What We’ve Learned from Steubenville by Gina Messina-Dysert

Gina Messina-Dysert profileThe nation has watched over these last several months as the rape case in Steubenville, Ohio has unfolded in the media.  On March 17, 2013 the verdict was announced and the two teenage boys accused of raping a 16 year old girl were found guilty on all counts.   Although the verdict was just, all other circumstances surrounding the case, including the sentence, support the existence of a rape culture.  What we have learned from Steubenville is that the humanity of women and girls continues to be of little importance in today’s society.

To begin, the assault itself was horrific.  While two teenage boys took turns raping and abusing the body of Jane Doe, the other boys present took great pleasure in watching, taking pictures, texting, tweeting, facebooking, and video recording the brutality.  It was a scene out of The Accused (the film that recounted the real life rape of a woman while a crowd watched a cheered) all over again–this time with the “benefit” of modern technology.  Not only were those in the room witnesses to this gruesome attack, the entire world became voyeurs as video, pictures, and text went viral.

With star athletes at the center of this case, the community has been split and countless persons have shown support for the rapists.  Protecting Steubenville’s football players has been at the forefront for many and the humanity of a teenage girl has been of little concern. Jane Doe, it has been argued, “put the football team in a bad light and put herself in a position to be violated.” One tweeter commented “her vag would have been fine” but the lives of these boys will be forever destroyed.

steubenville-rapeDuring the trial Good Morning America offered a report titled “Steubenville Rape Case: What You Haven’t Heard” offering the perspective of the rapists.   These young men talked about how they partied too hard after winning a big game and that their fun happened to include objectifying and violating a teenage girl.  Carla Gibson explains that “Their only passing mentions of the victim were intertwined with either how much she was coming on to her rapist at the first party, or how drunk she was as the night went on, and even how gentlemanly her rapist had been when he chivalrously gave his rape victim his coat so she wouldn’t get cold.”

Although these teen boys were 16 and 17 years old when the rape occurred, they were both tried as juveniles.  With a guilty verdict on all counts each rapist was sentenced to a minimum of one year and a maximum of less than four years as they must be released by their 21st birthdays.  As one tweeter pointed out, the “convicted Steubenville rapists are getting less jail time than Aaron Swartz was facing for downloading academic papers.”


News reports following the verdict sympathized with the rapists crying that their lives have been ruined by these convictions.  CNN reporter Poppy Harlow stated that it was “incredibly difficult” to watch “as these two young men who had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believed their life fell apart.”  What about Jane Doe?  What about her life? What about her future? Dignity? Safety? Health? Personhood?

People around the nation quickly took to social media to also lament the verdict.  While the futures of these boys were the great concern of many, the brutalization of Jane Doe was of no consequence to most.  Some claimed there was no justice and that Jane Doe had terrorized the town with her accusations.  Others called for Jane Doe to be prosecuted for drinking under age and causing her own rape.  Are we really to think that Jane Doe deserves to be punished for being raped?  Are we really to think that a person who chooses to rape is not responsible for his own crime?

The attitudes that have prevailed throughout this case are promoted, supported, and condoned by rape culture, a culture where the humanity and dignity of a teenage girl is of no concern but the futures of men are viewed as the foundation of society.   As Laurie Penny states, “What makes these men so sure of their inviolable right to stick their fingers and cocks into any part of any female they can hold down that they actually make and distribute images of each other doing so? Rape culture. That’s what rape culture is. The cultural acceptance of rape.”

So what have we learned from Steubenville?  That rape culture is alive and well, that patriarchy continues, and that violence against women is not only acceptable, but encouraged.  We have learned that the humanity of women continues to be denied and although some claim men and women have achieved “equality,” in fact women and girls live in constant fear and rape is a primary, acceptable, and even celebrated means of maintaining our male dominated society.  Grim, but it’s true.

Gina Messina-Dysert, Ph.D. is a Feminist theologian, ethicist, and activist.  She is Director of the Center for Women’s Interdisciplinary Research and Education at Claremont Graduate University, Visiting Assistant Professor of Theological Ethics at Loyola Marymount University, and Co-founder of Feminism and Religion. Gina has authored multiple articles and the forthcoming book Rape Culture and Spiritual Violence.  She is co-editor (with Rosemary Radford Ruether) of the forthcoming anthology, Feminism and Religion in the 21st Century and is a contributor to the Rock and Theology project sponsored by the Liturgical Press. Her research interests are theologically and ethically driven, involve a feminist and interdisciplinary approach, and are influenced by her activist roots and experience working with survivors of rape and domestic violence.  Gina can be followed on Twitter @FemTheologian and her website can be accessed at http://ginamessinadysert.com.

Author: Gina Messina

Gina Messina, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College and Co-founder of Feminism and Religion. She writes for the Huffington Post and is the author or editor of five books including "Faithfully Feminist" and "Jesus in the White House: Make Humanity Great Again." Her research interests are theologically and ethically driven, involve a feminist and interdisciplinary approach, and are influenced by her activist roots and experience working with survivors of rape and domestic violence. Gina is a widely sought after speaker and has presented across the US at universities, organizations, conferences, and in the national news circuit including appearances on Tavis Smiley, MSNBC, NPR, and the TEDx stage. She has also spoken at the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations to discuss matters impacting the lives women around the globe. She is active in movements to end violence against women and explores opportunities for spiritual healing for those who have encountered gender-based violence. Connect with Gina on Facebook, Twitter @GMessinaPhD, Instagram @GinaMessinaPhD, and her website http://www.ginamessina.com.

30 thoughts on “What We’ve Learned from Steubenville by Gina Messina-Dysert”

  1. People don’t like to hear it, but this is also the culture of football as the “symbol system” that promotes and legitimates patriarchy and rape as patriarchal privilege.

    Some wonder if this is new, but I remember hearing stories of heaving drinking after a football game and gang rape of a drunk girl when I was but a girl myself. At the time, I didn’t even know what was being talked about, but I do remember fragments of the story. This occurred at Northview High School in Covina, California, in the early 1960s.


    1. I think it’s not so much football as the culture of celebrity worship, the same way people make excuses for Chris Brown or Roman Polanski. In a small town, successful football players are the closest thing they have to celebrities.


  2. The rape culture is very prevalent here in Australia too, overly so in the football scene. Many of our elite football players are treated like Gods, they set a moral standard and are role models for so many young men. Rapes get swept under the carpet, the victims often blamed. Not only have many been accused of rape, but drugs, gambling & violence are deeply entrenched in so many of our sporting codes. I can’t stand football myself. I’m sorry, but all I see is a bunch of thugs running around on a field chasing a ball. They earn so much money & status yet there are so many ‘real’ issues, concerns & people who are doing incredible things in this world that warrant the respect, the financial status & praise that these so called ‘stars’ recieve.


  3. My mom almost committed suicide when I sold my season ticket to the Stanford football games after attending one. No dates, and I sure didn’t enjoy it just for the “fun” of it. hee hee. I am sure there were lots of date rapes after football games at Stanford, which luckily for me as a nerd I avoided.


    1. I attended one football game when I was an undergraduate at San Jose State: I had friends in the band, and we went to root for them. More advantage to being nerds. I also avoided frat parties. Good thing.

      I do think you’re all absolutely right about the linkage between the “sports”–a secular religion–mindset (violence, domination, hierarchies, crowds cheering the mayhem, women debased, as “cheerleaders” to Barbies; I could go on but know I don’t have to because you all get it) and acts like the Steubenville rape, the Indian rape/murder, and countless unrecorded and unpunished acts of violence, sexual and otherwise, against women.

      The rapists have had their lives ruined? Football loses a couple of thugs? The community is more worried about them than about the victim, who, as is the case so often, is the one blamed? Events like this–and media commentary sympathetic to the criminals–nauseate me. Physically.

      We as women and as feminists need to refuse to be marginalized or trivialized on this issue, and I’m very grateful to, and proud of, you, Gina, and others like you, for speaking so strongly and well about outrages like this to women, and about cultural acceptance of rape.


  4. Gina: thanks for talking about the case on the blog. Rape culture is indeed alive and well; I am thoroughly disgusted by this case for many of the reasons you cite. You might already know of the following two links, but in case not, let me share. (1) The Onion two years ago basically “predicted” the Steubenville story, particularly the portion of the public sympathy dedicated to the juvenile rapists and not the survivor (http://gawker.com/5991175/this-two+year+old-onion-story-perfectly-predicted-cnns-shocking-steubenville-rape-trial-coverage), (2) Henry Rollins’ worthy-of-a-read comments about the verdict: http://www.underthegunreview.net/2013/03/18/henry-rollins-comments-on-steubenville-rape-verdict/.


    1. Thank you for sharing these, Grace! The Onion piece is so interesting but I really appreciate Rollins comments…putting Women’s Studies or Gender Studies classes in high schools – there is a novel idea.


  5. Patriarchy is a disease of our society, and sports – especially football and ice hockey – are merely symbols of war/conflict that serve to feed the disease. Rape is just one symptom of the disease. Women are objects to be owned and used – much like animals – in patriarchy. Competition is the religion of patriarchy. Wherever groups of men gather and exclude women, trouble ensues (patriarchal religion, sports, even the Boy Scouts). Women are a civilizing influence on men. It is high time we step up and take our rightful places as the leaders of civilization, before patriarchy takes it down. My question is this: how/where do we start to change the male-dominated culture so that domination/subordination/rape/murder of women is no longer tolerated? I would like to hear success stories from mothers who have raised compassionate, caring sons who believe in “power with” rather than “power over” as a paradigm for living.


    1. Hi Katharine,

      These are really important questions. I usually try to look for options for change and I have to say that I feel so frustrated right now that I don’t know what the answer is. You are right – we need to hear from these mothers, and these sons.


  6. I attended one football game when I was an undergraduate, too. My date and I left at half time. I don’t get professional sports, and I especially don’t get football. Not only do people cheer large animals doing intentional damage to other large animals, but football has also been turned into a patriarchal religion with its own national holiday. Let us pray for Jane Doe. And let us not forget that nice coach in Pennsylvania who spent years abusing little boys while the football religion hid him. Oh, yeah–and that “real” religion whose priests abused little girls and boys and whose bishops enabled them. The rape culture is indeed alive and well. It needs a whole lot of strong warrior women to hex rapists. Gina, thanks for another thoughtful blog.


  7. The linked Laurie Penny article made the connection with lynching photos from the early 20th century. The bodies were displayed like trophies, with the white mob around them smiling. some of these photos were sold as souvenir postcards. This is what happens when one part of the population is viewed as less than human.


    1. Sports are used to “numb” the minds of the masses,so that the wealthy who run the country and eventually the world,can implement the structures needed to keep them in power. Until all women are willing to refuse to participate as cheerleaders to these male sports,not much will change. Until religions such as the Catholic church, puts women on a par equal to men, as was intended by our Creator,who is all TRUTH, nothing will change. Until women walk out of these games and churches, leaving men to cheer for themselves,this patriarchy will never be seen for what it actually is, and for what it has done to women. It seems pretty natural to me, that men who are told they are “images of God”, should feel they can pretty much do as they please. We all talk about the “violence” in our culture, etc. etc. but until a systemic change is made, beginning with eliminating POVERTY,DISCRIMINATION in ANY form,and NEPOTISM which allow people to “PURCHASE ” high political positions we will continue to go around in circles. I started teaching in 1964 and …………….are dealing with
      the same problems today in 2013. !!


    2. Such an important point Laura. And Mark, thank you for your comments. It is so disappointing to think that the same issues that existed in 2013 still exist today. After watching this case unfold I have felt so angry, frustrated, and hopeless. How do we achieve change? I think an important point you make here is that as long as our religious traditions treat women as being subordinate society will follow. If God ordains rape culture then…


  8. Mary Frank, a contemporary American artist, created the first sculpture I’ve ever seen of Persephone as rape victim, utterly broken apart. All the other sculptures I looked at or paintings through history romanticized the scene of her abduction in her myth in one way or another. Frank’s work, created in 1998, is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is online. I linked my name to it here. 1,000 thank you’s to Mary Frank for representing the Persephone persona in a way that stands in profound solidarity with every woman, against the plight of abuse, and somehow manages in that sculpture to extend great caring, respect and love.


  9. Gina (and everyone): have you seen the op-op piece by Rachel Simmons on today’s CNN website? Its title is “In Steubenville, why didn’t other girls help?” It brings up another (and disturbing) side to the “rape culture” which I think is important for feminists to address. Worth reading in its entirety.


  10. Gina: I’m glad you wrote about this. I have learned not only everything you said in this post, but also that respect for women must be taught. I haven’t read the Rollins’ story, but I do think teaching WGS in high school is a *start,* but I also think about the students (usually white guys) in those obligatory intro to WGS or intro to Black Studies type of college courses who sit in the back with baseball caps on and sleep. The idea of respecting women has to be taught earlier than that. I’ve come to understand that I learned much of what I know about women’s strength and about feminism through observing my matriarchal family. I wrote today about a friend who learned respect for women in much the same way (http://www.redboneafropuff.com/2013/03/21/how-my-friend-learned-rape-is-wrong/). The answer to “How did Steubenville happen?” has many responses, but bottom line to me: Of course this happens when boys don’t know any better.


    1. Hi Mariam, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts here; I think you offer some interesting points. But I wonder, do boys, men really not know any better? That would be to say that every man and boy would rape and I don’t think that is true. Thoughts?


      1. Good question. No, I don’t think that’s true across the board. I do believe there are some “bad seeds” and people, male and female, who will do horrible things no matter what, but when it comes to rape, we see boys, men who are otherwise upstanding individuals committing it with impunity. For example, there was a boy in Steubenville who witnessed his friends standing over a naked, sprawled out Jane Doe and just said goodnight to his friends–moments after taking the keys from another boy who was too drunk to drive. He looked out for the guys, so where does his lack of respect for a woman too drunk to consent come from?

        I don’t think every man would hide in the bushes and attack unwitting female joggers. (As the friend I wrote about said, “That’s what men think of when they hear the term ‘rapist,’ and no man wants to be that.” But between this case and several others that reveal rape culture, images of women in the media, and attacks on women through legislation, I have to wonder how many heterosexual men understand they don’t have a right to any woman’s body without being explicitly told they don’t. I know they can learn the opposite, so maybe they’re just blank slates until one or the other is taught?

        And now that I see comments on the op-ed Onoosh referenced, I wonder how many girls just know men and boys don’t have a right to their bodies without learning it.


  11. Onoosh, thanks for sharing Rachel Simmons on the collusion of girls in the rape culture. That may be the saddest part of this whole story, reminding us that women and girls often identify with the oppressor rather than with their oppressed sisters. I want to cry.


  12. Carol:
    I was upset by the piece, too. It opened up a very unpleasant vista of poor education/socialization of young women leading to a complete lack of sisterhood with other young women. It also brought back memories of being bullied in elementary school by a mixed gang of boys and girls because I was the “different” one who liked school, reading, and other “nerd” pursuits. The girls were as bad as the boys, but always had an eye out for the boys’ approval.

    I have read that this seeking of male approval has led, in the Muslim world, to an increase in female suicide bombers over the years, although I have no statistics on this. I do remember being in Kuwait before Gulf War I and having a Kuwaiti tell me “the young girls veil more now, because the boys like it.” Innocent enough on the surface, but with disturbing undertones.

    This cross-cultural socialization toward masculine approval is one of many reminders of the pervasiveness of patriarchal structuring. It’s everywhere, from Steubenville to the ends of the Earth. It’s scary, sad, and seemingly overwhelming. IMO, this female complicity is one of the things that encourages criminal, and just plain stupid, behavior in males: it leads to explicit cooperation with oppressive power structures and fosters the behavior that both flows from and supports them.

    What do we do?


    1. In 1989, Robin Morgan wrote a book entitled, “The Demon Lover: On the Sexuality of Terrorism.” In it, she explores women’s cross-cultural attitudes towards violence. She sees it as connected to patriarchal societies’ emphasis on power, control, domination and violence. She traces the seeds of terrorism to the mythic hero-warrior, god-king, liberator who glorifies vengeance. Morgan detects a sexual component in man’s penchant for violent means. On a more personal note, she analyzes “token terrorist” women and considers herself to have been one in the late ’60s. She hopes for a future in which the patriarchal thirst for death is finally slaked, and a new, woman-centered Politics of Eros is established. May it be so.


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