Steubenville in context

The recent conviction of two of the Steubenville rapists represents a small victory in the struggle against sexual violence. The perpetrators would not even have been brought to trial had it not been for the efforts of blogger Alexandria Goddard who documented many of the posts, photos and videos that witnesses and offenders later deleted. Her blog brought the rape of sixteen-year-old Jane Doe on August 11, 2012 in Steubenville, Ohio to the attention of the public. In January, the group Anonymous further amplified the struggle in Steubenville by publicizing details about the crime and its cover-up. In the international context of the New Delhi gang rape and the heated struggle that emerged in India, the Steubenville case shed light on the crisis of sexual violence in the United States and stoked outrage nationwide.

Women spoke out by the thousands, marching and protesting in solidarity with Jane Doe in Steubenville and the 1.2 million women raped every year in the U.S. Two of the rapists—Trent Mays and Ma'lik Richmond—were convicted in juvenile court March 17 and sentenced to one and two years, respectively, in juvenile detention. The convictions in this case were the result of widespread public outrage and pressure that left prosecutors unable to cover up the crime.

Media sympathizes with rapists, not victim

Media coverage of the verdict has focused on the "tragic" consequences for Mays and Richmond, both star athletes who were consistently described as "promising" students with bright futures. The consequences for the victim and the horrific details of the crime have seldom been mentioned. In fact, from CNN to Fox News, the media expressed sympathy for the perpetrators while some coverage went so far as to actually blame the victim, pointedly referring to her as having been “intoxicated,” as if that justified her being raped. Fox News broke with journalistic ethics by revealing the victim’s name on the air, resulting in misogynist death threats being made against her.

Because the problem of widespread sexual violence is so seldom addressed and victims of sexual assault so seldom see justice, the dominant ideas about rape and rapists are skewed by racist and sexist ideas about what constitutes rape and who commits it. Rape as portrayed on TV crime shows is usually committed by a mentally unstable stranger who lurks in the bushes. Another variation on this image of the rapist is the myth of the predatory Black man who targets white women—a myth that has been used as justification for the legal and extralegal lynching of countless Black men.

In truth, the Steubenville rapists are more representative of the real face of rape than most men who are prosecuted. The majority of women are assaulted by men they know. That so many rapists are apparently “normal” men, (some with promising futures) only adds to the feelings of shame and lack of justice for victims. Acknowledging sexual violence in the United States means acknowledging its perpetrators – the vast majority of whom are not strangers.

Instead of questioning the patriarchal culture that promotes the idea that women’s bodies exist only for men to use, many in the media questioned instead the victim’s right to seek justice against her attackers. The threats against her make it clear that the problem of sexual violence is not limited to Steubenville, but has deep roots in women’s oppression and requires systemic change. To talk about how to prevent or end rape would require confronting the sexism embedded in every aspect of this system. It is no surprise that corporate media is unwilling to have such a conversation, but for those of us who fight for equality and justice, that conversation cannot be avoided. We must confront and fight sexism wherever it appears, until all are treated with equal respect.

Rape is never the victim's fault

It has become clear that many people do not understand that rape is never the victim’s fault. It is never acceptable to touch a woman without her consent. A woman’s personal history or degree of intoxication is irrelevant. A woman who is raped is no more responsible for being raped than a burglary victim is responsible for being robbed. Rapists choose to commit a crime. If Mays and Richmond did not fully understand that what they did constituted rape and that rape is a crime, it is understandable in the context of a patriarchal culture that minimizes and ignores the very sexual violence it promotes. However, that is also not the victim’s fault. The threat to the rapists’ “promising futures” comes not from the victim, but from their choice to commit a violent, criminal act.

Some progressive commentators have expressed sympathy for the rapists, even while acknowledging the horror of their crimes. Such sympathy may be rooted in an understanding that the American “justice” system is designed to control and oppress the poor, particularly people of color. Mass incarceration is a women’s issue, as many women and our loved ones are affected by the racist police and courts. Like the problem of sexual violence, the sexism embedded in the racist criminal system of mass incarceration cannot be ignored. The sexism inherent in the system of mass incarceration is highlighted by police, courts and jails that consistently fail to prosecute crimes against women.

Sexual violence and mass incarceration: two grave injustices

To demand justice in this case, and to cheer the small step toward justice that one victim received, is not to defend that system. While understanding that the current system of mass incarceration cannot and will not rehabilitate rapists, as feminists we demand an end to the shaming, cover-ups and victim blaming too often associated with sexual assault cases such as this one. The racist mass incarceration of young men and women of color across the country is a great injustice, but ignoring and covering up sexual violence will not right that injustice.

Ending racist mass incarceration and ending the epidemic of sexual violence both require the same radical, systemic change. We must organize and fight together as women to demand an end to police terror on our communities and sexual violence against our bodies. United, we have the power to create real change. The new women’s movement must stand firm and demand the right to live free from violence. We will continue to fight for Jane Doe in Steubenville, and for the millions who become victims of sexual violence, as we push forward toward full equality.