The Steubenville Rape Verdict: Guilty

Both high school football players accused in the Steubenville, OH rape trial were found guilty on all counts Sunday morning – the same Steubenville that became notorious earlier this year for its football team’s “rape crew,” who proudly boasted about gang-raping a girl in a video that went viral. To catch up, quickly:

The 16-year old victim claimed to have been unconscious at the time of her assault. She was at a party with her assailants, blacked out, and woke up in a strange house, naked. She later learned what happened to her through text messages, pictures, and posts on social media by classmates who witnessed the assault (let that sink in for a minute). Witnesses say she was seen to be too drunk to move or talk – whether she was roofied remains unclear. The suspects convicted as juveniles with rape by digital penetration are Trent Mays, 17, and Ma’lik Richmond, 16, members of the Steubenville High School football team.

1. Two ex-friends of the victim testified against her, saying:
– She had a crush on one of her assailants
– She drank at least four vodka shots and two beers that night
– She did not believe the accuser, “Because she lies about things.”

2. Mark Cole, a member of the football team who was present during the assault and granted immunity for his testimony, said he recorded video of Trent Mays performing a sex act on the unconscious victim in a car on the night of the assault, but deleted it the next morning, realizing it was wrong. He also testified that later, when Mays attempted to have the girl perform a sex act on him, “she didn’t really respond to it.”

3. Evan Westlake, 18, also on the football team, testified that he witnessed Richmond digitally penetrating (ie. with his fingers) the victim, but didn’t stop it, because, “It wasn’t violent. I didn’t know exactly what rape was. I thought it was forcing yourself on someone.” Anthony Craig, 18, another witness, also testified to Richmond digitally penetrating the victim, saying, “She wasn’t moving. She wasn’t talking. She wasn’t participating,”

4. The victim was initially reluctant to name her assailants when she went to the hospital after the incident, “because honestly, I was praying that everything I heard wasn’t true. I didn’t want to get myself into drama because I knew everyone would just blame me.”

Let’s just clear up a few things, lest anyone be confused:

1a. No matter how hard someone is crushing on you, it doesn’t give you a right to penetrate them in any non-consensual way. Not with your fingers, not with your boner, not with anything. Ever. Even if you’ve had consensual sex before, it has to be consensual every. single. time.

1b. A drunk person does not equal a rape-able person. No one equals a rape-able person. EVER.

1c. “Because she lies about things.” — While I respect testimony under oath and have no idea what the accuser’s honesty level is, let’s just pause for a second to appreciate this insightful reasoning that carries all the lyricism of a hastily scribbled note passed during 4th period Bio.

2. “She didn’t really respond to it.” “She wasn’t moving. She wasn’t talking. She wasn’t participating,” <— If this sums up your sexual partner’s reactions to you, then she is not actually a partner and you need to back the f*ck up.

3. “It wasn’t violent. I didn’t know exactly what rape was. I thought it was forcing yourself on someone.” THIS. This is a huge HUGE problem with a common perception of rape and violence. First of all, shoving your fingers into an unconscious person is violent. Second, rape means any kind of penetration or sexual act that is not consensual, not exclusively penile penetration. When someone is unconsciously photographed with semen on their body, as the girl in this case was, that in itself is reason enough to define rape as unwelcome sexual assault.

4. “I knew everyone would just blame me.” My neck hurts from shaking my head so much. This is why cases like this are so important. Because rapists should be the ashamed ones, but we perpetuate a culture of victim blaming while 97% of rapists are never jailed. There is no reason, under any circumstance whatsoever, that a person deserves blame for an uninvited sexual assault. There is a vast ocean of interactions, consent, and mutual engagement between flirting and sex, and one partner being unconscious is not even a seagull flying over it.

In the ancient days of the late 90s, when I was in high school, people would just spread rumors about who may have f*cked whom. That in itself is a whole other issue, the double standards of a girl not being a slut or a prude while still being able to go a day without getting ripped to shreds while the boys high five over conquests. With social media that whole landscape seems to have gotten brutal, in a Roman-gladiator-spectacle-of-WTF kind of way. The dehumanizing and vulgar act of passing around photos and videos of sexually assaulted high school girls (this is far from the first such incident), let alone the idea that it may not even be perceived as violent by some people, is proof that in the grand timeline of the universe, we’re barely a blink past Medieval Times.

There’s something else, though. Something no one ever talks about. The imagery of this assault – undressing, penetrating, and ejaculating on a passive girl – is reflective of something rarely discussed, in an age when hardcore porn has been accessible on the internet for the entirety of the assailants’ adolescent lives. And the thing with most (straight) porn is that it’s made with the male gaze in mind — the women are passive and barely (ever?) shown to climax, while the men are in control and always visibly ejaculate, often onto the woman’s body.

I’m not saying porn is bad, or that you shouldn’t watch it, and frankly, I couldn’t care less what you do as long as I don’t have to be involved. I’m not saying it’s the reason rape happens, but the general narrative of straight porn does indeed inform a rape mentality. Even Caitlin Moran, the brilliant and well-known British writer who has no issue discussing her love of porn, says that the passivity of women and lack of female orgasms is what’s wrong with it. When this is the most accessible image of sex to boys – submissive women whose sole purpose is to be penetrated and dehumanized – it is destructive both to their perception of a realistic sexual relationship and to the girls they then treat as they inadvertently presume to think they could.

Steubenville is a town of about 19,000 people and a vibrant football community. The guys on the football team are nothing short of local heroes, which makes it difficult for people to willingly take them off their pedestal. It is also part of the reason why the girl who was sexually assaulted was afraid to come forward, and felt that she would be blamed — people don’t like to be disappointed and often blame the messenger.

The hero-worship of the football team may also be why no one at the party took it upon themselves to step in and say, let alone do, anything. In fact, the county judge and prosecutor recused themselves from the case because of their own ties to the local football team, and a guest judge is trying the case. Even worse, before recusing herself, the prosecutor (Jane Hanlin) tried to discourage the victim’s family from filing the case at all by intimidating them, saying their name would be dragged through the mud, press would hound them, and the case would last well over two years.

The truly grotesque part of this entire ordeal is the entitlement and viciousness with which these boys approached this girl, and for all we know, others. She was treated like a sexual rag doll, not a human being. How a person could possibly abuse and violate another, let alone unconscious person, for fun, is beyond me. It’s a kind of violence and selfish brutality that I’m unable to comprehend. I can’t imagine doing anything to someone who is passed out, other than finding them a blanket and rolling them onto their side in case they puke.

If a girl gets drunk at a party, that’s her business. She may be a mess, she may embarrass herself, it’s still her business. It does NOT entitle anyone to take advantage of her in any way. Even if she has a reputation for being a slut (note: a girl making her own choices about sex is not a slut, that word needs to just end), she is still fully entitled to choose her partners willingly. A drunk girl making out with someone at a party and an unconscious girl being undressed and j*zzed on are about as similar as apples and carburetors. This verdict is important because in a country with a history of giving rapists a slap on the wrist, be it civilian or military, a high profile case like this can impact all of us for the better. It sends the message that rapists deserve the shame, not their victims, and that no person is above another when it comes to basic human decency.