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High school footballers found guilty of rape

Two former Steubenville high school football players break down in tears after the judge finds them guilty of raping a 16-year-old girl.

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Yesterday morning, I awoke to news that a guilty verdict had been passed down to the two juveniles on trial for the rape of a teenage girl in the impoverished town of Steubenville, Ohio. I then spent the next few hours scouring the post-trial coverage, alternating between reassurance and stunned disbelief at some of the reactions being offered.

For those unfamiliar with the case, here’s a short précis. Over the course of a single night last August, Steubenville High School Big Red footballers Mal’ik Richmond and Trent Mays participated in the ritual humiliation and rape of an unconscious 16 year old girl as she was carried from party to party in various states of undress. The girl (who remains unnamed) was digitally penetrated by the pair more than once throughout the evening while onlookers (some of whom were teammates) did nothing to intervene. Instead, the incident was captured in images on mobile phones, which were then uploaded to Instagram and Twitter along with commentary about ‘whores’ and hashtags like #deadgirl. One of these photos shows the girl unconscious and naked in a basement with semen from one of the defendants on her. Another portrays her limp body being carried between two laughing boys. To compound the injury to her dignity is evidence suggesting that, even as the frivolity was winding up and the girl was passed out on the front lawn, someone thought it would be funny to urinate on her.

After waking up naked the next morning with no memory of what happened to her, the girl was left to discover the digital trail of humiliation and abuse that had already begun to be circulated among her peer group. In the days that followed, the cocky entitlement displayed by her abusers in cyber crowing about their conquest gave way to concern and then fear that real consequences would follow. While trying to orchestrate a cover up (seemingly supported by his football coach), Mays complained to the girl via text message that she was going to ruin his football career. These texts and hundreds of others were cited as evidence in a four day trial that resulted in the boys being found delinquent on Sunday (the equivalent of a guilty verdict in a juvenile case). They have been sentenced to a minimum of one year each in a juvenile facility with an additional year given to Mays for the creation and distribution of pornographic content containing a minor.

Despite these horrendous facts, when the verdict was reported on CNN yesterday the discussion once again focused on the least relevant part of any case involving rape and sexual abuse - that being the devastating effect the judicial outcome would have on the perpetrators’ lives.

“What’s the lasting effect though on two young men being found guilty juvenile court of rape essentially?” CNN’s Candy Crowley wondered aloud to CNN legal contributor Paul Callan.

“There’s always that moment of just — lives are destroyed,” he responded. “But in terms of what happens now, the most severe thing with these young men is being labeled as registered sex offenders. That label is now placed on them by Ohio law. That will haunt them for the rest of their lives.”

Hold up. They’re being labeled as registered sex offenders because they ARE sex offenders. This isn’t a case of mistaken identity or a judicial system gone belly up. It’s about two boys (assisted by a much wider group of perpetrators, three of whom sought immunity from prosecution in exchange for testimony) who participated in the dehumanisation of a vulnerable girl by violating her body and then parading it as a cheeky jape for their community to laugh over. So forgive my paddock language, but CNN and its concerned commentators can cry me a fu*king river.

There’s no doubt that our society has a very fractured ability to address the reality of rape in any significant way. We still judge the severity of rape cases based on an arbitrary scale of blame and expectation - the more inebriated a woman or scantily clad, the greater her culpability in her own assault. Our notion of what constitutes ‘real’ rape is limited to attacks involving ‘evil men’ in alleyways; social pariahs, outcasts and villains who operate outside of society and target wholesome women with a sexuality so muted it could never be confused for being invitational. The reality of rape - that it is most often perpetrated by men known to the victim, men who have jobs, collegial relationships and friendships, and who are occasionally admired or even celebrated by their communities - isn’t so easily explained away that people instead reach for caveats and excuses in order to explain away behaviour or minimise punishment. What we end up with, in addition to the victim blaming that accompanies most accusations of rape, is an obscenely ironic narrative of justice that prioritises the impact of retribution on the rapist’s life over that of the victim’s. Principally, this focuses on whether or not that rapist deserves to have the rest of his or her life ruined over ‘one mistake’.

How rape - both the action and the decision to go through with it, to laugh about it, to boast about it and then to deny it - can be equated to ‘one mistake’ is baffling, but it speaks to the heart of how fundamentally flawed our ideas of consent and entitlement regarding sex are. Those concerned about the fates of boys like Mays and Richmond aren’t just ignorant of the consequences for their victims; they also generally blame them for their failure to prevent the ‘mistake’ of rape and thus for their role in the sudden persecution of ‘good boys with promising futures’. While I tend to balk at the suggestion that rape survivors’ lives are irrevocably ruined (because further disempowering a survivor by refusing to separate a traumatic experience from their own fate and sense of self does nothing to help them heal), the diversion of compassion away from their suffering to that of their rapist simply beggars belief.

Thinking on the similar reactions to Steubenville like CNN’s (the town itself rallied in support of the boys, with the assistant coach of Big Red claiming it was a conspiracy to engineer the downfall of the football program), it occurs to me exactly how deeply our ideas of punishment and lesson-learning are wielded to excuse the guilty and blame the innocent. In every narrative of victim blaming, girls and women are reminded that if they drink too much, flirt too hard, wear too little and screw too indiscriminately, they only have their own lack of responsibility to blame when something bad happens. But if their failure to prevent rape results in someone, you know, raping them, then the perpetrator can’t be held responsible because the victim made it confusing for him. He’s a good boy, he didn’t think what he was doing was rape, he made one mistake and he doesn’t deserve to have his life ruined for it - what he deserves is a second chance.

In the school of rape culture, these are the things we learn. That for women behaving exactly as they like, with no regard for the ‘consequences’ of their actions, rape isn’t a violation but a lesson. For men, even those who participate in group bonding sessions involving unconscious women, digital imagery and cocky boasting, the lesson is limited to understanding (under threat of imprisonment) that their choice to rape was nothing more than a ‘mistake’. In both examples, rape is treated as something cautionary and transformative rather than violent and visceral.

But the act of rape and its consequences isn’t a morality tale. We don’t trip over it in the street or accidentally spill it on someone’s clothes. Bystanders aren’t passive participants entitled to stand around wondering what’s going on, like walking into the wrong cinema halfway through a film and being slightly baffled by the drama unfolding before them. Rape is a deliberate act of violation and disregard that offers no silver lining lessons for anyone.

The Steubenville case has the potential to significantly influence how America (and perhaps the world) addresses rape culture and its attitudes towards offenders. The time for shrugged shoulders and platitudes about how boys behave when they get together is over. It’s perhaps unfortunate for Mays and Richmond that their particular crime became the poster case for a tougher approach to casual rapists, but it will hopefully set a precedent when dealing with similar violations of the law whose most tragic personal reflection is that they got caught. If you rape someone, you’re not making a mistake. You’re breaking the law.  You don’t get to go home at the end of it and chalk it up to one of life’s quirky moments of truth.

It’s one take-home that Mays and Richmond will have ample time to mull over now that their sentence has been handed down. School’s out, boys.

Clementine Ford will be one of the panelists participating in a live discussion of Rape Culture at the All About Women Festival on April 7. For more information and to get your ticket, visit The Sydney Opera House.