Steubenville: American Rape Culture on Display

Jun 3, 2013 - by Avi McClelland-Cohen - 0 Comments

The author uses the Steubenville rape case as a primer for confronting the rape culture that grips the United States.

Update: A special grand jury convened in Steubenville returned indictments  on November 25, 2013 against Steubenville City Schools Superintendent Mike McVey, elementary school principal, Lynett Gorman, Steubenville High School wrestling coach Seth Fluharty, and a former volunteer coach at Steubenville High School, Matthew Belardine. The charges against McVey include felony counts of tampering with evidence and obstructing justice. Gorman and Fluharty were charged with failing to report possible child abuse. Bellardine was charged with making false statements and contributing to underage alcohol consumption.

Ohio Attoreny General Mike DeWine announced the indictments, saying, "How do you hold kids accountable if you don't hold the adults accountable?"  DeWine said the special grand gury was created on March 17, 2013, the day a judge convicted two Steubenville High School football players of raping a girl after a party where alcohol  was freely available in August of 2012 following a team scrimmage.

Previously, the grand jury charged the Steubenville school district's information direrctor with tampering with evidence, obstructing justice, obstructing official business and perjury. 

The indictments against the school officials and a former assistant football coach stemmed not from the rape that led to the convictions of the football players, but from a previous rape of a 14-year-old student in April of 2012. Both rape cases are being handled by the Ohio attorney general.

by Avi McClelland-Cohen

"Young men need to be socialized in such a way that rape is as unthinkable to them as cannibalism" - Mary Pipher

Much of America is already aware of the Steubenville rape case, or at least one of the countless similar cases involving teenagers, alcohol, and sexual assault. Such stories have become almost commonplace of late, with many ending in the suicide of the victim, making the tale all the more heartbreaking.

What is lacking is a discussion of why rape is so prevalent or, more importantly, what can be done to reverse the trend. Regardless of political party or personal ideology, a society without rape is one almost everyone can agree we should work towards. So where is the anger? Where is the outrage and betrayal that seems only appropriate when our children are attacking each other in the most brutal of ways?

As a society, if our first question following a rape is, “Could the victim have avoided this attack?” we have already failed. Regardless of how she was dressed, where she was, what (if anything) or how much she had been drinking, or even if she was acting flirtatious, a woman does not ask for rape.

 Rape is unwanted sex, and it is never the victim’s fault. If our instincts are to disbelieve a victim that she was violated, we are setting the example that victims must stay silent – and perpetrators safe. If we allow rape culture to continue permeating our society unchecked, all we are doing is enabling a new generation of sexual predators.

Steubenville, Ohio

Late one summer night in August, 2012, a 16-year-old West Virginia girl in Steubenville, Ohio – thankfully anonymous and known to the masses only as Jane Doe – was raped by two of her schoolmates. Ma’lik Richmond and Trenton Mays, both star players on the town’s beloved high school football team, carried the unconscious girl from party to party, violating her repeatedly. (No more detail on the assault will be provided here. The details are not relevant, but more importantly, promulgating them only contributes to the problem of rape as a spectator sport, of re-victimization by the media post-assault, and of focusing so much on the problem that a solution is never found.)

There were witnesses to this rape. Dozens of them – possibly more. Not a single witness lifted a hand to stop the assault. Many watched passively. Some participated – and, as a result, images of the rape went viral, transforming one girl’s private horror into a nationwide headline extravaganza.

The public still only knows, and probably only ever will know, a fraction of what occurred on that August night. We do know that Trent Mays acknowledged the rape to multiple contacts via text message in the days following, even urging his friends to help him cover up the incident by telling police that he was just “helping” her. He acknowledged sexual contact, but displayed a startling lack of understanding of his actions: "I shoulda raped [sic] now that everybody thinks I did," he said, adding that she "wasn't awake enough." This begs the question of whether Mays (or even other teenage offenders) understood that sexual contact with an unconscious person is not only morally wrong, but legally rape.

Mays also noted in his texts that he had communicated with his football coach, Reno Saccoccia, who joked about the incident, leading Mays to believe that the accusations would be “taken care of.”

The accusations were not “taken care of,” but progressed into criminal charges and court proceedings. In perhaps the only fleeting moment of justice in this case, Judge Thomas Lipps of the Hamilton County Juvenile Court found the two young men “delinquent,” the juvenile equivalent of a guilty verdict. Both will serve at least one year, and possibly remain in custody until they turn 21. Mays received an additional year for distribution of child pornography (having disseminated photographs of his own crime).

When it came time for the media to weigh in, mass media outlets not only failed in their duty to promote justice and the proliferation of quality, reliable information, but instead they demonstrated just how deeply American rape culture flows. Poppy Harlow of CNN was one of the more high-profile commentators whose reporting, in her exchange with Candy Crowley, failed to reflect the reality of the situation. Harlow, who was in Steubenville for the trial, found it difficult to watch the proceedings not because of the torment of the young woman who was publicly violated, but rather “It was incredibly emotional – incredibly difficult even for an outsider like me to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believe their life fell apart.”

Harlow has expressed regret for the appearance of rape apology and it is difficult to believe she was speaking maliciously, but nevertheless this reporter’s words reflect one of the core issues at stake here: a complete dismissal of the rape victim’s plight and an unwillingness to accept the severity of the crime. As a public figurehead, Harlow has a responsibility to her viewers – many of them impressionable young people – to present a measured account. The fact is, Richmond and Mays are facing a relatively brief incarceration as a result of deliberate actions they knowingly and willfully committed; the victim, who never had a choice in the matter, faces a life sentence of dealing with what these young men did to her; and unless we do something, there will be countless more Jane Does at countless more high schools around the country.

The newsmakers at CNN are not the only ones to blame, nor were Harlow’s words the most frustrating. Twitter became an outlet for rape apologists worldwide. Such inane commentary does not deserve re-publication (it is vile beyond belief), but it should be noted that at least two Twitter users made serious enough threats against the victim’s life to result in their arrests. Interestingly, both of the individuals arrested for death threats were women, one of them a cousin of one of the assailants.

Nowhere in the mass media was there any substantial discussion of rape as an epidemic or what can be done on a large scale to prevent such crimes. Caught up in the sensationalism of Jane Doe’s horror, the millions of other rape victims nationwide were ignored, and future victims disregarded. A case as high-profile as Steubenville, and especially one with such energetic social media involvement, could have been an educational opportunity; that opportunity, thanks to the shortsightedness of the networks, was utterly lost.

So 16-year-old Jane Doe was victimized not only by Richmond and Mays, but by her fellow partygoers; the media; Coach Saccoccia, who helped cover up the rape; the Internet world; and us. Yes, us. Unless we are actively working to not only stop but reverse the trend of rape and rape apology, we ourselves – men and women alike – are no more than enablers.

By not actively working to reform the way we think about and react to rape, we are failing our children, and we are failing society. Consider these statistics from the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN):

  • 44 percent of rape victims are under age 18.
  • Almost 2/3rds of victims are raped by a friend or acquaintance. This number is higher (93 percent) among juvenile victims.
  • 54 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to the police.
  • 97 percent of rapists will not serve a day of time for their crime. That means 97 percent of rape victims will never receive justice, or offenders proper rehabilitation.
  • Victims of sexual assault are three times more likely to be depressed, 26 times more likely to abuse drugs, and four times more likely to contemplate suicide. Anecdotally, the latter statistic is becoming even more alarming with the recent spurt of high-profile suicides by high school-aged rape victims.

The survivors of sexual violence are not the only victims. Rapists were not predetermined from birth to be such, but rather they were not socialized to understand consent, or healthy sexual relationships—some were simply never taught such things; many lacked quality role models, and as a result were socialized to violence. They, too, are victims, as is the society that created them.

We must work for a culture without rape, and to do so means more than simply reiterate the problem. What can we do? It starts with the basics. Speak back – even, as trivial as it sounds, Tweet back: create an environment so hostile to rape apologists that they cower in silence, keeping their antiquated ideas about sexual consent to themselves until they evolve enough to throw off the sexist bounds. This, after all, is the beauty of free speech: every single person has the right to speak back, and in doing so the power to educate.

Go further—write to the networks. A quarter of a million people have already petitioned CNN to apologize for its heinous disregard. Though the offending commentary cannot be rescinded, a strong enough backlash can prevent such carelessness in the future.

More than reacting to the crimes already committed, we must move forward. There are too few issues over which our society has the absolute power to take control and remedy the problem. When it comes to rape, there are no foreign nations threatening attack, no all-powerful banks fueled by government or corporate interests, no external power wielding control; there is only us, and our will to do better by our children and ourselves. We must teach the next generation to be better than our generation and generations before. We must stamp out any acceptability of sexual violence and non-consent so that, as psychologist Mary Pipher proposed, rape will be no more acceptable to young men (or women) than the horrific and very rare crime of cannibalism. That is when rape culture – and cases like Steubenville – will truly be in the past.



"Guilty Verdict in Steubenville Rape Trial; Matt Lauer Faults NBC; Iraq War Anniversary."CNN Transcripts. CNN, 17 Mar. 2013. Web.

RAINN | Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

Rollins, Henry. "Henry Rollins: The Steubenville Rape Case Is a Failure." LA Weekly, 22 Mar. 2013.

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