Can Steubenville Teach Us How to Prevent Rape?

5 years ago

By now you’ve probably heard about the rape of the young woman in Steubenville, Ohio, by some high-school football players. If not here are the horrific details: Last August, the 16-year-old girl was repeatedly raped at several parties and then literally carried from house to house as a “joke.” She also happened to be unconscious.

Several teens saw the assault, including some girls. (I will get to that disturbing fact later.) But instead of stopping the attack or calling their parents, or texting 911, or any other number of decent and brave things they could have done, they chose to do nothing.

On the contrary. They tacitly—perhaps even actively—encouraged the young woman’s assault by whipping out their cell phones and filming it and tweeting about it, as if it were a live sporting event. One photo emerged showing the young woman being carted around like a wounded animal, with a caption that said “sloppy.”

The New Yorker has some other telling examples:

And then there are the young men who were “just” on social media, doing the digital equivalent of hooting and hollering. In a twelve-minute video, dug up last week, a young man tells excruciating jokes about the assault he seems to believe is ongoing. He was impressed enough with his own wit to preserve it in tweets, which he sent out the same evening.

The young woman’s parents quickly went to the police, apparently with enough evidence on social media of their daughter’s assault to fill a rape page. Yet it took until December for anyone to be charged. The only ones who have are two 16-year-old boys. Both have pled not guilty.

But no one else is going to be punished. No one is going to have to make amends to the victim for cheering on the young men who repeatedly and publicly violated her. No one is going to have to do community service for the violent photos that they posted for everyone to see. (My preference would be that those who saw the assault or recorded it have to do an internship with a sexual assault counselor and then write a paper about rape.) And of course no one is going to be kicked off the football team. Football is scared in this small town, as it is in many towns across America, including another notorious rape case involving a football team in Missoula, Montana. Clearly, the sport is far more sacred than the safety of young women.

Credit Image: © Jack Kurtz/

It would be tempting to view Steubenville as an outlier, a case of out-of-control drunken teenagers going too far. But isn’t that the excuse we’ve been making for years? And how far has that kind of sexist, enabling attitude gotten us? Has it taught young men to understand what sexual violence is, and that when they are trying to have sex with a young woman against her will, that it’s wrong? Even if she’s drunk? Or that raping a young woman is actually not just repugnant and evil but a crime? What was going on in these football players’ heads, I wonder, and their male friends, as they sexually assaulted this 16-year-old girl? They knew her. What made them think it was OK? What made them think it was even funny on some level? Instead of what it was: violent and vicious and inhumane.

Again,The New Yorker:

Among those who have evaded charges is a young man who reportedly testified, under oath, that he was in his car with the unconscious victim and witnessed her assault there, as well as another assault at her house. Another young man reportedly testified that he photographed the assault in progress, saying that he intended to preserve it as proof of the acts but that he later deleted it.

As for the girls who witnessed the assault and didn’t intervene, that almost bothers me more. Were they too afraid to speak up? Were they afraid that if they tried to defend this young woman that the perpetrators would turn on them next? Were they possibly confused what they were seeing was a crime? Did these girls not value themselves enough that they didn’t value this girl either? Whatever the answer is, there is something terribly terribly wrong with our attitudes toward women and girls.

But what can we expect, when grown men like former GOP Senate candidate Todd Akin make such ignorant and callous remarks about rape? Just last week Georgia Congressman Phil Gingrey declared that Akin was “partly right” when he insisted that women won’t get pregnant if it’s a “legitimate rape.”

And this man is a former ob-gyn.

In mid-December, the New York Times ran a story about the prevalence of rape and sexual violence in the U.S. I knew it was bad, but the results shocked even me:

Nearly one in five women surveyed said they had been raped or had experienced an attempted rape at some point, and one in four reported having been beaten by an intimate partner. One in six women have been stalked, according to the report.
“That almost one in five women have been raped in their lifetime is very striking and, I think, will be surprising to a lot of people,” said Linda C. Degutis, director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which conducted the survey.

As a mom who has raised two teens, who has been through some terrifying incidents myself, I can’t begin to fathom how awful this has been for the young woman’s parents. And the courage it took for them to go to the police, knowing what they were up against, knowing the doubts and the legal nightmare they’d face. And the courage it took for their daughter to speak up and seek justice for what had been done to her. For this she, of course, has been slut-shamed. What was she doing at a party to begin with? The whole story made me sick, but if there’s anything redeeming it is this: they refused to be intimidated by Steubenville’s code of silence.

I have my own horror story. Last year my daughter called me one Saturday around midnight from college. She was sobbing. She had just finished talking to the campus police. She’d been at a concert that night at the student union. The concert was packed. She was dancing when suddenly she felt a guy’s hand up her skirt. At first she thought she must be imagining it; no guy would dare do that in front of hundreds of other students, would he? But she wasn’t imagining it, he was. She told him to stop and tried to shove his hand away. But he was strong and wouldn’t leave her alone. She tried to get away from him and find her friends. He followed her. She was yelling for help and crying now. Finally she lost him in the crowd. That’s when she went to the campus police.

As she was relaying this, I was sitting bolt upright in bed, clutching the covers, trying to contain my anger and fear. It was all I could do not to get on the next plane and go to her. But she did not want me to. Did I mention she is very brave?

I told her how sorry I was, and said a few choice words about the asshole who’d assaulted her. But mostly I listened.

I praised her for being strong, for going to the police. “I know how hard that must have been for you,“ I said. “But you did the right thing. You stood up for yourself. You also might prevent him from doing this to some other girl.”

To their credit, the police took down her story and didn’t give her any shit. That’s because her college has a particularly good sexual assault program. They also referred her to one of the health clinic’s counselors, and made sure she got home safely.

Although she made a police report, she couldn’t remember many details about her attacker. It was dark. He’d been wearing a baseball cap with a sports logo, jeans, he was tall, but his face had been obscured. So he was never caught. This is partly why sexual assault is hard to prosecute. Because perpetrators don’t look like “rapists,” and can be anywhere. Even a college concert.

As traumatic as the incident was, my daughter is glad she reported it. Rather than being ashamed, she feels that it empowered her. It breaks my heart what happened to her, that she had to experience such a horrific event. It still triggers in me a certain rage when I hear about another young woman being sexually assaulted. But this is the country we live in, where sexual violence is rampant, where girls have to wonder if boys at a party are going to rape them. Or whether the guy standing next to them at a concert is going to shove his hand up their skirt.

The question is, what are we going to do about it?

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