Yesterday, the verdict was handed down in the Steubenville rape case. The defendants, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, were found guilty. Mays will serve at least two years in the state juvenile system; Richmond was sentenced to at least one year. And the attorney general may also bring charges against others who turned a blind eye to the assault.
I feel great relief that I’m not writing about a “not guilt” verdict today. Justice was served–as best it could be by an imperfect system–in this case. Since it so often isn’t, that is something–not only for Jane Doe, who I hope has the support she surely needs right now, but also for the rest of us, who live in a rape culture that’s perpetuated each time someone commits sexual violence and is not held accountable.
But it’s hard to hold on to that sense of relief–to realize that this ending was the best one possible in this particular case–when the problem is so much bigger. Nearly everything about the case–from start to finish–reflects a world that I just really don’t want to live in anymore.
I don’t want to live in a world in which a mainstream media outlet reporting on the verdict barely mentions the victim in their rush to lament the fact that the “promising lives” of the defendants have been ruined and that this “will haunt them for the rest of their lives.” I want to live in a world in which negative consequences are considered the logical effect of committing a terrible crime, and a sentence for rape that is shorter than those regularly doled out for drug possession or downloading academic papers is viewed as pretty damn lenient.
I don’t want to live in a world in which girls are so well-schooled in the consequences they’re sure to face for speaking up about a sexual assault that the victim immediately tried to assure people that she “wasn’t being a slut” and initially didn’t want to name the defendants ”because I knew everyone would just blame me.” I don’t want to live in a world that proves these fears justified time and time again.
I don’t want to live in a world in which the victim’s former best friends testify against her. I don’t want to live in a world in which girls learn to slut-shame and victim-blame other girls in order to maintain a sense of false security for themselves. I want to live in a world in which we stick together and fight the forces that seek to split us apart, recognizing that victim-blaming anywhere makes us all less safe and less free.
I don’t want to live in a world in which a coach is seen as someone who will “take care of it” if his players are accused of rape. I don’t want to live in a world in which young athletes are treated like gods and arrogantly learn that there are no consequences for their bad behavior. I want to live in a world in which coaches take seriously the great and potentially wonderful influence they have in young people’s lives and act as valuable mentors who hold their players to high standards–on and off the field.
I don’t want to live in a world in which dozens of kids see a girl who was so drunk she was passing out and don’t take her home. I don’t want to live in a world in which kids see a girl who was so drunk she was puking and joke about urinating on her. I want to live in a world in which people can get too drunk–while out with friends or aquaintances or total strangers–and expect that they will be hungover, not sexually violated, in the morning. I want to live in a world in which girls have the right to be reckless and not get raped, and I want this to not be a controversial statement.
I don’t want to live in a world in which many people seem to truly believe that women must be constantly “aware of their surroundings” and vigilantly guarded against being taken advantage of, or else they bear “some accountability for the incident.” I don’t want to live in a world in which anyone believes that Mays and Richmond “did what most people in their situation would have done.” I don’t want to live in a world that assumes guys are naturally sexual aggressors who will opportunistically take advantage of an incapacitated girl, or forever push, push, push at the boundaries of consent until they hear a clear and forceful “no.” I want to live in a world that gives boys more credit than that.
I don’t want to live in a world in which a boy describes a girl as “like a dead body” yet still claims that the acts were consensual. I want to live in a world in which female sexual agency is respected and girls are seen as active and equal participants in sex, and so the idea that it would be at all unclear if someone had or had not consented would seem totally ludicrous. I want to live in a world in which it is universally assumed that no one except a rapist would want to have sex with someone who ”wasn’t participating.”
I don’t want to live in a world in which kids witness a rape in progress and record a video or take a photo instead of stopping it. I don’t want to live in a world in which a kid sees his friends assaulting an unconscious girl and claims that he didn’t intervene because he didn’t realize it was rape. “Well, it wasn’t violent,” Evan Westlake explained. ”I didn’t know exactly what rape was. I always pictured it as forcing yourself on someone.” I don’t want to live in a world in which this could ever be a believable excuse. I want to live in a world in which there is universal mandatory education on enthusiastic consent in schools and public figures do not make distinctions between “forcible rape” and other kinds of not-so-serious rape and the media clearly, unequivocally calls non-consensual sex what it is.
Ultimately, the perpetrators alone are held legally responsible for their actions. As they should be. But rapists are created, not born. And they are enabled by a culture that excuses their actions. It is hard, but not impossible, for me to muster much empathy for these boys–the ones convicted as well as the bystanders who watched–when they showed absolutely none for their victim. But again: “We socialize empathy out of boys all the time.” These kids are not particularly unique and Steubenville could be any town in America. And until we accept that we are collectively responsible for that, nothing will change.
We should all feel a little guilty today.