How a victim-blaming system excuses rape
January 7, 2013
A horrifying 12-minute video of young men in Steubenville, Ohio, joking about the brutal, extended gang rape of a 16-year-old girl last August is now international news after it was posted on the Internet January 2 by the hacker group Anonymous—along with a stream of Twitter and Facebook posts, and photos of the unconscious victim being dragged by her wrists and ankles.
The very clear picture that emerges is of a young woman drugged and then taken unconscious from one party to another while being repeatedly raped and violated by members of the school’s self-styled “rape crew”—while other members took pictures, tweeted about what was happening and made vicious jokes mocking the victim.
The Steubenville case is now about more than this horrific crime, however. The Anonymous postings, in particular, have shown the complicity of town and school officials in trying to bury the details and blunt the effects of this crime—and the readiness of some in the community to blame the victim of a gang rape, and in the most sickening terms.
In this respect, a rape in one Ohio town is revealing how U.S. society and its most revered institutions—law enforcement from the local to the federal level, and schools from the high school level to the most elite of college campuses—routinely minimize rape and sexual violence, and subject any woman willing to speak up about them to abuse and humiliation.
The rot goes far beyond Steubenville. The first national coverage of the case was an extended New York Times feature that ended up illustrating all the problems with the ways that rape and sexual assault are discussed in our society. The article read like a cross between a nonfiction retelling of the high school football TV drama Friday Night Lights and an anguished commentary on the uses and misuses of social media.
Readers could easily have been left with the sense that what happened in Steubenville was a tragedy for everyone involved, that the young men who committed the rape were also victims because they might lose promising futures, that it matters whether the town’s beloved football team had its reputation tarnished—and even that it’s difficult to determine what happened that August night because of conflicting stories and outlooks.
While the Times article extensively profiled the two young men charged with rape, the experiences and feelings of the victim are almost entirely missing. We only learned in the last few paragraphs that she is traumatized, unable to sleep, socially isolated and afraid to go to school.
In this context, the Anonymous leaks are welcome in having shone the spotlight on the misogynistic cruelty of the “rape crew” and the multiple ways in which the victim was dehumanized and brutalized. The facts about what happened are stomach-turning—and, as a record of the evening posted at the Local Leaks website shows, not at all difficult to piece together.
What’s clear is that school and town officials have been engaged in a systematic cover-up ever since August—which in turns shows the extent to which these young men could reliably expect to act with impunity.
The revelations about Steubenville are so horrifying that there is a danger the events will be seen as exceptional. Already, the young men involved are being described as sick sociopaths.
While it’s hard to watch the video footage and disagree, this misses the critical point that sexual assault is pervasive in our society—and that the ruling institutions of this society are responsible.
An extensive report by the Centers for Disease Control in 2010 found that one in five women reports having been the victim of rape or attempted rape in their lifetime. Any serious of discussion of rape and sexual assault today has to address why they take place so widely—and the multiple ways in which sexual assault survivors are re-victimized.
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IT IS depressingly easy to point to examples of the most reactionary politicians and public officials minimizing or even denying the reality of rape.
Todd Akin, the Republicans’ candidate for the U.S. Senate from Missouri, caused an outrage last year when he said that a woman could not become pregnant from “legitimate rape” – thus implying that some rapes that weren’t legitimate or real. In Indiana, another GOP Senate candidate, Richard Mourdock, described children resulting from rape as a “gift from God.” Then there’s Roger Rivard, a Wisconsin Republican who claimed last year that some women “just rape easy.”
But this all seems mild compared to the California judge who was finally admonished recently for his 2008 claim that “real” rape survivors are the ones whose vaginas are “shredded by rape.” In justifying his reduction of the sentence of a man convicted of raping his girlfriend, he said:
[I]f someone doesn’t want to have sexual intercourse, the body shuts down. The body will not permit that to happen unless a lot of damage is inflicted, and we heard nothing about that in this case. That tells me that the victim in this case, although she wasn’t necessarily willing, she didn’t put up a fight. And to treat this case like the rape cases that we all hear about is an insult to victims of rape. I think it’s an insult. I think it trivializes a rape.
It’s easy to write this off as the reactionary ranting of Republican Neanderthals. Yet there are real consequences—for example, the recent expiration of the federal Violence Against Women Act after the Republican House refused to vote on it.
More importantly, however, we have to recognize that there has been a much wider backsliding on the issue of rape and sexual violence.
Before the women’s movement of the 1960s and ’70s, the dominant idea of rape was that it was something that happened in dark alleys and bad neighborhoods, committed by strangers. The women’s movement punctured this mythology, revealing the truth—that most rapes happen between people who know each other and that sexual assault is much more common than people think. This represented a huge advance.
But the backlash against the gains of the women’s movement has had significant consequences. First, it has eroded steps towards actual equality between women and men and contributed to a culture steeped in sexism—one in which it is acceptable to think of women as objects for men’s pleasure. Second, it has changed the way in which rape and sexual assault are talked about.
Today, the myth of stranger rape has been replaced by the myth of what is referred to as “gray rape”—the idea that it is hard to identify what constitutes consent or non-consent, and that many situations described as rape are murky or confusing.
In the early 1990s, author Katie Roiphe wrote a book called The Morning After: Fear, Sex and Feminism, which essentially claimed that date rape didn’t exist. Instead, according to Roiphe, date rape was a matter of women waking up and changing their minds. “There is a gray area in which one person’s rape may be another’s bad night,” she wrote. Her argument was that women weren’t willing to take responsibility for their own sexual activity and instead reverted to accusations of rape.
Roiphe’s argument was shocking at the time, but now some of the reactionary assumptions she peddled have seeped into the mainstream discussion.
The women’s magazine Cosmopolitan, usually filled with articles about how women can best satisfy men, was the first to push the concept of “gray rape.” In a cover article, journalist Laura Sessions Stepp laid out the basic argument: “Many experts feel that gray rape is in fact often a consequence of today’s hookup culture: lots of partying and flirting, plenty of alcohol and, ironically, the idea that women can be just as bold and adventurous about sex as men are. How can something so potentially empowering become so damaging?”
In other words, the narrative goes like this: women have become more sexually active, alcohol use has increased, and there is an increasing “hookup culture”—therefore, confusion has developed over what constitutes consent. So sometimes men “cross the line,” but no one’s quite clear about whether it was rape or not.
There is a right-wing version of this narrative and a liberal one, cloaked in concern for women.
The right-wing argument essentially tells women that if you’re going to play with the big boys, then you’re going to get hurt. Stepp’s Cosmopolitan article quotes a woman saying, “If you make the choice to leave the bar with the guy, then you are also creating the opportunity for something to go wrong. I think that is the point that needs to be driven home to everyone who participates in the hookup culture. Yes, you can practice safe sex. Yes, you can have casual sex without strings. But this behavior carries a risk.”
An important read.