Jefferson County Courthouse. Steubenville is the county seat.

Jefferson County Courthouse. Steubenville is the county seat.

The recent case in Steubenville, Ohio reveals quite how far we still have to go on the public perception of rape and its victims 

Rape is arguably the most misunderstood of all crimes. It is a concept that the media continually fail to accurately report, and this is just one of the reasons why it is such a huge problem all over the world. News outlets in America and Britain recently surpassed themselves in ignorance with their appalling coverage of the Steubenville rape trial, choosing cheap victim blaming and sympathising with convicted rapists instead of professional and objective reporting.

 

The trial of two teenage boys convicted of raping a 16-year-old girl shook the small town of Steubenville, Ohio, and the USA as a whole. The two defendants were found guilty, and will each serve one year in a juvenile detention centre and be placed on the sex offenders register. Trent Mays will serve an additional year for distributing an image of a nude minor. The fact behind this legal phrase is that Mays not only raped the girl, but then took photographs and videos of her unconscious body which he then sent to friends and uploaded onto the internet. The complete lack of any awareness of his actions and respect for the girl is intensely shocking. That the young victim discovered she had been abused by finding these photos the following day is a distressing realisation.

 

Many people believed these sentences to be too lenient, yet the media reports, in particular CNN, took a different approach. Instead of sympathising with the victim, every major news outlet excused the rapists’ actions and focused entirely on the fact that these boys’ futures were ‘ruined’. I will not claim that the victim’s life has been destroyed by her rape, victims are stronger that the violence against them, and with the right support the young girl will survive this ordeal. However, she has endured the pain, confusion and shame caused by the actions of her abusers. They will suffer pain, guilt and shame caused by their own actions and choices. Their futures are ruined, but this is entirely their fault. There is a crucial difference, and it is this difference which should evoke or deny our sympathy.

 

CNN lamented the fact that the futures of these “promising students” were ruined; NBC News expressed sadness that their football careers were destroyed and Fox News topped them all by revealing the victim’s name whilst attempting to demonstrate how emotional the two convicted rapists were in court. Many of the news reports completely failed to mention the victim at all. When the victim was mentioned, the fact that both victim and rapists were underage drinkers, especially that the victim was drunk when raped, was emphasised. Many reactions seemed to put underage drinking and rape on the same level, with these news outlets suggesting, by their silence, that the girl was culpable and responsible. The simple fact is that people don’t choose to be raped, but people do make active decisions to rape someone. If someone is unconscious, which the girl was, it does not matter how they came to be unconscious, they cannot give consent and therefore it is rape.

 

There is clearly a fundamental societal misunderstanding of the term ‘rape’. Steubenville has happened before; it occurs every day all over the world because victims and abusers do not understand what rape is. One of the bystanders, a friend of the two rapists, said the reason why he did not report it was because ‘I didn’t realise it was rape. It wasn’t violent, I thought rape was forcing yourself on someone.’ This statement speaks volumes and highlights the root of the problem: education. When I reflect on my high school sex education, I can’t remember ever having been taught about rape, a fact which horrifies and scares me in equal measure. This does not excuse the boys’ actions, surely it is common sense that an unconscious girl who had to be carried into a basement because she cannot walk is incapable of partaking in consensual sex. However, clearly their idea of rape is the stereotypical stranger down a dark alley, and they are unaware that in fact most rapists know their victims, and the attacks occur at private parties or in the home.

 

We live in a rape culture, fed by incessant and relentless sexism, misogyny and hyper-sexualisation within the media. I have no doubt that these boys convicted of raping the young girl had ‘fraped’ their friends countless times without once thinking about the weight of their words. ‘Frape’ is a disgusting word, but the flippancy with which it is used demonstrates the huge gap in understanding. Two changes are necessary in order to move towards a world where rape is no longer a constant fear in the mind of every woman, and they go hand in hand. Firstly, robust and complete education, from an early age, on what rape is must be a priority. Young people must know the consequences of their actions. Secondly, the media must also take responsibility for the power it holds. The reporting of the Steubenville case must be seriously reviewed, and exposed as unacceptable. It is a hope that some progress can be made from this distressing case.

 

 

Charlotte Potter

 

Image credit: Nyttend