Steubenville: Rethinking rape

March 21, 2013
Filed under Opinion

Kara Hemphill

Ohio has been in the national spotlight recently, as a judge in juvenile court found two teenage football players delinquent, or guilty, in a case involving the rape of a 16-year-old West Virginia girl.

The offense took place in Steubenville, a small town near the border of West Virginia, in August. During the night, the victim was assaulted over the course of several hours at a party, with no one intervening. Photos and videos were taken of the assault, which showed the victim to be unconscious.

Two teenagers who were involved, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, were sentenced on Sunday for the rape of a minor. Both were sentenced to one year in juvenile jail, with Mays getting an additional year for distributing the images.

Shortly after the conviction, CNN came under fire after reporters made sympathetic remarks – toward the perpetrators.

Reporters Candy Crowley and Poppy Harlow both commented that the case was highly emotional, and the segment showed footage of the two young men apologizing to the victim’s family. Harlow also elaborated on a scene involving Ma’lik Richmond and his father, who had been absent from Richmond’s life and blamed himself for his son’s behavior.

Later in the report, a legal correspondent joined to discuss the implications of being labeled as a sex offender.

The video was perceived by many to be too sympathetic to the rapists, while making no mention of the victim whatsoever. There are a lot of people in this world who deserve sympathy, but rapists are not part of that group, no matter how young or promising they happened to be before the conviction.

Sadly, focusing one’s sympathy on the rapists rather than the victim is a long tradition in our society. When a rape occurs, the blame is placed primarily on the victim. Her behavior at the time it occurred is almost always scrutinized, even by police and investigators.

Were you drunk? Were you dressed “provocatively?” Have you been sexually active in the past? Have you been sexually active with this man in the past?

With every affirmative answer to one of these questions, the victim digs themselves a deeper hole into perceived guilt. In reality, the only question that should be asked is this: Did you consent to the sex?

It doesn’t matter if the victim was intoxicated or even unconscious, as in the Steubenville case. It does not matter what she was wearing; men are people, not animals. It’s insulting to assume that they have so little self-control that the sight of a woman in a miniskirt sends them into a violent frenzy.

Furthermore, an outfit is not an invitation to sex. And consent to sex in the past does not guarantee consent in the present or future.

Growing up, girls are taught skills to prevent their own sexual assault. Anyone can list off a few at the drop of a hat – don’t walk by yourself at night, carry your keys like a weapon, never leave your drink alone. In the current environment, these are all necessary and wise precautions, no matter how unfortunate it is that we need them.

However, it is also wrong to assume that if someone fails to defend themselves – if they fail to take each and every one of these precautions – then they are somehow to blame for what happened to them.

The truth is that rape can be, and is, committed by “average” men, every day. Rapists are not all elusive criminals who hide in bushes, waiting for a woman with an easy-to-grab ponytail to walk by.

In fact, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), states that two-thirds of attackers are known to their victim, and 38 percent are a friend or acquaintance. Much of the time, there is nothing someone can do to prevent themselves from being raped, even if that was their responsibility in the first place (which it shouldn’t be).

So no, these boys in Steubenville were not inhuman monsters – they really were just high school football players who committed a terrible crime.

The fact that they were supposedly upstanding and promising members of a community does not make what they did excusable. And it does not make me, personally, feel any sympathy toward them. The one who really deserves sympathy is the victim.

It is ludicrous to feel bad for two people who actively made the decision to ruin their own lives while disregarding the immense wrong done to the victim. Rape is not something that should be taken as lightly as it often is, and we can’t afford to pretend that what happened to this girl was anything less than a tragedy.

What we need to be focusing on, though, is how situations like these come about in the first place.

The focus should not be, and never should have been, on how women can avoid getting raped.

The focus, rather, needs to be on young men, and what can be done to prevent them from feeling so entitled to a woman’s body that they not only disrespect her wishes (or lack thereof) but treat her like less than an object – like something to be hauled around and completely defiled for their own personal use.

As it stands now, there is a woeful lack of rape awareness in this country, and even less of it is geared toward men. If the assumption that women are responsible for their own rapes is allowed to continue, the actual root of the problem will never be discovered and dealt with.

I’m not saying that every man should be guilty until proven innocent, so to speak. However, the fact remains that rape is a crime overwhelmingly committed by men, with women most often being the victims.

Rape is one of the most misunderstood crimes, and this country would benefit from more education on the subject.

The situation in Steubenville is horrible, but it could be an opportunity to have an honest and frank national dialogue about rape, which is sorely needed. Perhaps someone a little more responsible than CNN will pick up this torch someday and allow some progress to be made.

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