I didn’t follow the Steubenville rape case. I heard the early details, knew there was so much more than what was being said, hoped the system would throw “the book” at the guys if for no other reason than to “make an example” of the guys, assumed (correctly) that wouldn’t happen, and then tuned out.
Forgive me, I have a personal history with this subject.
On Monday, as Clutch already covered here, high school football players Trent Mays, 17, and Ma’lik Richmond, 16, were found ”delinquent beyond a reasonable doubt” —the juvenile equivalent of guilty— of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl. Both boys were sentenced to at least one year in a juvenile detention facility, with Mays earning an extra year for posting pictures of the naked girl online.
The guys, teens, were tried as juveniles, which is the only reason I can assume CNN anchors practically offered them condolences on their sentence, and also that so much of the writing on this case has been incredibly PC, at least by my meter.
Forgive me if I’m habitually line-stepping, or even crossing here, by writing what I’m really thinking, but there are a few things I need to get off my chest:
1. Ma’lik Richmond is the Luckiest Black Boy Alive
This 1) Black kid—football player or not— in a 2) small, middle of nowhere white town who 3) was charged with raping a 16-year-old 4) white girl got tried as a juvenile and THEN when found “delinquent beyond a reasonable doubt” received the lesser time than his white co-defendant?!
A year for raping a white girl? Are we still in America?! ‘Cause a guilty Black man ain’t been this lucky since OJ (and really, that was luck, money, and Johnny Cochran’s skill as an attorney).
I watched Young Ma’lik’s courtroom sobbing about his life being over, which CNN found so heartbreaking (I keep mentioning it because I”m just that appalled by it.) Ma’lik needs a perspective check. He got off way easier than some people expected him to, or really, wanted him to.
2. Steubenville is Everywhere USA
It’s too convenient to look a Steubenville and deduce, “small town, sports-hero worship, nothing better to do, that would never happen in [insert bigger city here].” I’m reading so much finger-pointing at their little town, like it’s any different from anywhere else. Puh-lease. It’s a travesty what was done to the victim. But this isn’t an unfamiliar story. (I’m sure, if challenged, the comments section could be filled with them.)
Over a decade ago, I graduated from a D1 university where four football players and a “groupie” allegedly filmed “sexual acts” on video. According to legend, the girl was on her knees, surrounded by four erect penises that she was uh, pleasuring. At some point she stopped to tell the camera, “I support my team” or some such, then went back to business. It was never clear whether she was drunk, high (both?), or sober when this happened.
Anyway, everytime she was spotted on campus, someone would go “slurp, slurp, go [name of team] we support our team!” which is how I heard about the tape. The only reason that didn’t turn into a huge scandal was mobile phones only made calls then, and everyone didn’t have one. Everyone who lived on campus knew about the tape, and lots of people saw it (think of how O-Dog showed off his tape in Menace II Society). I did not, nor did I want to.
Let’s reach further back. My Mom was in high school in the early 70s. She recalls going to a graduation party where a woman got drunk and/or high, had sex with… Well, the woman never could remember who or how many. But she did get pregnant. With twins.
I’m sure if I started asking around to women my deceased grandmother’s age, stories would pour from them too. Like I said, this isn’t new. And unfortunately…
3. This Will Happen Again (And Again, and Again)
I had an interesting Twitter conversation yesterday with a friend, a guy, whose opinion I respect. During our discussion, he made a point– twice– to say that the boys weren’t depraved “in context.” He certainly didn’t think what the guys did was “okay”, but he pointed out that boys are more or less “taught” that having sex with girls and women who are drunk, despite it meeting the legal definition of rape, isn’t a problem. Liquor is largely perceived as a method of getting a woman to relax/ release inhibitions, i.e. make her more likely to agree to sex or even just less likely to protest (notable difference).
Also, culturally, when it comes to rape, the onus is on women to magically figure out a way to avoid it, not on teaching boys and men not to do it. At the mere reasonable suggestion that men carry some responsibility by being taught not to rape, which Zerlina Maxwell did on Fox last week, some men went batsh– —and suggested Maxwell be raped. It’s a sign of how far we have to go– and how many more girls and women will be raped– before this mindset changes.
4. The Victim Needed Better “Friends”
The night of the party, the victim’s female “friends” were present. They testified in court that she was super drunk to the point that she was rolling around on the floor, and that she had a habit of drinking heavily. Ok. If your friend can’t hold her liquor, you leave her home. I knew that as a 17-year-old college freshman and I learned it the FIRST time I went out with someone who got wasted. In the event, that I was out and my girl got drunk or was drunk, I looked after her. It was annoying to leave early. I resented baby sitting someone in the corner, until whoever else we were with went to find the driver. No, really, I hated it. But I did it anyway, because my being annoyed for a night and wasting an outfit was way less important than a woman potentially being raped.
When I was the drunk girl, someone always looked after me. There was a never a discussion about it, an agreement to look out, it was just what was done because that’s what decent people do– take care of people who can’t take care of themselves, especially when you know them and remotely care about them, and even when you don’t.
5. In Context or Out, These Boys Are Depraved
I don’t like to throw kids under the bus, because you know they are kids, but I’ll break my own rule and do it today anyway. Something is really, seriously and truly wrong with the two boys found “delinquent” in this case. Ma’lik was living with his foster family, so who knows what he encountered in his early life. Mays family is less transparent, but he may be even more screwy. On Monday, he apologized to the victim, her family, his own family and the community for taking the photos of her and sending them around. Not a peep about, you know, raping her. (Perhaps that was skipped over for legal reasons, but in that case, I’d rather he just saved the half-*ss apology.)
I don’t know what happened to them or what basic lesson in humanity and decency these young men missed, or who told them that an ability to run fast and/or throw a ball well-meant they could act amoral and that’s just fine, but anybody who carts around a drunk girl to rape her in different locations and then is so nonchalant about it that they do it in front of other people, not even trying to hide like they have no clue is wrong, and THEN allows their depravity to be filmed and photographed is seriously f***ed up in the head. This is an #epicfail of parenting.
As they are both still boys, my hope is that their time served in juvenile detentions is spent with aggressive counseling and rehabilitation to fix their warped mindset, not just learning how to be better predators.
Demetria L. Lucas is the author of “A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life” (Atria), in stores now. Follow her on Twitter @abelleinbk.
On Steubenville, Guns, and
Healthy Echo Chambers
Unconditional lovers of this column (hey, mom and Asali!) may have noticed that I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus. That I haven’t offered an intersectional analysis of, say, Black History Month 2013, International Women’s Day 2013, or even Black Twitter “Scandal” Appreciation Week. I do have an excuse, though. I got a jobby job.
During my time “off,” I have been obsessing over reflecting on the potential danger of dwelling in an echo chamber. I’ve been spending energy worrying about the efficacy and ethics of producing news, social media and other messages that only seem to immediately resonate with truly dedicated consumers (mom!) and bricks-and-mortar homies.
Two recent events interrupted this self-indulgent audit:
First, writer, activist and political strategist Zerlina Maxwell appeared on Sean Hannity’s very fine, extremely objective FOX News program to debate the idea that ladies can protect themselves from sexual assault simply by packing heat. Maxwell—a survivor of an acquaintance rape in her own home—shut down the opposition’s NRA-flavored talking points by suggesting that any conversation about prevention should center on what men can do.
Some Colorlines.com readers were highly critical of Maxwell’s approach, but I think they missed the point. Maxwell risked her body and self to push a nuanced conversation into a hostile, reductive space. She evenfollowed up in writing. Now it’s our job to play echo chambermaids and chambermen (is that a thing?).
My contribution: It’s a class, white and hetero-normative privilege to imply that all women survivors of rape and, by extension, intimate partner violence will be supported after they stop said terror by shooting a gun. Just ask Marissa Alexander. When you and yours are automatically criminalized; when police are doing arbitrary stop-and-frisks in your neighborhood to pad their numbers; when you’ve been routinely stereotyped as, say, a Jezebel, or a welfare queen, or a ratchet princess, or a hoodrat, or an overheated Latina, or a “mannish” aggressive, chances are your gunfire won’t be perceived as defensive. The same goes for girls and women who are assaulted when drunk or high. And, as Maxwell pointed out, most women are raped by people they know. They could have a gun but hesitate to shoot their roommate’s friend, or their ex-coworker after his going away party, or their second cousin, or the person they’ve been dating for four months.
Sunday’s verdict in the horrific Steubenville, OH, rape case drove home this kind of complexity. As I’m sure you’ve heard, two high school football players from the small town (one white, one black) were found guilty of sexually assaulting an intoxicated 16-year-old at several parties. The conviction was based in large part on the testimony of bystanders who received immunity. The two football players, Trent Mays, 17, and Ma’lik Richmond,16, were tried as minors. Mays will serve at least two years in a juvenile facility; Richmond will serve at least a year.
I got the Steubenville news through Twitter. And since I don’t follow that many folks, I saw a bunch of smart and sensitive reactions that didn’t blame the victim in this horrible case. They also didn’t call for the execution or castration of the two boys who committed this violence within a community that tacitly condoned it via social media and adult protection.
On a purely selfish yet mentally healthy level, living in that echo chamber allowed me to travel through the mercies of thinkers like Dave Zirin, who really broke down the connection between rape and jock culture; Mychal Denzel Smith, who has called Steubenville a dangerously ordinary consequence of toxic masculinity; and Mia McKenzie who wrote on her Black Girl Dangerous blog that “elevating the experience of these boys above the experience of their victim is not okay,” but that it is “also OK” to include these boys in our feelings of sadness.
Armed with this kind of subtly, I was able to filter out the male-centered assholery of CNN and victim-blaming randoms on Twitter. Since Sunday, I’ve even had a couple of honest (and yes, compassionate) conversations with a few men I know who, as adolescents participated in or witnessed assaults similar to those that occurred in Steubenville. They brought it up because they wanted to talk to someone about it and figure out what they can do to teach young men and boys to identify and resist rape culture. I believe that they will follow through.
And ultimately, that’s the point—or my point—in writing and talking about these issues. Men and boys have got to learn and believe that sexual assault takes on many forms from a criminal justice, moral and mental health perspective. Then they need to teach one another that rapists aren’t just psychos jumping out of the bushes or trolling Craigslist for potential victims. They need to know, believe, then teach one another that nice guys and silly boys can and do commit rape, videotape it, gossip about it via Twitter and Instagram and still cry if they get caught. They need to know that “running a train” is gang rape and should therefore be off the table as a bonding ritual despite what their friends, frenemies, teammates, media or male relatives tell them. And they need to understand—as do young women and girls—that rape is not an automatic or genetic consequence of masculinity.
For those of us who already know this stuff: It’s our job to say it and keep saying it—and, if needed, to shield ourselves from people who disagree. In a case like this one, I’m using my echo chamber as a sanctuary.
And that’s OK.
Ending rape culture:
Now an international movement
“We don’t raise boys to be men,” said former NFL quarterback turned feminist Don McPherson. “We raise them not to be women, or gay men.”
That brutally honest statement delivered at the March 8th launch of “Ring the Bell” — a bold campaign developed by global human rights organizationBreakthrough to secure “concrete, actionable promises” from 1 million men to end discrimination and sexual assault against women — speaks directly to the entrenched gender roles and expectations that have made rape one of the most pervasive crimes in our society.
Violent words — hit, bang, beat, cut, smash – have been reappropriated to refer to enjoyable, consensual sexual activity, particularly in African-American communities where, not surprisingly, sixty percent of black girls have experienced sexual abuse before the age of eighteen. This is a barely-sheathed nod to the reality that for many men, masculinity is defined by the authority — indeed, the right — to objectify, dehumanize, violate and destroy. Some people refer to this as “rape culture,” while many accept it as part of life. If that threshold of so-called manhood must be crossed by penetrating unwilling women, then so be it.
The Steubenville rape case and the sympathetic reactions to the plight of the young men who were found guilty of penetrating an incapacitated young woman shows that this mentality is still very powerful.
But recently there has been a perceptible shift in the zeitgeist, which was prompted in part by the statements of conservative politicians during the 2012 presidential election. Republicans from Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, to Rick Santorum and Paul Ryan made headlines for claiming that there are varying degrees of rape. From “forcible” rapes, to “legitimate” rapes, to rapes that are “God’s gift,” what came to be called the “War on Women” quickly became polarizing in a highly contentious election cycle heavily skewed towards women’s issues and how they intersect with and reflect on the collective society.
It became painfully clear that these leaders understood little of the needs of women, from our needs for reproductive health, to the right to feel safe from being raped – period.
Following on the heels of Rep. Gwen Moore revealing her own history of sexual assault on the House floor in an effort to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, these statements from Republicans rendered the political landscape fertile for change. And these seeds for change have been sown internationally. Rape and sexual violence against women, a quietly accepted fact of life since the beginning of civilization, is finally being attacked with the same force as any aggressor.
When the horrifying gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in New Delhi exploded in the international news, the sheer brutality of the crime forced people all over the world to pay attention and reexamine the prevalence of violence against women.
The young Indian victim boarded a bus on December 16, 2012 with her fiancé. She was then raped by six men, including the driver. After taking turns with her, and beating her fiancé until he began to lose consciousness, they impaled her with a metal rod that shredded her internal organs before hurling them both from the moving vehicle to die.
This heinous crime prompted members of this traditional culture to vociferously demand justice for women who are victims of sexual violence — demands made on an unprecedented scale. It also led feminists around the world to look closer at rape cases near their own homes.
In a nation such as ours in which only three percent of rape cases end in a conviction, it would have seemed normal for such an incident to pass out of the public’s consciousness with little more than a brief, sympathetic emotion. But things are changing. People are demanding that violence against women be called out and punished rather than passively accepted as inevitable.In the weeks and months that followed, more rapes occurred, making headlines, including one in whichthree Philadelphia teenagers forced their way into a woman’s car and drove around for hours as they beat and raped her – on Christmas Day.
Unconscionable crimes such as these led feminists and activists such as the creators of “Ring the Bell” to push for better ways to discuss rape and other violence against women. One result? Efforts to reframe the conversation around rape, shifting focus away from victims and towards criminals.
As radical as this seems – because even the Steubenville case saw its share of victim blaming — this concept is not new.
As far back as 2009, activist Jaclyn Friedman asked the question: What if the key to rape prevention is educating men not to rape? She also cited where this has been successful. Based on this idea, there is a listcirculating, both honest and dripping with sarcasm, that shares the top10 tips to prevent rape. Every single one of the tips focuses on men, while illustrating how utterly ridiculous it is to task women with eradicating rape alone, as traditional “protective” thinking on the subject has promoted as plausible.
And it doesn’t end there. In London on February 14th, actress Thandie Newton, who is a survivor of sexual exploitation, joined the One Billion Rising global campaign – and crowds of demonstrators – in front of London’s Parliament to protest violence against women, and spark a movement worldwide.
Yes, times are changing.
With scarce Republican support, on March 7th, President Barack Obama reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act. On March 13th, in the first Senate hearing on sexual assault in nearly a decade, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), along with Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would prohibit convicted sex offenders from joining the military. And by doing so, she blew the door hiding rape culture in the military wide open.
Boxer’s amendment coincides with Sen. Claire McCaskill, (D-MO) drafting legislation that would reduce military commanders’ ability to dismiss sexual assault cases within their ranks.
These promising developments are exciting evidence that a cultural groundswell trumpeting changing attitudes towards sexual violence is occurring, and that many men are on board.
We are ending the silent consensus that sexual violence is acceptable. But with resistance to oppression often comes a backlash against the newfound audacity of the oppressed.
When theGrio writer Zerlina Maxwell made an appearance on FOX’s The Sean Hannity Show armed with the infallible logic that men must take responsibility for ending rape, she not only met opposition during the segment, she also received vitriolic hatred spewed at her online. Racist slurs and death threats were hurled at Maxwell all because she dared to tilt the scales of power towards women and accountability towards men. But, that ugly reaction has even further solidified the growing movement.
The timeline of the Steubenville rape case shows that when equality and justice knock on the doors of patriarchy, the institution does not go down without a fight – but it can be taken down.
Couple these extremely promising developments with broadening awareness via social media, redirections of political focus, and expanding activism, and we find ourselves poised at a watershed moment in our global fight to protect women from being vulnerable targets to predators in hostile environments.
The dissolution of rape culture is not impossible; it is inevitable.
Follow Kirsten West Savali on Twitter at @KWestSavali.