What’s So Funny About Steubenville?

What’s So Funny About Steubenville?

Decades of feminist work on rape awareness may have changed policy, but it has done little to change the culture.


Trent Mays, left, and Ma’lik Richmond sit in juvenile court in Steubenville, Ohio, March 15, 2013. (Reuters/Keith Srakocic)

Feminists breathed a sigh of relief on Sunday when two young men in Steubenville, Ohio, Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays, 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 outcome doesn’t change the fact that these two men, along with a party of onlookers, didn’t think anything was wrong—or even out of the ordinary—about sexually violating someone. And as the media and public response to the trial demonstrated, it’s not just the rapists who believe penetrating an unconscious girl is little more than teenage party hijinks. The truth is that for all of our cultural bluster surrounding rape—how awful it is, how it must be stopped—we’re still a country that treats 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 crimes on social networks and kept photographic momentos. Mays and Richmond joked about the rape, sending pictures to friends and sending texts peppered with “LOLs.” Mays even texted a friend that “she was naked the whole time but she was like dead.” Bystanders at the party similarly looked at the assault and humiliation of this unconscious girl not as rape or something to worry about, but as typical party fare.

One teen who testified took a cell phone video of Mays digitally penetrating the victim in a car, and also saw Mays try to get the girl to perform a sex act on him but “she didn’t really respond to it.” Another witness walked in on the girl being raped by Richmond, did nothing and left the party. When asked why he didn’t stop the assault, he said he didn’t realize it was rape: “It wasn’t violent… I thought [rape] was forcing yourself on someone.” This same teen has taken keys away from a drunk friend earlier in the night. He knew that driving drunk was dangerous, but not that there was anything wrong with penetrating an unconscious girl.

Even 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. He wrote to a friend, “I shoulda raped her since everyone thinks I did.” Mays even texted the victim that she should have thanked him for taking care of her.

This attitude wasn’t limited to students—text messages also indicate that football coach Reno Saccoccia led the young men to believe what happened wasn’t a big deal: “Like, he was joking about it, so I’m not worried.”

Even once 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.

Since the verdict, the teenage victim has been attacked on social media—she has been faulted 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 just charged with threatening the victim on Facebook and Twitter.

CNN’s coverage of the verdict—which consisted largely of bemoaning the lost “promising” lives of the rapists—was so outrageous it bordered on parody. (Literally: a much-criticized segment sounded suspiciously like this Onion video.)

This kind of response, sadly, has come to be expected. It’s a continuation of the same old story—a narrative that started long before Steubenville. A story that says everyone is overreacting, this isn’t a big deal, this is PC-ness run amok. It’s a common story in a country that doesn’t have a real understanding of what rape really is.

Decades of feminist work on rape awareness may have changed policy, but it has done little to change the culture. In fact, the legislative 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 run by a comedian who garnered tremendous support after he “joked” about a woman in his audience being gang raped.) A “funny” montage of women’s breasts shown at the Oscars included rape scenes. We have handfuls of qualifiers—date, legitimate, forcible, gray—that we throw in front of “rape” because we want to know if an assault was a “real” rape or one of those non-rapes 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 goalposts for their masculinity. Basically, we’re anything other than people deserving of respect and humanity. While 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 punchline.

Unless jock culture changes drastically, Steubenville-type incidents aren’t going away anytime soon, Dave Zirin writes.

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