Feminists—and everyone else who cares about justice—breathed a sigh of relief when Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays, two young men living in Steubenville, Ohio, were found guilty of raping an unconscious 16-year-old girl. In a case where social media, texts and video painted a clear-as-day picture of the horrors that happened that night, anything other than a guilty verdict was unthinkable.
But the trial’s outcome doesn’t change the fact that these two young men, along with a party of onlookers, didn’t think anything was wrong—or even out of the ordinary—about sexual violation. And as the media and public response to the trial demonstrated, it’s not just the rapists who believe that penetrating an unconscious girl is little more than teenage party high jinks. For all of our cultural bluster surrounding rape—how awful it is, how it must be stopped—as a country, we still treat sexual assault as a joke.
On the night of the assault, the rapists and their friends were so sure they were doing nothing wrong that they broadcast their crime on social networks and kept photographic mementos. Mays and Richmond joked about the rape, sending pictures to friends and texts peppered with “LOL.” Mays even texted a friend that “she was naked the whole time but she was like dead.” Bystanders seemed undisturbed. One teen took a cellphone video of Mays digitally penetrating the victim in a car, and also saw Mays trying to get the girl to perform a sex act on him—but, he testified, “She didn’t really respond to it.” Another witness walked in on the rape of the girl by Richmond and left the party. Asked why he didn’t stop the assault, the witness said he didn’t realize it was rape: “It wasn’t violent…. I thought [rape] was forcing yourself on someone.” This same teen had taken the car keys away from a drunk friend earlier that night. He knew that driving drunk was dangerous, but not that there was anything wrong with penetrating an unconscious girl.
In the days after the rape, text messages show that the seriousness of the assault—or the idea that it was an assault at all—was lost on Mays. After rumors began to circulate in the town that Mays had raped the girl, he wrote to a friend, “I shoulda raped now that everybody thinks I did.” Mays even texted the victim that she should have “thanked” him for “taking care of [her]” by staying with her throughout the night.
This attitude wasn’t limited to students. Text messages also indicate that football coach Reno Saccoccia led the young men to believe that what happened wasn’t a big deal: Mays texted a friend, “he was joking about it so I’m not that worried.” For his part, the coach threatened a reporter, while a volunteer coach was quoted in The New York Times claiming that the victim had made the story up, because she regretted staying out late and getting drunk.
Even after the defendants were found guilty, the fact that they had committed rape still seemed to escape them: Mays apologized for taking pictures of the assault, not for the assault itself.
CNN’s coverage of the verdict—which consisted largely of bemoaning the loss of the “promising” lives of the rapists—was so outrageous it bordered on parody. (Literally—a much-criticized segment sounded suspiciously like an Onion video featuring a Colorado basketball star whose “greatest achievement came off the court…when he overcame the trauma of committing a terrible rape.”) In the days since the verdict, the teenage victim has been attacked on social media for drinking too much, for agreeing to get into a car with boys and for “ruining” the lives of her rapists by bringing charges. The harassment has gotten so bad that two women were charged with threatening her on Facebook and Twitter.
Sadly, we’ve come to expect this kind of response. It’s a continuation of the same old story—one that began long before Steubenville. It’s a story that says the victim and her supporters are overreacting; that it wasn’t a big deal; it’s PC-ness run amok. Even politicians like Wisconsin State Representative Roger Rivard say “some girls rape easy,” meaning that they call a night out they later regret “rape.” It’s the default story in a country that doesn’t have a real understanding of what rape is.
Decades of feminist work on rape awareness may have changed policy—we now have protections under the Violence Against Women Act, and in January 2012 the FBI updated its antiquated definition of rape to include male victims and oral and anal penetration—but it has done little to change the culture. In fact, the legal progress we’ve made on sexual assault often provides a rhetorical shield for those who don’t want to admit we live in a rape culture: How can that be possible? Rape is illegal! No one condones it!
But are we really that surprised that these two young men didn’t think their actions were wrong?
Videos of young men running up to women they don’t know just to grab their ass or stomach and run away are played for laughs on shows like Tosh.0. (The show is hosted by a comedian who garnered tremendous support after he joked about a woman in his audience being gang-raped.) At the Oscars, host Seth MacFarlane starred in a “funny” musical number listing movies in which “We Saw Your [Female Actresses’] Boobs,” including a number of scenes of rape or sexual assault. We have handfuls of qualifiers—“date,” “legitimate” “forcible,” “gray”—that we throw in front of “rape” because we want to know if a sexual assault was a “real” rape or one of those nonrapes Republican politicians keep talking about.
And it’s not just rape that’s the joke—it’s women. Our very existence is presented to young men as fodder for sex and laughs, our humiliation and pain as goal posts for their masculinity. Basically, we’re anything other than people deserving respect and humanity. While the mainstream culture fools itself into thinking that Americans take rape seriously, most women know better. We get the joke. We’re just tired of being the punch line.
Feminista.com founder Jessica Valenti blogs regularly on TheNation.com. One recent entry was an open letter “To My Male Relatives on Facebook Who ‘Like’ Sexism.”