There is nothing unusual about the Steubenville rape

Trigger warning: this post discusses rape and rape apologism

And so the sad story of the Steubenville rape continues. The perpetrators were found guilty of raping an unconscious girl, as many others looked on and watched, finding this assault nothing more than an exciting topic for gossip. A community was torn apart as the perpetrators happened to be integral members to the football team, their important social standing meaning that many decided to twist reality and try to fervently believe–and make others believe–that this was somehow the fault of the survivor. And even after the guilty verdict, the rape apologism continued, pundits mourning the fallen careers of the perpetrators. And Steubenville, in a bid to make sure this never happens again, has decided to launch a probe into why it all came to pass.

Time will tell what is unearthed, what conclusions are drawn by these officials, what they learn from what happened in this community.

I’ll save them the time and expense of their investigation.

It was rape culture. All of it.

It is perhaps more horrifying to realise just how banal this whole affair was. That perhaps this exact combination of circumstances and individuals involved is unique, but all of these aspects happen regularly, devastatingly regularly. It is almost impossible to unpick how these aspects interacted with one another to cause what happened, so forgive me if what I say jumps back and forth. All of this is connected.

Rape happens a lot. An awful lot. We are socialised to believe that there are a lot of things which are acceptable. In the “no means no” model of consent, silence is take as a form of assent. This particular survivor was unconscious. She could not say no. And rape culture creates a perception of some survivors as more acceptable targets than others. That if one does not behave in a perfectly patriarchy-approved fashion, one is at least partially to blame for what happens. Drinking alcohol is one of those factors. That young woman became fair game through her behaviour. This was seen in the hurricane of rape apologism attempting to defend the perpetrators, but it also went some way to explaining why it happened to her in the first place.

This is not to say she was in any way responsible. She was not. In the minds of the perpetrators, and all those who stood by and filmed her violation with their phones, though, she was. They diffused their own responsibility and projected it onto the survivor.

Those bystanders, they are far from uncommon. It is perhaps unusual for them to document this in such a fashion, but people have stood by, idly observing violence since time immemorial. You have no doubt heard of Kitty Genovese.  I don’t doubt that the majority of people present that night thought that what was happening was all right, and, as person after person failed to challenge this assault, it rapidly became seen as normal. The social power of the perpetrators, and the close-knit status of some of the bystanders no doubt exacerbated this effect.

And the social power of the perpetrators meant that others who had not been there that night were more willing to excuse what they did. When powerful men rape, communities all too often close ranks around them, throwing the survivor to the wolves. There is a pervasive belief that being accused of rape is worse than being raped–a line of argument which its proponents like to pretend they are not promulgating by claiming that in this instance, they’re definitely not talking about a rape. It was imaginary, they say, and it ruins a man’s life.

To an extent, it does, though only in the unlikely event they are found guilty by a broken and corrupt system of justice. However, why shed tears for them, rather than opening up to sympathy for the survivor? It seems all too easy for too many people socialised within this culture of violence to instead sympathise with the perpetrators.

And yes, some are saying the sentences are too short, while others are saying the sentence is too long. Both of these arguments are rooted in a belief in retributive justice. It is my belief that this system cannot help address the cultural attitudes that make rape possible. Indeed, it may make it harder to address these: it reinforces the view that a rapist is some sort of aberrant monster rather than your friend, your boyfriend, your star quarterback, those people that you know and you respect, those people that you love. And this belief stays your hand in stopping them, and it sticks in your throat to admit that what happened was rape.

It was rape culture that made Steubenville happen, and it will be rape culture which will mean that this will happen again and again. Each time the exact combination of circumstances and individuals involved will be unique, but all of these aspects happen regularly, devastatingly regularly.

What we need to stop this is a radical shift in our thinking about everything. Steubenville was torn apart as a community by this rape, and Steubenville can heal itself, transform itself. Steubenville needs transformative justice. We all do.

We need to learn from this, examine what happened and think of new ways of organising, new ways of holding perpetrators accountable, new ways of supporting survivors and new ways of unlearning the cultural attitudes that allow rape to happen. We need change. Actual, real change at every single level.

It is a vast task we have ahead of us, but it is the only way to ensure that this banal culture of violence is demolished, once and for all.


13 responses to “There is nothing unusual about the Steubenville rape

  • bigdaddykeltik

    This is rape culture on steroids, football in America is BIG business, these guys were being groomed for life as athletes. Footballers are disconnected from reality, they’re taught that they’ll have money, admiration, all the women they can fuck & if they fuck up, the team will protect them. The information released by anonymous made it clear the coach encouraged this behaviour, the group of boys called themselves ‘the rape crew’ & would send pictures to this coach. The only reason this went to court was because of anonymous. One of the boys’ father is a local police officer! These boys came from a very privileged background. Their reaction shows this, “who’s going to want me now?”, they’re not sorry for what they did, they’re sorry their bright future is gone, that was made damned clear by their bragging afterwards, filming themselves laughing at how “dead” she was. It’s not easy for us to fully appreciate how much a small town in America invests in it’s high school football team, but I’m sure this was seen as an attack on the whole town, & not as those boys committing a heinous crime.

  • Margaret R

    Very well stated. Sadly, I live in a town where football is a major thing, so I’m well aware that, all too often, when this happens, the cry goes up about how these young men have had their lives ruined and boys will be boys. in fact, these young men ruined their own lives when they decided it was okay to get a girl drunk, rape her, and then tweet pictures of the whole thing to all their friends. Did they honestly think they wouldn’t get caught? They didn’t think, period.

    As for it ruining their futures-they’re juveniles, so they’ll be out of jail by the time they’re 19 or 20. More than enough time to find a college football team that will be more than glad to have them, I’m sure. I just hope the poor girl gets counseling that helps her understand that this wasn’t her fault, no matter what ‘they’ say.

  • sakollantai

    Reblogged this on sakollantai and commented:
    again, essential reading for all those who care passionately about understanding rape culture and why it must fought be anyone with a conscience. End of.

  • grampmk

    “It was rape culture. All of it.”

    I don’t disagree, but why doesn’t anyone every talk about the alcohol culture among young people? Alcohol is a mood changing drug. That is a scientific fact. Why aren’ t adults who furnish alcohol to minors prosecuted? Why aren’t minors who break the law prosecuted? Why in alcohol related incidents, alcohol use is excluded from the conversation?

    • CJ

      Without rape culture the consumption of alcohol would not be an acceptable excuse for rape; it would not be the chosen tool of a serial rapist because it would not be a reason for anyone to start talking about ‘grey’ anything because everyone, drunk or sober, would understand that raping people is wrong.

      Also, we already talk about alcohol a lot – survivors are always asked ‘were you drinking? how much? were you drunk? are you sure?’ Putting the question of alcohol where it belongs, in the discussion bin, puts the focus back where it should be. On not raping people.

      I know you weren’t suggesting this but part of the way rape culture operates is that we will bend over backwards to do anything, ANYTHING but name rape and it causes for what they are. Alcohol is not the problem – rape is.

  • JLO@WVoN (@JLOsm)

    Alcohol is a mood altering drug that is true. BUT it enhances what is already there. A friend in her 50s was attacked riding her bike on her way home by a 17 year old boy. My son was the same age at the time and was getting into trouble, but he would no more rape a 50 year old (or any) woman than fly to the moon. The 17 year old who did this to my friend was ALREADY was a rapist in his mind, drink or no drink. So alcohol enhances what is already there. And what was already there in this case was a boy who had inculcated rape culture and then carried it out as the Steubenville rapists had.

  • boomer

    I was going to mention the sport aspect as well. There’s this bizarre attitude that being an athlete somehow excuses you from any sort of temperance of perspective or rationality other than that applied to training. That they’re somehow bridled typhoons of potent potential just waiting to be unleashed. I think it just perpetuates this fallacy of male ‘energy’ being something uncontrollable but also an advantage in the right circumstances so if you happen to get in its way in some manner, you’re to expect that it’ll be pretty bad because, let’s face it, they’re not only men and they can’t help it but they’re ‘elite’ men whom nature’s actually made that way. Not only should we expect rape but we should expect it to be pretty grim. The standard of suffering of the victim goes up exponentially relative to her having entered their fucking stupid arena of supremacist crap.

    And it’s not only women but the same attitude seeps down to gay and transgender athletes as well. They’re somehow not ‘complete’, not ‘elite’, not fully or correctly formed because what’s the definition of the most superior physical being? The male athlete. What’s the most superior form of the male athlete? The male athlete who demonstrates his potency by raping. And what’s the most superior form of rapist? The one who films and shrugs and laughs off his victim. No rape here yo – this is actually the very essence of how they perceive themselves; this is the ultimate manifestation of sport. Proof positive that they are the most elite a human being can be. They can sob and cry all they like but I remain thoroughly unconvinced by all their bullshit contriteness. Raping is actually an achievement for them that’s fundamentally applauded and encouraged at the core of what they do and how they approach it and in the general social mentality towards them too and it’s fucking sick.

  • Lauren

    I agree with your comments, very much, especially when you say, “We need change. Actual, real change at every single level.” I think we need to change things earlier. I liked this article’s approach to talking to boys about consent and sexuality: http://goodmenproject.com/ethics-values/a-letter-to-my-son-about-consent/

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