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.