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.