It is up to all of us to find a better standard for the treatment of women, and hold each other to it.
That’s what I think about the Steubenville rape trial. Hopefully, it came across as really obvious to you. If you said, “Geez, does this really even need to be said, let alone talked about at this much length?” I’d be thrilled.