TRIGGER WARNING: This article contains graphic references to/explanations of rape which may upset or offend some people.
“I woke up with no clothes on and I didn’t know what had happened at all. I was on a couch. My clothes were off. My hair was a mess and it felt weird.”
For many of us, the aftermath of a night out is not an unfamiliar situation. Your head throbs, the light is blinding and, perhaps worst of all, your friends regale you with humiliating tales of what might have transpired. It’s par for the course; you pop some paracetamol and go to class. But imagine waking up to a photo on Instagram where you are unconscious and being slung, carcass-like, between two members of the football team. Imagine finding a YouTube video where a former student is talking about you, ‘the dead girl’ who is ‘so raped’; imagine seeing photos on Facebook where you are naked and passed out in the street; imagine reading posts on Twitter like ‘Some people deserved to be peed on’ and ‘Song of the night is definitely Rape Me by Nirvana’. And then imagine being unable to remember any of it.
This is exactly what happened in August last year, when a 16-year-old West Virginian girl crossed the river for a string of end-of-summer parties in Steubenville, Ohio. In attendance were Trent Mays, 17, and Ma’lik Richmond, 16, both members of the Big Red football team at Steubenville High School who would later be charged with her rape.
The girl began drinking early on in the party, and by 10:30pm she was stumbling and slurring her words. Rather than taking care of her, a group of teenagers ridiculed her intoxicated state and even cheered when a Steubenville High baseball player dared someone to urinate on her for $3. Soon after, she was found sprawled on the basement floor, naked and unmoving, where Mays was slapping his penis against her hip and Richmond was between her legs violating her with two fingers. Later, still passed out, several members of the football team carried her away from the house and placed her in the back seat of a Volkswagen Jetta. It was on their way to the home of another player that Mays exposed the girl’s breasts and penetrated her digitally, while his friend recorded it on his phone. She managed to regain consciousness at a third party, despite still being unable to walk and vomiting several times before falling to the ground, and was forced to perform oral sex on several of the boys. At the end of it all, they finally put her to bed.
This series of events exemplifies the disturbing sense of arrogance inherent in the Steubenville players’ actions. Rape, after all, is a crime of power and control more than sex. At no point did they believe that what they were doing was wrong; taking sexual advantage of a girl was viewed as a given perk of the Big Red lifestyle.
“The entitlement we heard during testimony, it didn’t seem like any empathy or support for the victim,” states Katie Hanna, the statewide director of the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence. “To see these things happen and to say, ‘I don’t recall; I didn’t think it was a bad thing; I just thought this was OK’ [suggests] that this was commonplace behaviour.”
And it was. In a small community where ‘everybody knows everybody’, the Big Red football team holds esteemed social status in a stagnating and declining industrial town. But this empathic pride over high school athletes has somehow developed an almost fanatical hold over peoples’ livelihoods. Crowds travel for miles on a Friday night to witness a win that will make tough times feel more bearable. The players are considered heroes. It’s easy to see how they are ignorant of the boundaries of inappropriate sexual behaviour.
Rape itself is hardly a modern crime. There have been, and will continue to be, incidents worldwide that are more remarkable than the Steubenville case. But the sheer scale of its explosion in media and online—from international news coverage to investigations led by hacktivist group Anonymous—has stemmed from the ensuing cover-up and response to the rape trial, which provides an almost satirical depiction of contemporary rape culture.
“The Steubenville story is all too familiar. Be responsible for your actions ladies before your drunken decisions ruin lives.”
“Steubenville: guilty. I feel bad for the two young guys, Mays and Richmond, they did what most people in their situation would have done.”
“So you got drunk at a party and two people took advantage of you, that’s not rape you’re just a loose drunk slut.”
“Why don’t we have a Dumb Fucking Whore registry? Now that would be justice.”
“I’m not saying what they did isn’t wrong but it’s not rape… it’s the girl’s fault.”
“One night of behaving like assholes will follow them the rest of their lives, they’re going to jail and will be registered sex offenders, and her life is ruined?”
In a case where the victim was clearly unconscious and being taken advantage of sexually, this is a horrifying response from men and women alike. Indeed, media has focused on the ‘bright futures’ of the convicted players that have been ‘tragically dashed’ by the verdict. If there was ever any uncertainty that rape culture exists, then there is none now. Steubenville brought to light the attitudes and opinions that are still very much a part of social discourse around rape: that the victim is to blame, that perpetrators have been lured into the act and that a history of promiscuity or intoxication invalidates the crime entirely.
“I don’t think labeling things as rape culture will help the problem,” said one of my male friends. “It won’t change anything.”
On the contrary, it does. Rape culture is a concept that has long been denied, and calling out those who propagate agendas that distort the rational discourse of rape is something that needs to be done.
Because it’s not just Steubenville. It is happening here, right now, and we are responsible for changing it before it strikes closer to home.