The 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.
During 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.