Beyond Steubenville: Rape Culture and Complicity

Image: Seth Hahne

Rape is a culture-wide problem; anyone who does not actively resist rape culture perpetuates it. 

I don’t want to write about Steubenville. It’s more that I feel compelled to write about Steubenville. If you don’t know the details, take a look at the coverage by TIME Magazine’s Maia Szalavitz, who asks “How does public exposure affect recovery from a very private, traumatic experience?” Consider the facts: a sixteen-year-old girl was raped by two of her peers, Ma’lik Richmond (age 16) and Trent Mays (age 17). The incident came into the open as gruesome videos, photos, and online postings depicting and referencing the crime started circulating on the Internet. As my fellow CAPC writer Brad Williams remarked, “it’s just harder to hide our depravity because we’ve got Twitter now.” Even after the verdict fell, two girls took to the Internet to harass and intimidate the victim further; those girls have since been arrested, but their efforts to publicly punish, humiliate, and perpetuate even more violence (one of the tweets contained a death threat) are symptomatic of rape culture. Defined as an atmosphere of misogyny, glorified violence, and female objectification that cultivates fear and danger for women, rape culture isn’t just a problem in Steubenville. It’s endemic to American culture, and as much as outsiders can judge the witnesses who laughed or ignored or looked away from what happened the night that girl was raped, anyone who does not actively resist rape culture perpetuates it. We all live in Steubenville.

Consider the response of CNN, whose Poppy Harlow reported that it’s “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.” There is no concern here for the victim, for the young woman who, no doubt, has been watching her crumbling life scattered across the Internet, her body and reputation scrutinized by those who witnessed the crime firsthand and the analysts who trailed behind them. There is no concern for that young woman’s healing and physical and emotional recovery, or what kind of promise her future holds. Harlow’s empathy for the perpetrators signifies a classic move in the rhetoric of rape: victim blaming. Blame it on the victim’s clothes. Blame it on the victim’s sexual history. Blame it on the victim’s initial arousal. Shouldn’t we also consider what those accusations say about men: That if women’s clothing prompts men to rape, our culture holds very low standards for masculine self-control? Instead, we treat men like animals who can’t help themselves, and we expect women to police themselves to protect themselves from men as if they were beasts. All to avoid assigning blame where it actually belongs. Consider this, if any woman with a sexual history is “asking” for rape, then most women of age in this country are asking for it. Do we really want to live in a culture where we don’t offer women the right to change their minds in the midst of amorous engagements, and where we don’t consider what kind of men need a sexual conquest without consent? Shouldn’t we contemplate why two young men would drag a barely conscious female around, penetrating her and abusing her body while joking and taking photographs?

Some have raised the point that the young woman was drunk, but does her drunkenness mean she is responsible? Yes, she’s responsible for being drunk. It’s not an activity we ought to advocate. Yet when we use that line to excuse the rapists, we miss the point that girls aren’t supposed to get drunk at parties because it leaves them susceptible to sexual violence. Women, we need our inhibitions; we have to keep ourselves safe because we can’t count on anyone else to do it for us. There’s a power in that, but it’s not a protection and it’s not a panacea. Staying sober won’t necessarily keep a girl safe. Why don’t we warn boys at parties, too, that getting drunk can lead to violence, to raucousness that easily spirals out of control? “Boys will be boys,” we say, and that expression covers up the concomitant cultural anxiety and appreciation for testosterone-fueled cruelty. As one former professional football player noted: “In many ways football is a training ground for rape. In the game, players learn to control the field and to dominate other players, and in the dressing room they endlessly fantasize and celebrate the male sexual conquest of women.” There’s a reason that conquering armies raped the vanquished nation’s women; rape demonstrates social dominance, demarcating a hierarchy where women are subjected to whichever patriarchy emerges victorious. This is not to say that all athletes or all football players are rapists, but that our culture celebrates male conquest in the sports arena and excuses the same aggression off the field, even if that means blaming a violent crime on a victim who made an error in judgment. Her mistake is really not so much drunkenness as letting her guard down in an atmosphere where masculinity reigns supreme. Her attackers were drunk, too, if not with alcohol, then at least with power. In rape culture, we don’t blame them for losing control in the same way, for lowering their inhibitions, even though we have a word to describe those who prey on the defenseless and the weak: predators. That’s the relationship even if the vulnerability is self-induced. It never justifies violence.

Why, then, do so many females participate in rape culture, aligning against the victim like the two girls who issued threats after the Steubenville verdict? Slate’s Amanda Marcotte writes “Claiming that it’s the victim’s fault for tempting men with her drinking/sexual activity/mini-skirt means telling yourself that as long as you aren’t as ‘slutty’ as the victim, you’ll be OK.” It’s a matter of self-protection, claims Marcotte. It’s easier to blame the victim than to acknowledge the violence of which men are capable. It’s easier to scapegoat an individual than to exhort an entire culture. It’s easier to think that what happens in Steubenville is something that happens somewhere else, where people are more depraved, more out of control. But it’s not true. Violence against women remains a significant issue in this nation and a significant issue worldwide. Many of the victims are not dressed “slutty” or inebriated; their crime is being female. It’s a life sentence more than half of us hope to carry safely through our old age. It’s the sentence I’ve communicated to my two daughters, for whom I feel compelled to write this piece and speak out against the unspeakable violence that plagues our country. I want them to have a world where they can move safely through public spaces without fear of social condemnation and violence. That is not the world I’m giving them, a fact I am reminded of every single day.

I have written before about my twenty-plus years experience as a runner, and what my many miles have taught me about the gendered nature of public spaces. I have been harassed and followed. I promise you this is not because I am remarkably attractive, because the perpetrators in many of these instances would just have been able to discern my femaleness beneath my sweats. And it doesn’t stop because I am visibly pregnant or running with my children in a jogging stroller. The only remedy I’ve ever found is to run with a man; a pack of women just looks like a larger pool of prey. Without that male running companion, I am, socially speaking, a loose woman—out of bounds. I become, to put it crudely, a candidate for rape just by being a woman who forfeits, even for a few miles, the protection of a man. A blogger at “The Belle Jar” speaks to this issue in the piece “I Am Not Your Wife, Sister, or Daughter. I Am a Person”; regarding the rape apologetics that every victim is somebody’s wife/sister/daughter, she writes “What you are actually doing is perpetuating rape culture by advancing the idea that a woman is only valuable in so much as she is loved or valued by a man.” The woman on her own is “asking for it” simply by virtue of being a woman on her own. Even, apparently, if she’s unconscious.

It is time, in the wake of Steubenville, to speak out: For women to stand in solidarity with our sisters, for men to resist the cultural narrative of male conquest, for people of faith to offer words of hope and healing to the oppressed instead of sorrow for the perpetrators. It is time to stop making excuses about the way we dress or what we drink or where we run and assert, wholeheartedly and without caveat, that violence against women and the rape culture that sustains it are abhorrent to God and to God’s people. It is time to pray for the victim of Steubenville, for her restoration into a community that values and accepts and cherishes her promising future. It is time to pray for the rapists of Steubenville, that justice will triumph over complicity and that they will know repentance and redemption. If we do not reject this rape culture and all that it implies about femaleness and maleness, we accept a brokenness that can only perpetuate violence. We must acknowledge the inherent worth of every human life, cherished and beloved by God, co-image bearers of God, and refuse to bequeath a climate of sexual violence to our children. It is time to speak out, because, to paraphrase feminist writer Audre Lourde, our silence does not protect us.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out his graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.

About Erin Wyble Newcomb

Erin Wyble Newcomb earned her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction and Women's Studies from Penn State University. In addition to parenting her daughters, running marathons, and making things with glitter, she teaches in the English Department at SUNY New Paltz. Follow Erin on Twitter @ErinWyble or at http://phdmama.com/.

  • other lori

    You have a lot of good thoughts here.

    However, I think we need to think a bit more critically about the idea that a woman getting drunk is the same as a woman wearing revealing clothing or walking on a dark street alone. The problem is that having sex with a person who is drunk is rape, whether that person says yes or goes along with it or not. It’s rape simply because the person was drunk. Legally, drunk people cannot consent to sex, and so if a woman is drunk and has sex, she is legally a rape victim. She doesn’t have to say no or be unconscious, and she could even have said yes and initiated the encounter; simply being intoxicated is enough to make the sex rape in terms of the law.

    The alcohol issue is complicated. In surveys about rape (where we get our stats that 1 in 3 women have been raped), having had sex while intoxicated is included. If you break those studies down, most sex classified as rape involves a woman who is intoxicated (by her own choice, not because drugged) having willing sex with a man (who may be equally intoxicated), because the assumption is that alcohol takes away a person’s (or, more specially, a woman’s) ability to consent. A “drunk yes” must be interpreted by a man who may be equally drunk as a “no.”

    So, telling a woman not to get drunk is not the same as telling a woman not to wear a short skirt, because having sex while wearing a short skirt isn’t legally considered rape. Having sex while drunk is. You can 100% eliminate your chance of that particular kind of rape–rape that is rape because the woman was drunk–by not getting drunk, and that kind of rape makes up the majority of rapes (alcohol is involved in about 60% of rapes, and in most of those, both the victim and perpetrator were intoxicated). I know that sounds like I’m being a rape apologist or victim-blamer, but I’m not. Rape is serious, and rape is wrong, and certainly a woman who says no or who is unconscious isn’t somehow “asking for it” because she’s drunk. That is an absolutely abhorrent position, and one that has no legal basis.

    But we also need to be realistic. If any sex you have while drunk is legally rape, because you are considered legally unable to consent while drunk, they you can significantly lower your risk of having a sexual encounter that meets the legal criteria of rape by not getting drunk, or at the very least not getting drunk in any situation where sexual activity is a possibility.

    And, by all means, we should be telling men not to get drunk, too. But I think we drop the ball if we lump “getting drunk” in with what a woman is wearing or what street she happens to walk down. For one, as I mentioned, being drunk can by itself make sex rape, whereas what you wear or where you walk can’t. For another, alcohol impairs decision-making for both men and women in a way that revealing clothing or dark alleys don’t.

    I think the easiest way to stop “rape culture” is to disentangle hook-up culture and binge-drinking culture, which seem to go hand-in-hand, and maybe encourage young people to not be involved with either. Drinking alcohol in moderation and in settings where people aren’t going to be hooking up, and discouraging sexual activity outside of relationships of commitment and trust, will probably do far more to prevent rapes than any amount of rape education or critiques of rape culture.

  • http://neilallen76.wordpress.com/2012/12/19/why-adam-lanza-massacred-children-at-sandy-hook-newtown-a-theory/ Bernard Law

    These students are just following the lead they have learned from the world leader in organized child rape – The Catholic Church.

    Catholics have taught a billion people that child rape is even cool with God, hiding & protecting the child rapist is the religious thing to do, and bullying the victim is the religious thing to do.

    In Steubenville alone, (a town of 18,000), there were ELEVEN substantiated, accused pedophile priests, all involving children under 16, and some as young as 3 yrs old.

    See http://www.bishop-accountability.org/usccb/natureandscope/dioceses/steubenvilleoh.htm with a pointer to the Diocese own web site.

    If a BILLION people believe in protecting the child rapist, and fighting and humiliating the victim, all in God’s name, this is what happens.

  • http://www.helenleeauthor.com Helen Lee

    Erin, I think you’ve hit it on the head when you wrote, “If we do not reject this rape culture and all that it implies about femaleness and maleness, we accept a brokenness that can only perpetuate violence.” We are talking about a cultural brokenness that goes deep, and I’ve been utterly disturbed to see just how deeply the brokenness goes. (The Catholic Church, yes, and plenty of similar stories in the evangelical/Protestant circles, too, unfortunately.) I appreciate your speaking out about this because you are right: women–and men–can not stay silent on this issue. Thank you for your post.

  • S. L. Whitesell

    By no means do all billion Catholics believe in protecting the child rapist. We can’t go two weeks without hearing how American Catholics are totally cool with birth control in violation of official church doctrine, yet we are to associate the criminal behavior of some priests with all Catholics worldwide?

    We can agree that the Catholic Church, though its actions, has not contributed to an atmosphere of sexual purity and accountability. But there’s no room for slandering an entire religious denomination, least of all by ignoring every teaching and action of its members in order to focus on the one you want to use as evidence.

    Erin, I have two points to raise about your article.

    1. I’m sure your husband and children disagree that you aren’t “remarkably attractive.”

    2. When you say being a woman is a “life sentence,” I can’t help but think you are saying that just being a woman is a harrowing and tiresome experience. Is that how many women experience life? That is a shocking thing to realize…

  • Jessica

    Bernard, I think Penn state and initially ESPN telling reporters not to mention Ben Roethlisberger was facing rape charges might have affected those boys more. Sandusky was originally investigated in 1998. There’s a petition on change.org to get the boys’ coach filed since in some of their texts they seem to believe coach will save them. The coach kept the boys on the team for eight more games after they were charged. The reporters and those who keep expressing sympathy for them keep mentioning how they were great football players. Rape culture also tends to benefit certain rapists more. Those with connections and/or money or social prestige. So, I think rape culture and idolizing sports to an unhealthy extent played more of a role in how people responded to the charges and verdicts.

  • Jessica

    P.s. after posting my comment I realized what had bothered me about my wording. I wrote “those boys,” instead of adults, young adults, men, young men, or rapists. They committed a heinous crime and since the word boy does have connotations of an individual being a child, childish, or naïve, which does not fit them. Hence, I should not have used that word. Those young adults are convicted rapists, now.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    Erin Newcombe: “Rape is a culture-wide problem; anyone who does not actively resist rape culture perpetuates it.”

    Erin, would you also agree with this slight variation of your thesis:

    “Abortion is a culture-wide problem; anyone who does not actively resist abortion culture perpetuates it.”

  • http://paperfences.wordpress.com Sara F.

    I agree with you, and I was sickened by the coverage of this… however, though these men are 100% responsible, I do think there are lessons for our daughters that shouldn’t be ignored: http://paperfences.wordpress.com/2013/03/25/the-sins-of-stubenville-what-to-say-to-our-daughters/

  • Donna B

    Very Interesting article. I knew a girl who at the age of 14yrs old found herself at a more mature party. She was drinking and a much older guy took advantage of that. It is so very sad that it happens. No matter the circumstances Rape is unacceptable, disgusting, and punishable by law. Any persons that this has happened to should never be bullied or punished for reporting it. I know the girl in my story wishes she had but she was made to feel ashamed and afraid that since she was drinking it was all her fault. I pray one day she will be able to forgive her rapist and that the world will be able to do away with filth.

  • Jason

    Does anyone notice or care that, in addition to the alcohol which prohibits a woman from consenting even when she is consenting, in this case the “rape” was perpetrated by “the slightest penetration” of a finger? There was no allegation of sexual intercourse, and all the talk about domination and force seems decidedly overwrought with a girl who repeatedly refused to go home, refused to ride with her friends, refused to stop drinking, and demanded to get back into the car with these horrible monsters over and over again. She also claims to have had zero recollection the morning after, when she woke up in the arms of one of them after passing the night without ever having sexual intercourse with anyone….

  • Brad Williams

    Jason,

    Ah, so it was just the “slightest” amount of rape. Thanks for clearing that up for us.

  • Adam

    “regarding the rape apologetics that every victim is somebody’s wife/sister/daughter, she writes ‘What you are actually doing is perpetuating rape culture by advancing the idea that a woman is only valuable in so much as she is loved or valued by a man.’”

    I do think this misunderstands the point of such an argument, at least as I’ve heard it. Perhaps it has been used to take away the value of women as persons inherently, but that has not been my experience of the argumetn. First, people have made this argument to men and women. That is because a woman could be a Mother’s daughter or a sister’s sister.

    Second, do we think that when a soldier is killed in combat that saying he was someone’s (if male) father/son/brother somehow inheres his value merely in another? That it makes him independently worthless or at least less in some way? The same for a child with a terminal disease. Imagine if he/she was your child or brother/sister?

    The point of such arguments instead seems to be making concrete the abstract, personal and close the impersonal and distant. We hold a particular, intense love for those closely connected to us. The same really cannot be said for those we’ve never met or know barely at all. Perhaps that is to our shame, a sign of our selfishness that we love our own in a heightened way over what is good, simply. But I think asking us to consider the same horrific evil perpetrated on those we love is meant to shake our complacency and not because value is being translated on the basis of gender. Instead, in those we love we are confronted with the fullest pictures of humanity we know as well as those to whom we feel most deeply connected. Those with whom we don’t have such a connection, such a full picture we often, to our discredit, fail to fully consider even when we disapprove of what happened to her or him. We certainly fail often to feel to the degree we should the outrage and horror that should result. So, it seems that connecting others to whom atrocities were done with those we know and love can actually force us to consider the victim’s inherent personhood, not place it elsewhere. For in such an instance, you might at first feel greater outrage considering it done to a loved one. But the exercise isn’t meant to stop there. It becomes hard to see why the difference one feels about the evil based on proximity of relationship makes any legitimate difference in the atrocity itself. The same evil happened. Your proximity to the victim is exposed as a pretty poor reason to not be outraged.

  • Stephanie

    Jason,
    There are any number of reasons why the victim was persistently engaging in drunken behavior, and same goes for anyone. You (generally all of us) may have had a series of incidents with a teacher or boss that made you feel stupid or incompetent. Your boyfriend/girlfriend might be cheating on you, or being verbally abusive. Your parent might be dying and incapacitated. Drinking alcohol eases the pain for a little while, as does eating too much sugar, or spending too much money, or taking drugs. Or maybe it doesn’t but it feels good. Who knows the reasons. The bottom line is that engaging in self-destructive behavior does not give other people permission to participate in that destruction, or augment it in any way.

  • Buckner

    Gun culture is a pretty good way to deter rape culture, too bad California doesn’t agree.

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  • Frankb

    Oh, that’s the ticket Buckner. More women carrying guns means that more women can look forward to being shot with their own gun after being raped. Your supposed solution is just another way of blaming the victim.

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