Steubenville. It’s gained one-word notoriety. A town of less than 20,000 people in eastern Ohio, Steubenville was little-known until a story ripped straight from an episode of Friday Night Lights got splashed across the headlines and made the place infamous. A small town ruled by football, a countdown clock until the next game, and blatantly hagiographic reverence for its players and coaches. A wild end-of-summer party with a lot of booze, hookups and smack-talk. Only this time, there’s no Coach’s wife – the inimitable Tami Taylor – to kick some ass.
In fact, it seems no one would help a sixteen-year old drunk, unresponsive girl from being stripped of her clothes, viciously molested and sexually assaulted by two players – Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond. Classmates instead stood by and Instagrammed, Tweeted, Facebooked and YouTubed the whole sordid thing. She learned what happened to her by looking at all the social media posts the next day. Earlier this month, a judge sentenced Mays and Richmond to a combined three years in prison. Which is, as the Huffington Post’s Anne Theriault puts it, “a fucking joke.”
What’s even more of a joke has been the media coverage, with various news anchors on major networks, including CNN, shaking their heads over the poor rapists’ fate as they are now permanently labeled lifetime sex offenders. Not to mention, some of the general public has been airing the utterly predictable arguments, including “she was a slut anyway,” the moralistic “she shouldn’t have been drinking,” alongside the astonishing-given-the-context “we should all be more careful with social media.”
None of this, of course, is new. Looking at the nineteenth century is actually pretty instructive here since it gives us a context for how we should understand these reactions today. Historians like Linda Gordon, Judith Walkowitz, Ellen Carol DuBois, Christine Stansell and others have been writing for years on how in the nineteenth century, both the general public and First Wave feminists alike created “narratives of sexual danger” that stressed how women needed to be protected from men’s frequent and animalistic sexual impulses.
But historians who study leisure and the history of entertainment point out that toward the turn of the century, spaces like dance halls, arcades, theaters and other venues encouraged a mixing of the sexes that changed the nature of male-female interaction. Reformers warned that these spaces were treacherous for women. The only way to be safe was to be celibate and stay within the confines of the domestic home.
Despite their otherwise radical political views, feminist advocates had a difficult time coming to terms with the idea that young women might want to have non-procreative, non-marital sex. Indeed, it was much easier for them to stress that women needed suffrage and civic liberty so that they could protect themselves from the pervasiveness of male coercion. Middle-class female reformers even argued that teenage girls who had sex should be legally labeled delinquents and sent to group homes, where they would be taught to stay away from men who would violate their purity. In other words, feminists had expansive goals in mind for advancing women’s status, but their method of doing so often emphasized what Ellen Carol DuBois refers to as “a confining sexual morality.” They assumed that men’s natures – eternally violent and sexual – could not be changed. Instead, women had to learn how to protect themselves within that frightening world.
Some of these attitudes have carried over to the present day. The “narrative of sexual danger” is ubiquitous in modern public discourse on rape. In other words, the Steubenville victim should have stayed far away from a party where a bunch of huge, drunk football players might try to attack her. Because obviously, that’s what they were going to do – they wouldn’t be able to help themselves. We continually stress to women that it is their own responsibility to prevent sexual assault. The RAINN website (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network), a respected non-profit sexual violence prevention program, encourages carrying cab money and not wearing headphones as methods to prevent assault. It’s not that this advice is wrong in and of itself. But it is part of a historical tradition that places the burden of not getting raped on victims instead of rapists. What this advice shows us is that women’s right to be present in public space is still, in many ways, contested and contingent – even in the twenty-first century.
But for what it’s worth, the Steubenville rape also shows us just how far we’ve come. Though the “lock your doors and don’t go out at night” argument is out there, more people are saying that instead of teaching young women to avoid potentially dangerous situations, we should teach young men not to rape. We’ve insisted that wearing headphones at night in public is not asking for rape. Neither is getting drunk at a party. We’ve explained that our status as human beings gives us the right to not be raped – not just because we’re someone’s wife, sister, daughter or mother, and the male person in our lives who gives us that status wouldn’t appreciate it. We’ve tried to emphasize that slut-shaming the victim is not a productive conversation. Because even if it is not a good idea to get falling-down, passed-out drunk at party, everyone should have the right to expect that their private parts remain unviolated during their unconscious state. Frankly, that’s just a good rule for being functional in life. If you see a passed-out person, you just don’t touch their genitals, okay? You heard it here at ToM.
What’s more, despite the negative chatter about her reputation or the circumstances of her rape, the Steubenville victim decided to take legal action, however reluctantly. She knew what happened to her was wrong. She knew she had not given consent. And finally, the rapists were convicted, their promising football careers be damned. A court of law refused to ignore a whole bunch of electronic evidence in favor of letting some two rapists off the hook with the “boys will be boys attitude.” We have a new perspective on gender roles and male and female behavior that would have boggled the First Wavers’ minds. Real men don’t prove they’re men anymore through their ability to overpower women.
Certainly the case’s outcome is far from satisfying. The sentencing the rapists received is short. What about the football coach, who knew for months that two of his players had done this, and did nothing about it? What about the culpability of the voyeuristic teens that stood by and recorded and watched what happened to the victim? These legalities have yet to be explored.
We can only hope that the victim and her family can put their lives back together and somehow move on. Perhaps taking a longer view of the history of rape in America allows us to see that we’re just now in the process of desperately trying to reject some old narratives about men, women, and sex. The consciousness is there. But this I’m sure is of little comfort to the Steubenville woman, who knows that the pictures and videos taken of her that night will hang out on the Internet in perpetuity, as a disturbing reminder of how far we still have to go.