Chances are you had never heard of Steubenville, Ohio before the heinous rape case where social media tools were used to help circulate an assault on a young girl was thrust into the media. Giving full disclosure, I am from ’round these parts (as we call it back home). I am from a town similar in size and culture in Ohio about two hours away from Steubenville. That makes me uniquely qualified to assess this case from an insider’s perspective, but admittedly…it also makes it a bit difficult to maintain objectivity as I am familiar with the story and the small town culture this case represents. Still, I will do my best to inform you about why this case is so important and how its outcome has far reaching implications for sports programs and sexual assault cases across the country.
In small town America, sports is big business. To set the scene for the Steubenville rape scandal, recall the movie ‘Friday Night Lights’ or even ‘Varsity Blues.’ For those who have never seen either film, both contain a tale of small town America, a successful football team and the lives of its members. The hopes and dreams of some families are tied directly to the success of their teenage football star(s). In the movie and in real life, the expectation that a child will carry a family out of poverty or elevate them into a new social class creates an unrealistic notion of adult responsibility. With that responsibility comes a lot of leeway for the young men from adults, and lots of competition from young girls attempting to hitch a ride on the first thing smoking out of the sticks.
Thus is the cultural backdrop for the Steubenville rape case. Two athletes are accused of raping a 16-year old girl at various parties over the course of one evening. There is a disturbing photo that shows the two suspects, one holding the victim’s arms and the other her legs at the ankles as she appears passed out, that is paramount to the case. That photo, coupled with eyewitness testimony, has led Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond to be charged with rape. Both boys, one 17-years old and the other 16-years old, have been charged as juveniles and not adults. If convicted, they will only serve a sentence until they respectively turn 21.
In the digital age, the eye witness testimony in this case is still perhaps the most powerful piece of this story. According Yahoo Sports, party attendant Mark Cole told the judge at a preliminary hearing last fall that “he videotaped Mays using his fingers to assault the victim as she was passed out in the backseat of a car.” Apparently the boys thought it wise to transport the victim from party to party that night, documenting their assault of her for all of social media to see. Back in August 2012 when the alleged assault took place, Tweets and Instagram photos were posted referencing a ‘gang rape’ of the victim. Many of the commenters were unmoved by the very real event and made remarks that apparently cheered on the alleged attackers and shamed the victim.
Cole and another young man, Anthony Craig, testified that “…they saw Mays again digitally penetrating the girl in Cole’s basement while an exposed Richmond attempted to put his penis in the girl’s mouth and later slapped it on her naked hip.” As Yahoo Sports reports, “More camera phone photos were taken at that time – including one described Wednesday of both the girl and Mays naked from the waist down – although they were soon deleted.”
Steubenville Big Red football players Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond are in a fight for their lives as the trial begins. However, the spotlight is on more than just this trial. A culture of ‘boys will be boys’ and slut-shaming is being exposed not only in this small, mid-America town, but across the country as this case has drawn national coverage and controversy. The defense team for the boys have readied their ‘it was consensual’ speech to deliver to the judge; despite all the evidence (photos and eye-witness) to the contrary. The girl was clearly passed out, under the influence and in no condition to say ‘yes’ to anything.
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Perhaps the most troubling thing about this case is the camera pictures taken by on-lookers with no attempts made to stop the assault. If we’re going with movie references, think ‘The Accused.’ No woman (or man), passed out or straight sober, should have to endure being assaulted and worse, having it documented with photo evidence for the enjoyment of others. In order to prevent this type of thing from happening, it’s wise remain sober and aware of one’s environment. However, we’ve heard of women observing that advice who were unknowingly drugged by their attacker and then raped. While, there is no clear evidence that this girl was drugged, she was among friends and (like most of us in a party atmosphere with our friends) probably felt comfortable letting her guard down as she drank (if she did indeed drink). Sadly, that mistake has cost her in many ways.
Parents can certainly use this case as a teachable moment with their children; alerting girls to the dangers of becoming drunk at a party and teaching boys not to encourage or participate in sexual assault will go a long way. Underage drinking is certainly a topic parents can discuss in regard to this situation as well. However…at what point do we, as a society, say ‘no more’ to simply educating women on how to not get raped and spend more time educating boys on how not to violate women in any manner? Instead of only asking, “why was she drunk…why was she alone…what kind of parents does she have,” why aren’t more of us asking, “why did Mays and Richmond think it was okay to carry this girl from party to party like a rag-doll, assaulting her all along the way?”
Will prosecuting these boys to the fullest extent of the law, and charging every teen who took and distributed photos and videos of the assault with child pornography, thereby branding them a sexual predator for life be the example needed to deter other teens from participating in such a heinous crime?
Or will Mays and Richmond’s defense team resort to the tried and true “she was a whore and consented’ defense to once again reinforce and perpetuate the rape culture in the United States?