Five Questions From the Steubenville Rape Case

(Note: This post contains some frank and graphic discussions of sex and sexuality.)

Two boys from a Steubenville Ohio high school (I’ve opted not to use their names, though they are readily publicized by other media) have been sentenced to time in a juvenile detention center for the rape of a sixteen-year-old classmate who was reportedly so drunk at a party that she could no longer stand on her own. Aside from “digitally” raping the girl with their hands, reportedly multiple times, one of the boys took photos of the girl without her clothes, shared them via social media, and both young men bragged about the incident to their social networks following the incident.

As the father of both a boy and a girl, I was particularly angered and disturbed by this story. The very fact that such things happen in a supposedly civil society is a stark reminder that we have only a tenuous hold on the well-being of our kids once they leave our sight. We can only hope and pray that we’ve empowered them with the sense of autonomy, respect, compassion and restraint to keep them either from becoming victims of such violations, or perhaps even perpetrators of it themselves.

But once I get beyond my initial feelings about the whole situation, I’m left wrestling with a number of questions that still feel terribly unresolved.

  1. How do we understand rape in our culture? During the investigation of this crime, dozens of high school peers were interviewed, many of whom were in attendance at the party. A shocking number of them confessed that they did not consider what the boys did to this sixteen-year-old girl to constitute rape. For me, this raises similar concerns that I’ve had in reading about the so-called “hook up” culture, in which many teens (if not perhaps a majority) don’t consider things like manual or oral sex to actually be sex. This is our fault. We’re letting peer groups and media define for our children what is appropriate behavior, how they should establish and maintain boundaries for themselves, and how they should respect the rights of others’ bodies. Rather, we risk distilling one another down to sources of pleasure, to be exploited like any other commodity.
  2. Where do our children learn compassion? I was profoundly troubled by a statement made by the victim’s mother after sentencing, in which she said, “Human compassion is not taught by a teacher, a coach or a parent. It is a God-given gift instilled in all of us.” Granted, I do agree that we are inborn with some innate sense of concern for one another, but to suggest this isn’t taught, modeled or even enforced by parents, teachers or other figures of authority is ridiculous. We bear a daily responsibility to model compassion in word and deed for your children, and to instill in them a sense of responsibility to do the same within their respective peer groups.
  3. Why didn’t anyone stop them? In a social setting such as this, bystanders are implicitly responsible for allowing such violations to take place. Further, in so much as they share images of a victime, they are complicit in the crime to an extent. And finally, if they are found to have deleted messages, responses, “shares,” “likes” and such, they are liable for tampering with evidence in an ongoing investigation. There are so many points at which those witnessing the event itself and the related fallout should have brought this to the attention of authorities, parents or school officials that it points to a systemic breakdown of collective accountability.
  4. Where did they get the alcohol? I’m not naive. I drank at a few high school parties, and certainly in college before I was of legal age. But for a group of small-town high school students to have access both to a home to throw a party and enough alcohol for a young woman to be unable to walk on her own points not only to the failure of the parents of the perpetrators, but also the parents of all children in attendance. It’s one thing to allow minors on given occasions to drink; it’s entirely another to put them in a situation where they have relatively unlimited access to alcohol and are unsupervised in a private home.
  5. Isn’t it time to talk about sex yet? We are both a sexually repressed and a sexually obsessed culture. One the one hand, we cling to puritanical values that suggest “good people” don’t talk about sex and sexuality – certainly not in detail – in places like schools, churches or around the dining room table. One the other, we consume more pornography than any generation in the history of the world before us. We speak in generalities, lean on vague moral lessons from Sunday school and hope that the high school gym teacher’s six-week sex education class will suffice to equip our kids to deal with sexuality through the most confusing, emotionally charged, hormonally volatile and socially confusing time of their lives. And then we’re surprised when they don’t think oral sex is as big deal, or they wonder if they can get pregnant if a boy ejaculates in a hot tub they’re in. Until we’re willing to answer EVERY question our kids have about sex, and eve to anticipate others they’ve yet to formulate, we’re equally responsible when such tragedies take place.


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  • I just love your writing. Thanks. 🙂

  • I am not sure that I can pretend to have all the answers, but as a woman, a Christian, a parent and a woman who was raped it seems very important to try.

    1. It is really important to understand that it is not ‘rape in our culture’ that we need to get our heads around; it is our societies ‘rape culture’ that we must grasp and change. I know (only too well) that this phrase triggers all kinds of negative responses but it exists in the West: in the myths of ‘false rape’ claims, in the vicitim blaming and shaming (and this case highlights that perfectly) – and in the attempted silencing of women who try to challange it.

    2. Of course we should be modelling, teaching and practicing compassion for our children to learn from us. The harder question (for us) is ‘Why did we stop?’

    3. Why didn’t anyone stop what was happening? Why didn’t witnesses’ come forward when asked? See comments above (as a starting point).

    4. Ok, really hard and uncomfortable truth. This girl wasn’t raped because she was drunk – she was raped because these young boys chose to rape her. Alcohol use and abuse in young people is an issue, but conflating it with rape will not tackle either productively, healthily or appropriatley.

    5. Whilst rape is not a crime of sex (it’s a crime of power and abuse) – talking about sex is a must, because we need our young girls to become young women who are confident, value themselves and others and have self-respect, and our young men to have the same. I do not understand why Christians are so prissy and uptight about this.

    These are just a few random thoughts you understand…

    • “this phrase [rape culture] triggers all kinds of negative responses but it exists in the West”

      Not in the West. Rape culture exists *everywhere*. Eastern cultures blame victims and silence women just as much as Western ones.

      • Yes, I think that was my point, though not clearly made: I got rather annoyed – after that appalling gang rape which in India which got so much international coverage – of the raher arrogant Western attitude that this was a problem for “them” not us. Thank you. 🙂

        • Sadly I’ve heard from a number of people who do understand Western rape culture quite well, but think that non-Western cultures are somehow better than ours.

          • Mary

            I think it would be common in any patriarchal culture.

    • James

      ” that this phrase triggers all kinds of negative responses but it exists
      in the West: in the myths of ‘false rape’ claims, in the vicitim
      blaming and shaming (and this case highlights that perfectly) – and in
      the attempted silencing of women who try to challange it.”

      There’s a very good reason the phrase generates negative responses. The fact the you claim that ‘false rape claims’ are a myth is a good example of the moral irresponsibility of those who promote the notion that we live in a ‘rape culture’.

      False rape accusations happen every single day around the world. Just a couple of weeks ago there was a story from the UK where a single woman was finally being sentenced to prison for several months after she’d made her ELEVENTH false rape accusation. This is one woman! There have been many other cases reported on within the past month or so, including a case where a woman literally fabricated evidence and physically harmed herself to make it look ‘believable’. So they do happen. If you’d said “false rape accusations are incredibly rare”, that would be one thing – but you dismiss ‘false rape claims’ as MYTHS! The reality is that they AREN’T incredibly rare, they are REGULAR occurences. The wikipedia page on ‘false accusations of rape’ has a table listing 20 studies on the issue. 14 of those 20 place the rate of false reporting at 8%, which is double the average false reporting rate for all felony crimes. At least half place the false reporting rate above 10%, 5 place it above 40%!!!!! So it’s utterly ridiculous to claim that these cases are rare, yet alone a myth! Every single case of rape reporting of rape involves an innocent man being subjected to interrogation by police, detainment, and very frequently an invasive medical procedure. If such invasive medical procedures were frequently being demanded of women simply because a man had fingered her, there’d be massive public outcry. Many of these men have their reputations ruined, they lose friends, partners, sometimes family – often jobs. Some kill themselves. There was a case within the past month in India involving a suicide. It’s your irresponsible attitude that contributes to deaths like this. Now, do the people who complain about accusations of false rape deny that rape does occur and that it should be punished? No. These are responsible people who want justice to be done. You are the opposite.

      This is just one example of the type of irresponsible rubbish that comes from people who claim there’s a “rape culture”. If anything we live in a ‘FALSE rape culture’, one where a woman can accuse a man and ruin his life – and these women often walk free!

      • What I said was ‘the myths that surround false rape claims.’ And as I am from the UK, where the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) have just this month released a report to demonstrate how rare it is; when the head of the CPS – Keir Starmer – has said that we must work harder to dispel the myths surrounding false rape claims; I can back up my statement of fact with, well, facts. Rape culture exists, as you have just demonstrated.

      • Mary

        My understanding is that the term “rape culture” does not exclude the fact that false accustions occur. What it refers to is a culture that thinks rape is ok on some level. It is a culture that excuses the rapist’s behavior and blames the woman instead. There is also the misconception that rape is a normal sex act, when it is not. Rapists are sexual deviants, not men who just have trouble controlling their hormonal urges. It is an act of hate and violence, even if no physical marks are left, because it is an attack on a woman’s psyche.

        Until society can stop absolving the rapist and place the blame where it belongs, then it is a rape culture.

  • Ona Marae

    I appreciate you taking on this topic. I want to respond to one sentence in your piece. “We can only hope and pray that we’ve empowered them with the sense of autonomy, respect, compassion and restraint to keep them either from becoming victims of such violations, or perhaps even perpetrators of it themselves”

    yes let’s keep them from becoming victims….but what did you say “Perhaps even perpetrators of it themselves”? For every rape there is a victim and at least one perpetrator…..why is that so hard for Americans to accept? Of course we have to raise our sons NOT to be perpetrators….not: perhaps even perpetrators”…..where do these perpetrators come from? Not all perpetrators are boys but the majority of them are in these cases. I saw a great sign…I don’t have to teach my daughter not to get raped if you teach your son not to rape.

    I wish you had added another question dealing specifically with why parents don’t speak directly to their sons about the violation of others, be they female or male. By age 18, 1/3 of girls in American schools will have deal with dating violence. If one in three get abused, don’t you think one in three boys must be abusers? I worked for 13 years in a battered women’s shelter and never saw a good program for preventing rape by teaching young boys not to do it….as long as not getting raped is women’s work, we are letting men and boys off the hook. I have eight brothers. I am not anti-male, but I am pro-responsiblity-on-the-right-shoulders.

    Again, thanks for the vast majority of what you write and for the courage to take this one on…perhaps your writing in that sentence was designed to be craft oriented, but the fact that it could even be in a work written by a man as enlightened as you shows we still have a long way to go. Keep up the good work! And keep on growing…love your blog!

    • The “perhaps” points to the honesty we have to have in recognizing that someone’s child is the perpetrator, and that it could be ours.

    • Our best studies indicate that it’s a very small number of males who rape. On average, a male who rapes has 6 victims. Of those who rape, a small percentage rape habitually having far more than 6 victims and likely account for the majority of sexual assaults. Not surprisingly, most men who rape have been victims of abuse – including sexual abuse. They harbor high levels of anomosity and anger towards women (in this case, the young man who spread pictures of what he did included the line “b*tches is b*tches. F*ck ‘Em.”) So unfortunately, the idea that we can make a serious dent in the problem by teaching our sons not to rape probably isn’t true. What we really need is to deal with the issues of child abuse, providing better parent education and support, and making serious mental health services for children more widely available.

      What is fascinating is that the men who rape can be studied because although they readily admit to doing things which are clearly rape (like using force to have sex with a woman who has said no), they do not label their actions are rape. This disconnect is enabled by our societal myth that rape is something which can happen on accident by a confused person. Basically, as long as the perpetrator can claim that it wasn’t their intent to rape, it’s not rape – even when their actions are clearly assault. This is something we can change. Rape should not be based on the perpetrator’s claims of intent. And men who rape should not be able to claim that they are simply confused young men who made a mistake. We know from research that nearly always, these men are well aware of what they are doing and simply choose not to call it what it is.

      • AshleyQuinn

        I suspect that some of our unwillingness to address childhood abuse, specifically sexual abuse, of these boys who then grow to rape, is out of homophobia. The idea that there has been a male on boy sexual assault is mistakenly and detestably viewed as a gay thing, instead of a child abuse thing. The child then faces victim blaming and homophobia all rolled into one prohibiting any chance at actually working through this trauma and not growing up to repeat the cycle.

        • I know a man who was molested by his uncle (as well as a female babysitter) as a child. He’s talked about how awful it was to be in church, listening to a preacher talk about the evils of homosexuality and wondering if what was happening to him meant he was gay. He ended up developing a sexual addiction and did, in fact, rape a woman he was dating later. When I first met him he told me that he never remembered a time when he wasn’t “sexually active”. I was the first person to ever tell him that it’s not sexual activity when you’re kid. I really believe that dealing with people’s trauma is the basis for healing sin.

  • Melanie D.

    This whole push for abstinence-only sex ed in high schools is leaving the whole discussion of consent for the freshman year of college. By then it’s too late. Obviously parents aren’t having the whole “don’t rape anyone” talk. Everyone’s heard “No means No” but what’s not being said is that “ONLY yes means yes. Anything short of sober, enthusiastic, willing participation indicates a lack of consent.” Also, don’t do anything to another person’s body that they haven’t given you permission to do. Ever. Period.

  • Paul Freeman

    I appreciate your honesty regarding your feelings of how this has effected you Christian. It’s good writing, good questions being asked, which I believe is just the tip of the iceberg on how to address our concerns. It goes to show you, that if it can happen in a small community, like this, it can happen anywhere.

    What concerns me is that since this girl had no ability to defend herself at the time this was occurring, the boys had the audacity to believe it was alright to proceed to violate her – it’s like asking the question “If a tree falls in the forest, does it make any sound?”, but it’s not quite as accurate.

    It’s true we all need to take responsibility for what occurred in this particular situation. No one can always predict an outcome with teenagers who have no one in there midst to supervise the situation, as at this point, teenager’s are beyond their ability to think clearly – besides having alcohol there to cloud their judgement, their hormones begin to kick in. That is no excuse for anyone to use when defending one’s actions. As a society we need to heed the consequence of an event such as this, and make it a learning opportunity with all our kids, not just the teenagers or college age children.

  • Kimberly Clark

    I wish I had time to write more. Suffice it to say, I believe there is alot more to it than what has been said here especially the willingness to disconnect from nature and the divinity in all creation.

  • I am having real trouble finding accurate information. She performed a sexual act on one of the boys first? She was out cold the whole time?

    No I don’t believe we live in a “rape culture.” We live in a culture where a woman’s word is believed above all and little boys are accused of sexual assault for holding hands.

    • Sadly, your response demonstrates the extent of the ‘rape culture’ in which we live.

      • Hanan

        “Rape Culture?” I must have missed the memo to when this new term was coined

        • It’s just a way of describing the way it has always been. A way of trying to get across to people just how wrong it is for it to be like this.

    • James

      She gave one of the guys a handjob, and yeah – she was not ‘out cold’ for that because you can’t give a handjob while unconscious.

      • And that’s relevant because? Assuming she did, that doesn’t give him the right to do anything to her without her consent.

      • Lovely. More rape apologism.

  • Thanks for this great post, Christian. It’s disturbing how many people think it anywhere from ridiculous to blasphemous to suggest that we ought to prevent rape by actively teaching our sons attitudes that would make even considering rape sickening. Recently, when an interviewee on a talk show suggested it, tweets immediately flew suggesting that she should be raped into common sense.

    The problem is deep, yet has a relatively simple solution. The prevailing culture (or so media tells us) promotes the idea that we are merely smart animals and suggest that the gratification of animal appetites is what brings happiness (as opposed to momentary enjoyment). We do not, in general, teach our children that their goal in life should be to cultivate human virtues. But I think that is where we must start before we talk to them about material success, or what they want to be when they grow up.

    It is no coincidence or accident that the sacred texts repeatedly tell us to treat others as we would be treated, to hold in our heart love for all creatures, and that love is the greatest of virtues, without which we are nothing.