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Steubenville: We're Sick and Tired of Rape Being Treated Like an Unavoidable Joke

This isn't "just" about alcohol or teens or dashed football aspirations. It has much broader implications about consent and what we are failing to teach children.
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From left, Defense attorney Adam Nemann, his client, defendant Trent Mays, 17, defendant 16-year-old Ma'lik Richmond and his attorney, Walter Madison, listen to testimony during Mays and Richmond's trial on rape charges in juvenile court on Thursday, March 14, 2013 in Steubenville, Ohio. Mays and Richmond are accused of raping a 16-year-old West Virginia girl in August of 2012. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, Pool)
From left, Defense attorney Adam Nemann, his client, defendant Trent Mays, 17, defendant 16-year-old Ma'lik Richmond and his attorney, Walter Madison, listen to testimony during Mays and Richmond's trial on rape charges in juvenile court on Thursday, March 14, 2013 in Steubenville, Ohio. Mays and Richmond are accused of raping a 16-year-old West Virginia girl in August of 2012. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, Pool)

A reasonable person might think that certain cases of rape would be clear cut and that it would be all but impossible to blame the victim of a crime, especially one with witnesses, photographs and other documentary evidence, for her own assault. But, we don't live in a world where a reasonable person can think that at all. Instead we live in a world where people are surprised because of widespread outrage over cases like the one in Steubenville.

Yesterday, in our fatiguing chronicling of rape, the Steubenville rape trial began. ABC reported that two boys "took liberties" (such an interesting turn of phrase if you think about it) with a drunk girl and now face rape charges. Attorneys for the defendants, two star football players (as everyone is intent on reminding us), argued that the boys did not rape a drunk 16-year old girl, whom they performed sexual acts on, because she "didn't say no." The lawyers are asking the court to believe that there was no nonconsensual contact during a long night in which these boys (just like these boys) put their fingers into the girl's vagina, attempted to have her perform oral sex (she couldn't hold her mouth open), allegedly urinated on her and were photographed dragging her around by her hands and feet. As one of the boys was quoted saying in a tonally rape-friendly media piece, "It just felt like she was coming on to me." Which, of course, is clear license to treat a living girl like an inflatable silicon sex doll.

If traditional coverage and similar cases in the recent past are any indication, what will inevitably evolve in the next few weeks is a media narrative about these boys, their football aspirations, their dashed hopes, and their basic all-American Boy Goodness. The flip side of that narrative is that a drunk, possibly lying, definitely regretful, stupid, slutty, selfish and careless girl ruined their hopes for the future. She'll be yet another "spider who lured them" and "ruined their lives." Here is where we indulge in the national sport of victim-blaming in high-def digital. The kind that allows us to blame one person for her own assault and avoid the rigorous self-reflection necessary to understand the system that produces kids who think its okay to humiliate and violate a limp and incapacitated girl for kicks. Why aren't we talking about why the 40+ teenagers involved that night didn't step in and stop what was happening?

I am hoping this case will be different and that we've reached a tipping point, but early signs aren't particularly heartening.

This isn't "just" about alcohol or teens or dashed football aspirations. It has much broader implications about consent and what we are failing to teach children. Alcohol and drugs don't turn people, primarily girls and women, into rape victims. Rapists do. And while we'd like to think these things can't be avoided and are accidental, they can be avoided and are, in fact, rarely accidental at all. These two boys may not have set out to deliberately drug the girl in question, or get her intoxicated for their purposes, but they took deliberate and aggressive advantage of the fact that she was drunk to the point of obvious and witnessed incoherence. This is done regularly with malice. Systemic tolerance for rape means they have traditionally gotten away with these crimes.

I'm pretending that I will successfully make this a shorter post than usual, so I am sparing you the data-bingey itemization here. However, at the end of this post is a list of 50 similar cases where men, (not the sole perpetrators, but the overwhelming majority) humiliated, raped and otherwise sexually assaulted people (including other men) who were drunk, drugged, asleep, anesthetized, comatose or otherwise incapable of giving their affirmative consent or saying "no." The perpetrators of these crimes include students, doctors, lawyers, police officers, dentists, cab drivers, homeless men, sales men, and other everyday rapists. In other words, rapists who don't think they're rapists. This list provides some specific context, as opposed to the larger context of all rape, in which to think about Steubenville. Victims' ages span decades. Where they were raped runs the gamut. They didn't wake up and go out on the day of their assaults thinking that their default condition was consent to sexual activity by virtue of existence. Even if female. This list and others like it explain why this incident exploded as it did in social media.

Aside from the question of why anyone wants to engage in sexual activity with an unresponsive person, how would people think differently about this case and similar ones if two boys had "taken liberties" with a 55-year old nun described by witnesses as "not moving," "limp," "incapable of coherent speech," "carried by her hands and feet," "so raped," and "dead"? Which brings us to this: What is it about a girl, experimenting with alcohol the way her male peers do, that makes such a stunning difference to so many people asking in confusion, as in the case in Ohio, "What is there to try?" Honestly?

Shame-based double standards make people think that girls who drink themselves blotto deserve what they "get" and patriarchy demands that we think of boys as unable to control themselves. Can you imagine boys and men living with double standards that police everything they wear and do in a way that they are made to understand that they should "expect" someone to use their bodies in any way they please if they are "impaired" in some way? That the likelihood of this happening is ridiculously high? What would happen if we restricted men's freedoms the way we casually and routinely do women's? In other words, if we "took" men's "liberties"? Or if they even had a clear understanding of how rape imperils their liberty. As in... it is a punishable crime. Instead, we're intent on telling girls to be afraid -- of being raped or seeking justice if they are. Seeking justice for the victims of rape should not be portrayed as some kind of unfortunate inconvenience for their rapists.

The list took me less than 10 minutes to compile and barely skims the surface. All of these are examples of people using power in predatory ways to assault other people when they are incapacitated. Whether they understand their actions in this way is irrelevant and their inability to understand why their actions are repugnant, dehumanizing and ethically wrong is the result of rapey norms and a failure of education and culture. Contrary to popular mythology about "accidents," these are crimes of control -- not a lack of control. The people who do these things refuse to acknowledge the basic humanity of the people they assault -- the right to not be an object for someone else's use. They deny the central, civilizing principles of consent and the role it plays in the law and more broadly in culture. The communities that produce them similarly fail.

In relation to Steubenville and similar situations, fully 28 percent of women and 3 percent of men experience sexual assault on college campuses. We send people off to school with close to zero information regarding sexual assault, rape, consent and the law. Then add alcohol and stir. The result? Between ½ and ¾ of cases of campus rapes, similarly to the Steubenville case and countless others, involve alcohol and "impaired functioning." As Tara Murtha recently put it, "The preferred weapon of choice in a typical campus rape is confusion." Only 5 percent will report these experience because they fear shaming and encountering well documented and widespread institutional tolerance for the crime of rape. This is significantly less than the 46 percent reporting rate in the general population. But, even then, 97 percent of those who rape walk free. We're sick and tired of rape being treated like an unimportant joke and being told in thousands of ways that the victims of rape should pay for the crimes of their rapists.

While teaching people about consent isn't going to change the behavior of predatory serial rapists, it will cultivate a culture that encourages effective bystander intervention and teaches both women and men how to reduce risk. What we have now and by default are subtle and overt messages that teach children, like the two Steubenville boys and the kids who watched them, to treat other human beings -- disproportionately female ones -- as dehumanized prey instead of as a people for whom they should feel compassion. Why is this taboo? We are failing left and right.

In the meantime, kids in Steubenville will pay a high price. The thing is, the boys probably are basically "good." Although I think they are clearly at fault for violating this girl's body and human rights, I do not think it's their fault that they were born into a culture where "nice guys" rape all the time and get away with it. We could avoid an awful lot of hardship and wasted lives if we disregarded the repugnant antics of those who are aggressively opposed to a fairer distribution of rights and confronted these issues head on.

As I recently said when participating in a Women Under Siege forum on victim-blaming, explaining context and shifting the focus from individual people to the systems that produce them isn't a mentality of victimization, it's a critique of the deeply entrenched, destructive attitudes at the heart of violence and oppression, and the first steps toward dismantling them. That is a matter of personal responsibility.

50 Cases of Context

  1. US: Man suspected of sexual assault of unconscious woman in Oxnard
  2. US: NJ man sexually assaulted unconscious woman
  3. US: Man claims sexual assault while passed out and handcuffed
  4. US: Ex US Marshal Assaulted Woman While Unconscious
  5. US: Man arrested for assaulting unconscious woman
  6. UK: Four footballers filmed sexual assault while teen was unconscious, court hears
  7. US: Man Assaults Unconscious Woman
  8. US: Man accused of assaulting unconscious woman while broadcasting it live on Internet
  9. US: San Francisco Man Arrested For Drugging Young Couple, Assaulting Woman
  10. UK: Police search for unconscious 'Brit teen' filmed being sexually assaulted while on Corfu holiday
  11. US: Woman sexually assaulted while jogging in Lewisville park, police say
  12. US: Doctor sexually assaulted unconscious patients, police say
  13. US: Voiding of rape conviction involving sleeping woman called 'bizarre'
  14. UK: Raped while sleeping, on and off for two years
  15. Canada: Toronto doctor sexually abused patients during surgery, judge told
  16. Italy: Italian Doctor Sexually Abuses Female Patient On Hidden Camera, Assaults Reporter When Confronted
  17. US: UC Berkeley doctor charged with sexually assaulting patients for more than 20 years
  18. US: Former Cobb County nurse sentenced to life in prison for sexually assaulting sedated patients
  19. India: Juvenile raped 'Amanat' twice, once while she was unconscious: police sources
  20. Canada: Man Who Raped Unconscious Beating Victim Jailed
  21. US: Man guilty of sexually assaulting drunk unconscious Montco teen
  22. UK: Man raped his dying stepdaughter
  23. US: Quakertown man who raped unconscious woman at party gets state prison
  24. US: Man pleads not guilty to sexually assaulting unconscious teen in canyon
  25. US: 3 Men Knocked Woman Unconscious, Raped Her & Videotaped The Assault
  26. US: California Court Declares That It's Not Rape If The Unconscious Women You Trick Into Sleeping With You Isn't Married
  27. US: Athletic club weekend turns into nightmare for college freshman
  28. US: Lodi man accused of sexually assaulting woman who was asleep or unconscious
  29. US: Rochdale man who raped woman while she was unconscious in house
  30. UK: Judge condemns pair who drugged and raped vulnerable underage girls before moving on to 'fresh meat'
  31. India: Girl drugged, gangraped, filmed, thrown out of moving car in Bhatinda
  32. UK: Girl was 'sold' aged 11, drugged and raped by child sex ring, court told
  33. South Africa: Teacher fired after drugging, raping pupil
  34. US: Man Filmed Himself Raping Women Under Anesthesia at Dental Offices
  35. South Africa: Fury at inaction over school gang-rape (school worried about upsetting the boys during exams)
  36. India: Tourist 'drugged and raped'
  37. Dubai: British woman 'kidnapped and gang-raped in Dubai'... and then SHE is prosecuted for drinking alcohol
  38. India: 'Low Caste' Teenage Girl Kidnapped, Drugged and Raped in Manipur, India
  39. Zimbabwe: Woman drugged and raped by doctor during surgery
  40. South Africa: South African shock as alleged drugged gang-rape victim charged with statutory rape in her own case
  41. India: Minor girl abducted, raped; 2 arrested
  42. Zambia: Girl -17 Drugged, Raped
  43. International Waters: Cruise Ship Rape: A Noa Man's Land On The High Seas?
  44. UK: Businessman 'drugged and raped girl at Mayfair home', court hears
  45. UK: The horrific secrets of Levi Bellfield: Milly's killer drugged and raped girls in school uniform in council flat dubbed the 'raping room'
  46. US: Woman kidnapped, drugged then raped
  47. India: 40-year-old woman drugged, gang-raped in Delhi
  48. US: High school sports star caught on camera LAUGHING as football team players 'raped and urinated on girl, 16, during house party
  49. UK: Four footballers sexually assault 19 year old in deliberately humiliating way while she sleeps
  50. US: Dentist sexually assaulted patients as they drifted in and out of consciousness