I live in a country that has recently been the headline of international news because of the horrific and tragic case of a young woman being raped in a bus and losing her life as a result of the injuries she sustained from that assault. The Delhi bus rape brought sexual assault in India to the forefront of international news, and resulted in heated commentary about the situation of women and girls in India, the accepting and approving attitude towards sexual harassment and rape, and the common belief that women themselves are usually somehow at fault when they are sexually assaulted or raped.
While India tries to battle with endemic violence against women by enacting new laws, training police officers to be more sensitive and prompt in cases of rape, and changing the general attitude towards violence against women, in the US a disturbing case of a teenage girls rape in Steubenville, Ohio, has been bringing to the public debate a deeply entrenched notion of sexual assault and abuse still being considered as “boys being boys” or something that “just happens” – and, still too often, as something that the victim herself is somehow responsible for. In case you have somehow managed to miss the media coverage around this case, you can get a very detailed overview of the case from this New York Times piece. For a shorter run-through, visit Buzzfeed for their “Definitive Timeline of the Steubenville Rape Case”
As a result of a guilty verdict for the two perpetrators, certain news agencies responded by focusing their reporting on the hardship and emotional toll that this whole incident, and a guilty verdict, must have had on the two promising and successful young football stars.
No wait – I mean the two men guilty of rape.
A 16-year old girls was raped. She was an honour student, and an athlete. She had a promising future. The thing is though, that none of that matters any more than the promising futures or potential of her rapists, or whether or not she was drunk when the rape happend. Rape and sexual assault are just wrong. Illegal. Always. There are no ifs or buts. Raping an honor student is just as wrong as raping a college drop-out, or a homeless woman, or a prostitute, or your wife. There is no law that says “rape is wrong, unless she was drunk/wearing a mini skirt/had not been saving herself for marriage”. There is also no law that says that rape is less wrong if the perpetrators happen to be “successful”, “good students” or “promising young athletes”. It shouldn’t matter if you’re the goddamn president. Rape Is Wrong, and I cannot believe that we still have to have these debates over the “legitimacy” or severity of rape and sexual assault in today’s societies, whether it be India or the United States. I cannot believe that even after a guilty verdict has been passed, CNN sees it fit to say “Two football players found guilty of raping an allegedly drunk 16-year-old girl”. Allegedly drunk? How is that relevant? Why is that relevant? It isn’t. And yet, we keep coming back to these issues: She was drunk. She had been promiscuous. She was wearing a short skirt. She was flirting with them. It was her fault. She was asking for it.
(In regards to the Delhi bus rape, CNN published this opinion piece that strongly condemns India’s accepting attitude towards sexual violence and rape, as well as the very common “blaming the women” attitude towards violence against women. This same notion did not somehow seem to apply to the Steubenville case.)
What makes the Steubenville case extremely saddening are the videos, Twitter comments and public statements that have been surfacing throughout the past months – in support of the perpetrators. I tried to sit through the leaked video where young men chuckle and joke about assaulting an unconscious girl. Where they laugh about her being “dead”. When they joke about someone urinating on her. A text message where one of the accused promising young men states that he should have just raped her, since everyone thinks he did. That text message also shows how this young man at that point still believed that what he did was not rape. That inserting his fingers inside an unconscious girl, and trying to force her to have oral sex, was not rape.
There are no excuses, no justifications, and no one should try to come up with any. Why is it so hard to agree on the very simple and indisputable fact that when it comes to rape, it is just black-and-white wrong. WRONG. ILLEGAL. Young men who rape women are not “promising”. Young men who rape women are not “successful”. Young men who rape are rapists. Men who sexually assault and rape women are just as guilty and should be condemned just as rigorously not only by the justice system, but also by the society, whether the violence takes place in the US or in India. We like to talk about the “accepting rape culture” of those other countries and cultures – but never our own. The public reactions to the Steubenville case show how the notion of the “otherness” of a cultural acceptance towards rape and sexual assault is a completely false notion. Accepting attitudes are not just problems of those other cultures – those attitudes are very much alive in our own culture as well.
I am a proponent of second chances, because I want to believe that people can change. I have watched the CNN video, and seen one of the perpetrators break down in tears. I don’t doubt his remorse is genuine – but I am not sure whether his remorse is driven by him actually understanding that what he did was wrong and illegal, or by the fact that his actions actually had severe consequences for him and his future. I also don’t necessarily believe that neither one of these young men is a lost cause, or an evil person-or that their lives are now utterly and entirely “lost”. However – that does not mean that they shouldn’t have been held accountable. Their level of responsibility has nothing to do with them being “star football players” or “good students”. Their lives were not ruined by the guilty verdict – their lives were ruined by their own choice to sexually assault and rape a girl. These boys are old enough to know right from wrong. They are old enough to know that forcefully inserting something into a girl’s vagina without her consent constitutes rape and is a crime. They did it any way. That is what ruined their lives – and that, most importantly, is what may have ruined the life of that young girl.
What the behaviour of those boys on the leaked video shows is utter disrespect for another human being. It tells a story of incredible insensitivity and disrespect, violence and profanity. I don’t care how drunk these boys were – I refuse to believe that any stable, healthy, half-descent and respectful individual would be capable of such behaviour just because he or she had too much to drink. If that was the case, there would be a potential rapist and sexual predator in all of us, just waiting for the right amount of alcohol to trigger and unleash those qualities. I don’t want to believe that these boys couldn’t change, and I am willing to believe, to a certain point, that this was “a mistake” – but they still needed to be held accountable. Some mistakes are too big to be brushed under the carpet. I feel no sympathy over their “lives lost”, “wasted potential” or “ruined promising careers”. Whatever those boys might have “lost” is nothing compared to what their victim lost that night – her sense of security, bodily integrity, right to privacy, right to a violence-free life. The perpetrators are entirely responsible for their own actions and own decision. There has been concern voiced by certain media outlets about these young men being labelled as convicted sex offenders, and that label “haunting them” for the rest of their lives. You know what? They ARE sex offenders. They ARE rapist. And they will be sex offenders and rapists for the rest of their lives – because of choices they made themselves. The victim of this crime will also be haunted by what happened that night, for the rest of her life – and none of it was her fault, or her responsibility. None of it.
When you think about the emotions these boys were going through when the verdict came in, and how hard all this has been for them, how about you lay down and close your eyes. How about you now think about someone undressing you and touching your body against your will, and you are unable to stop them. Think about someone’s hands on your skin and body, when you did not invite those hands there. Think about someone taking pictures of your naked body, and posting them online. Think about people around you laughing at you, making grotesque jokes about raping you, humiliating you. Think about someone talking about sexually violating your body when you are dead, inserting things inside you, urinating on your body – and recording this “joking” on video and posting it online. Imagine someone forcefully inserting their fingers, or their penis, or some other object, inside your body. Imagine there is nothing you can do about it.
Then imagine up waking up to a world that calls you a whore for “wanting it”; that tells you that you had it coming. That you’re just “a loose drunk slut”, because raping someone who is drunk is not rape; that these boys “did what most men would have done”; that it was your fault. Imagine getting death threats for ruining the lives of those promising, successful boys. Imagine being blamed for being raped.
Now imagine this is happening to your daughter. To your wife. To your mother. To your grandmother. To your sister. To a child. To a disabled person. To an unconscious girl. To your girlfriend. Imagine them laying there, helpless, unable to stop it. Imagine the world blaming them for what happened to them, telling them it was their fault, telling them that they asked for it, that they are responsible. Imagine this is happening to a woman every two minutes, and to hundreds of thousands of women in the US alone, every year. Imagine those women being touched without their consent, penetrated forcefully, violated, abused. Imagine those women having to live with knowledge of those things happening to them and their bodies for the rest of their lives.
Whose life do you think was ruined?
Read more about reactions to the media’s (mainly CNN’s) reporting on the Steubenville case:
- Petition Demands CNN Apologize for “Disgusting” Steubenville Rape Coverage (Buzzfeed)]
- CNN’s Not the Only One Peddling Sympathy for the Steubenville Rapists (The Atlantic Wire)
- CNN Reports on the ‘Promising Future’ of the Steubenville Rapists, who are ‘Very Good Students’ (Gawker)
- Petition requesting CNN to apologize for their coverage of the Steubenville Case (Change.org)
- What’s so Funny about Steubenville (The Nation)
Visit RAINN – Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network – to find out more about sexual violence and abuse in the US, and learn what you can do to help and support victims and protect yourself and those around you from sexual abuse and violence.