WANG: Examining rape culture after Steubenville

We need to address a serious problem in our culture. Now.

Rape culture refers to complex belief system that tolerates — and sometimes even encourages — male sexual aggression and violence against women. The norm of victim blaming needs to change. Instead of asking what the victim could have done differently, ask instead what the assaulter and bystanders could have, and should have, done differently.

A prominent example of rape culture today can be found in the Steubenville rape case. The facts of the case revolved around a party thrown in August of last year in Steubenville, Ohio. One of the attendees, a sixteen-year old girl, became heavily intoxicated and passed out. Instead of helping her, her peers carried her into a bedroom by her hands and feet and raped her. The two men put on trial were Trent Mays, 17, and Ma’lik Richmond, 16, football players at the local high school. Eventually, it came out that this was not an isolated incident; this girl had been targeted, drugged and raped at multiple parties throughout the summer.

When the guilty verdict was announced, some mainstream media outlets became active participants in furthering our victim-blaming rape culture. Probably the most sickening news coverage came from CNN, where anchor Candy Crowley lamented that the “young men … had such promising futures, [were] star football players, very good students.” Registering as sex offenders would “haunt them for the rest of their lives.”

Instead of focusing on the atrocity of rape, Crowley focused on how the perpetrators’ lives would never be the same again. This mentality is highly upsetting, because it demonstrates that women can fuel this twisted victim-blaming, sympathizing with the rapists. But the victim will have to cope with what those rapists did to her for the rest of her life.

Besides the media, individual people propagated institutional tolerance of this terrible crime. Reno Saccocia, the defendants’ football coach, told the principal and school superintendent that because his players didn’t believe they had done anything wrong, he shouldn’t pursue further punishment.

Hold on — because these rapists didn’t think they had done anything wrong, they believed they should be free from any punishment, an insolent belief their coach supported. They felt neither guilt nor shame for their crimes, and somehow believed they had privilege that entitled them to “conquer” a “dead girl” who could not defend herself. The accused should be held accountable. It was their actions, their decisions, that brought this on themselves.

Even the blogger who exposed incriminating tweets about the Steubenville crime, Alexandria Goddard, faced harassment. Not only did she receive death threats, but the family of Cody Saltsman, a bystander during the assault, sued her for “defamation of character.” When she called attention to a crime that needed investigation, Goddard suffered social backlash.

These examples demonstrate the extent of rape culture in our society. Far too many individuals defer to victim-blaming attitudes — attempting to protect the assaulters and justify their crimes.

Sexual assault is the only crime I can think of where the victim wears the shame; the victim is the one left feeling dirty and stripped of human dignity. Some victims can’t even bring themselves to talk about their assault, let alone come forward and report.

I don’t blame victims who are unable to speak up. Many victims are too traumatized. Many feel reporting the crime would put them through more hell. Statistically speaking, most assaults aren’t reported, and most of the assailants that do get reported aren’t prosecuted and convicted.

We need to examine how we think about sexual assault. Instead of questioning whether the victim was intoxicated or dressed provocatively, we should question how we can hold perpetrators accountable. These defendants are responsible for their own actions.

But how do rapists like the Steubenville defendants justify their actions? Some of our sympathies should lie with perpetrators — not because they are innocent, but because they, too, subscribe to rape culture.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. We must realize how terribly wrong rape culture is. This is why freshmen attend consent and communication workshops, and why this year, sophomores attended bystander intervention training. The blame doesn’t lie only with the rapists. The blame falls partially on the environment that the rapists are nurtured in, on the bystanders who turn a blind eye to the crimes going on in front of them and on the people and institutions who try to cover up these crimes.

Winnie Wang is a sophomore in Branford College. Contact her at winnie.wang@yale.edu.

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