Some thoughts on the Steubenville, Ohio rape case

One story I’ve been following for a while now – ever since I read an in-depth article in the New York Times that laid out the situation from beginning to end – is the Steubenville, Ohio rape case, the alleged perpetrators of which began their trial yesterday. If you have gleaned only a passing familiarity with the case from the news so far, I recommend this concise report from ThinkProgress on the salient points (or, if you have a little more time, go for the Times article). The relevant issues here include privacy, the use of social media, the place of sports in our culture, and, predominantly, sexual consent, and the overall treatment of women, all of which have seen some rapid changes in the past few decades.

I don’t have a whole lot to say about the case, other than let justice be done, but there are a couple worrying factors, aside from the central despicable though alleged act itself.

These two football players, the alleged perpetrators, if it is indeed proven that they did it, and they are found guilty, they of course deserve whatever happens to them. I am not defending them. But in some of the video files which led to this case – and which apparently informed the victim the following day of what, exactly, had been done to her, as she claims to have no memory of the event – the football players and their football player friends at the party can be seen and heard making some jokes that are pretty disgusting, and that are bound to incite some amount of hatred towards them. Jokes about rape and death and such, comments of a graphically sexual nature. I just hope these comments are not allowed to color the jury’s image of these boys, as they do not conclusively mean anything. Teenage boys are often given to sexual hyperbole, and hyperbole in general, and in today’s youth culture, shock-humor reigns as a supreme form of entertainment. In bad taste, yes, but one boy saying that the girl “is so raped right now” and is “deader” than Trayvon Martin in only indicative of a somewhat perverse sense of humor – one induced entirely by the prevailing winds of popular culture – and nothing else. For those who spend their free time in high school studying instead of at parties – a lifestyle choice I absolutely abhorred at the time, but now in my mid-twenties and struggling through a second attempt at college sorely wish I had chosen for myself – I can tell you that this kind of talk is not only common, but ubiquitous. Kids will say anything for a laugh, and if you get in with a group that upholds that sense of humor, there are no limits to what will be said. It doesn’t mean these are bad kids though, just that they have some maturing to do.

That all being said, I am most interested to see how far the Steubenville townsfolk will defend these boys. The impression is that being on the high school football team is akin to local royalty – this isn’t hard to imagine, as I came from a town similar in both size and veneration of its hometown football team – and though the town has been split as residents take sides for or against the boys, the vast majority have chosen to believe they are innocent. I just wonder how far the adulation will go, and if they are proven to be doubtlessly and remorselessly guilty, how many townspeople will continue to defend their actions. The current party line seems to be that the alleged victim “got herself into trouble by being too drunk.”

Though drunkenness is of course no reason or excuse to ever take advantage of a girl – or anyone – and though her silence – as in she “didn’t affirmatively say no” – is not legally a form of consent under Ohio’s law, I can’t help but think that at least a very small part of the onus must be on her to not put herself in this situation in the first place. Just a small part, though. The big steaming massive onus to not rape her – if she was indeed raped – is on the rapists, if that is what they are. Or, as said much better by Annie-Rose Strasser in the ThinkProgress article:

There is a clear media narrative at work now: That two boys, just trying to get by on the love of football, are facing the trials of a public court, and that they might be denied the chance to play again. But that line bumps up against a broader conversation that is just beginning to crack the surface of the mainstream: That women’s bodies shouldn’t be seen as commodities, and that our culture needs to stop teaching women not to get raped and start teaching men not to rape in the first place.

The recent and hugely public Jerry Sandusky trial has brought to light the question of how much we value our sports and the people who play them, even outside the professional level, and whether, in some places where this is the case, success on the football field should be allowed the same credence as valiance or bravery in other areas. In my opinion, the answer to this is an unequivocal NO. Far too much focus and, more importantly, MONEY, go to the sports programs of colleges and even high schools, often at the expense, literally, of everything else. As public schools have been squeezed by budget cut after budget cut during the recession, it was the various academic programs that were seen as less important, such as certain literature and history and arts programs, that were cut before any sports were. In my opinion, it should be the opposite. (I’ve seen this particular issue take effect personally, as the university I attend made these same decisions.) We hold up these athletes as symbols of our community, and our virility, and for some as outlets for shattered dreams and missed opportunities to be lived vicariously anew. And so what if we look the other way when things get bad? So now – though these are admittedly extreme examples – the seemingly unconditional love and affection we as a community have for these players has extended to defending the indefensible, protecting the unforgivable, shielding the downright vile and despicably evil behind a thin veil of denial and rationalization until they’ve done their worst and the veil disintegrates, and takes down everybody else along with it – Penn State, Duke Lacrosse, Baylor University basketball…and now maybe Steubenville?

I hope not. I would be happiest to hear that it turns out no one was victimized in this case. But the silver lining, if there is one, could be that we start to re-examine the fascination with local sports, reassess what is best for everyone, and reorganize our priorities in a way that values that which benefits us all and the health of the community.

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