I have read accounts of the now-infamous Steubenville, Ohio, rape with horror. I have seen the photo of kids passed around on social media of the boys who carried the drunk 16-year-old victim by the hands and feet like one might haul a hog to its slaughter. And I have listened with disgust to reports that the coach of the "promising" football players probably knew what happened and about the photos and tweets documenting the rape on social media--and did nothing immediately to report it.
I have grimaced at accounts of a huge segment of Steubenville lining up behind the rapists. I have been shocked to hear that many teenagers (and apparently adults) don't believe that pulling a drunk teen girl's underwear down and violating her with one's fingers is rape or even illegal. And I have observed with unmitigated disgust that many so-called reputable media outlets reported more positively about the rapists than the victim at the sentencing. CNN, FOX News and MSNBC even named the rape victim.
As I've taken in all of this, I can recall hearing details of the gang rape in New Bedford, Mass., in 1983 when four men raped a young mother on a pool table with a crowd looking on, and no one responded to her screams for help. (Jody Foster later won an Oscar for her role in "The Accused," which paid homage to the New Bedford case.) The men's trial became widely known for the defense attorneys' efforts to demonize the victim. No rapist served more than six-and-a-half years.
I also think of the 1989 rape of a 17-year-old mentally handicapped girl in Glen Ridge, N.J., by members of the Glen Ridge High School football team. These rapists used a broomstick and a bat to perpetuate their crime while other teens watched and encouraged them. Many people in the community backed those young men as well, saying that the young woman was "promiscuous."
One thing I can agree with is that the whole damn thing is tragic. From every direction and every angle. Up and down. Inside and out. Backward and forward.
But here's the thing: All of the men and boys above somehow believed that what they were doing was OK. They were surrounded by other people who cheered them on and didn't try to stop them. Once they went on trial, supporters lined up behind them, blaming the victims (for getting drunk, for stopping at the wrong bar for cigarettes, for trying to get people to like her, for being a whore or slut).
It's easy to shrug our shoulders and say, "Wow, what horrible boys/men those were." And while we do that, let's hope that no young men we know ever end up inebriated in a mob mentality where they somehow act on society-taught instincts that "boys will be boys" and that they can't be expected to control themselves.
Bottom line: Our society is to blame. Every time someone blames a woman first for the violence that happened to her--Why did she stay? Why did she drink? Why did act sexy? Why did she go to the club?--that person reinforces the idea that it is up to women to avoid being a victim of sexual assault or violence. Because, you know, men and boys just can't help themselves in certain situations.
This complete disdain for crime victims is bad enough, and it's sexism at its worst and most despicable. But that's not all that royally sucks about this nasty societal habit. It's also the ultimate insult of men and boys. All of them.
This kind of caveman attitude--well, you know that men can't help themselves if a woman excites poor him too much--lumps all males into the lowest common denominator of human being. It's not possible for men to control themselves, we're told, so women have to be very, very careful. Meantime, even women who are careful become victims, and if one of us slips up and has too much to drink, all bets are off. And if we're victims, then we go on jail and our lace panties get passed around as evidence that we're sluts.
Every woman and every man should, must speak out against sexual violence and the really dumb, stupid, criminal-forgiving idea that men can't control themselves if women step out of line somehow. The only people this serves are sexual deviants--and we might avoid some of that deviance if society didn't preach that sexual assault is probably the woman's fault. It's hard to imagine a sexual-assault victim who doesn't have to "prove" her own innocence before anyone will take her seriously. And you wonder why more women don't come forward, allowing so many rapists to roam free and strike again, whether on dates or in dark alleys or, later, with their own kids.
Of course, you throw into this mix the look-the-other-way culture that permeates locker rooms, and we have a crisis on steroids. From Penn State to Steubenville to the Pittsburgh Steelers, we have learned that people willingly look the other way when the perpetrator is a football star on whatever level. Somehow, we think, if a dude can pass or block well, he gets a pass to do anything he wants to women or even young men. Because, you know, he has such a "promising" future.
If the football coach at Steubenville knew about this rape and didn't report it the second he found out, he should go to prison. Yes, the rapists clearly need to do time, but so does any adult who allows rape to go unreported. And the idea that someone in a position to teach and mentor young people would cover up such horror is just unspeakable. This is exactly why it continues: It's called permission.
But every one of us shares the responsibility here. We must do everything in our power to teach that rape is rape, whether with sticks, fingers or anything else. We all also must encourage men to stand up for their gender by not allowing these kinds of stereotypes about them to be perpetuated. Not all men are rapists, and anyone who treats them as such is practicing a disgusting form of reverse sexism and bigotry.
So let's break this down: If she (or he) says no, and you don't stop, it's rape. If she is too drunk to say no, assume no. It does not matter how "slutty" you think he or she is acting, or how the person is dressed, or how drunk. No matter if she came on to you and then changed her mind; we have the right to do that, too.
Rape is rape. No is no. And rapists, and their accomplices, should go to prison. That includes those who don't report it.
Also read: Donna Ladd tells the story of her sexual assault by a football star when she was a teenager (jfp.ms/ladd_assault).