The recent media coverage of the Steubenville, Ohio, rape trial was disturbing to say the least. Little to no concern has been aimed at the victim and instead what we saw repeatedly, was sympathy for the rapists. To be clear, both of these young men are guilty of rape and there should be no soft peddling of what happened. The fact that the media was so concerned with the promising future these two rapists lost through their conviction, speaks loudly about the pervasiveness of rape culture.
I recently read a piece by rocker Henry Rollins, where he had the following to say regarding the rape:
What made these young people think that that what they did was ok? What was in their upbringing, the information and morals instilled in them that allowed them to do what they did, minute after minute, laughing, joking, documenting it and then calling it a night and going home? Out of all the people who were witness to what happened, why wasn’t there someone putting a stop to it?
What I am attempting to get at, and I apologize if I am not being clear enough is that this is a failure on many levels. Parents, teachers, coaches, peers all come into play here. I am not trying to diffuse blame or lessen the awfulness of what happened but I want to address the complexity of the cause in an effort to assess the effect so it can be prevented.
Some might say that the two going to the youth facility are as much victims as the young women who was assaulted. I do not agree. The two are offenders. What they did was obviously wrong. That being said, we cannot end the discussion at that point and expect things to change.
Many people are angry that more time was not given to the offenders. This seems to be the prevailing sentiment. I understand the anger but don’t know if adding a decade onto their sentences would be of any benefit. To me, the problem that needs to be addressed is where in the information chain were the two offenders made to understand that what they did was not wrong on every possible level? You can execute them both tomorrow but still, there is a problem that needs to be dealt with.
Given that we now have an incident in which two young athletes have been accused of second-degree sexual assault of a 13 year old girl in Connecticut, clearly there is a problem. Rollins is right to wonder how to change the idea that it is acceptable to violate another person in this fashion. He is right to question the victim blaming which occurs uniformly when a woman or girl is violated. The responsibility for ending sexual assault does not lie with women but with men.
I do however think that we have a responsibility to speak to our sons about rape. When we finally get around to having “the talk,” along with conversations regarding safe sex, we should be talking about enthusiastic consent. We should be teaching our sons to respect women from the start. As parents, we should be struggling to counter the negative messages that the media sends.
Part of raising boys to be men should be about teaching them from an early age about male privilege and actively talking about the importance of respecting women. These conversations should increase and become far more serious as they age. Sitting by passively and allowing them to naturalise the messages the media sends about violence against women and sexual assault, is abdicating parental responsibility. You cannot assume that they will grow up to think that it is wrong to hit a woman, or rape at will when the media, society and video games glorify these acts and treat it as a right of manhood.
What scares me about these incidents of rape, is not only that they occurred at all, but the degree of communal support these young men are receiving. It has not occurred to their communities to address the degree of violence or the cause behind it, but there has been plenty of questioning of the level of the victims responsibility in their own assault, as though any woman through her actions can protect against rape. It has been absolutely horrific to hear about the young girls enraged at the victims for causing their friends to go jail. To be clear, no one accidentally rapes a person. Rape is always a conscious act of will and no amount of apology or punishment can ever erase the harm that has been done.
What connects the Steubenville, Ohio case and the Torrington High School case is that all of the young men involved are football players. There can be no denial that across the U.S., a cult has developed around football. Through their status as athletes, these young men achieve social position and power. It is this power that emboldens them to believe them that they are omnipotent and most certainly above the law. When teachers, coaches, parents and entire communities weekly celebrate them and encourage this belief, can we really be surprise that they then chose to use their power in the most corrupt fashion possible?
If we are going to elevate these young men to cult leader type status, they need to be made to understand that such privilege and such power comes with great responsibility. They should not only be accountable for their actions but held to a higher standard, in light of the power that has been given to them. A desire to win the big game, which will in no way effect the futures of the youth of their various communities, should not take precedence over ensuring that girls and women are safe to walk the streets – to take up room and to be seen. Ending rape, violence against women and misogyny is not an insurmountable task, if we choose to teach our youth from their earliest days that women matter. It may mean challenging media portrayals and demanding that women studies be actively taught in the schools, but change is possible; we just all have to want it.