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.