Ok, a confession. I am supposed to be finishing up my dissertation right now. But, I cannot. After waking up and reading the assortment of articles on the rape trial in Steubenville, Ohio I have no ability to write in academic ways about emotions, or craft a works cited that has perfect MLA style because my own feelings about this case, and the ways in which rape are being discussed in 2013 are paralyzing.
Instead, I wanna start a conversation and linger within the ones already ongoing about what society, a large and ridiculously impersonal word, must do, can do, and actually does with rape cases. A fair warning: if you are someone who is looking for me to pity, in a CNN way, young men who rape, you have come to the wrong blog. We all make our choices, no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in, and while I don’t doubt that we live in a western world that valorizes violence against, well everyone, especially women, us gays, and anyone thought to be a bit misfited, society doesn’t make us kill, rape, and ruin– it only gives us a gold star when we do.
However, I also want to suggest that if you find yourself feeling discomfort or even an uneasy sadness for these boys and what they chose to do, alongside your feelings of remorse and anger for this young girl, this too might be completely ethical. As Mia MacKenzie urges: feel bad, because this situation is fucking bad. This may sound strange coming from me. I have little room for violent hatred, and less room for a culture that encourages it. But, I still think what we need in this messed up space are people who do not see life in binary dualisms– who can see beyond quick judgments that see evil and good. Even the shittiest parts of life–the parts and acts of people that make you embarrassed to be human–test our compassion, but still require it.
So maybe, just maybe, feeling some sense of anxiety or loneliness for each of the people concerned in this rape case paves some small road to a more compassionate as opposed to hateful world, one not against putting an end to the systematic violence that we see happening to women daily.
The violence these young men committed against this girl is perhaps unforgivable and much of the media coverage of this trial has been disgusting. Yet, feeling unsure about what needs to happen to these two boys, and bad about what might, is not a mark of compliance or support for rape, it’s a refusal of its continuation and inevitability.
So how did I find myself here on my computer this morning. I spent last night checking out an AMC show called The Killing. A dear friend told me I should, and when there were tears in her eyes I immediately thought I should not. I am one to be a tad prone to bouts of anger when the media and entertainment industry decides to popularize and make money off of tragedy.
My friend is very sensitive whilst I am an angry ass. I spend a lot of time avoiding CNN and Fox and a lot of other Right Wing venues which profess that everyone has a right to their opinion. After years of hearing a lot of opinions, and watching how these thoughts and feelings hurt others, I disagree. I am reminded of the words of a past classmate of mine, when we were made to listen to a young girl in one of my graduate classes tell me that I, and a few others of us I’m sure, were disgusting in God’s eyes because we loved. “You will hear me,” she yelled. My classmate stood up calmly and opened the door and said, “no, actually. There is no reason why your hate needs to be heard in this space.”
I admired the statement so much then, and only wish it applied here. But when it comes to open ended media, unfortunately, anyone, yes, even someone like Fred Phelps is permitted a day in the sun.
So I am not going to get too angry about the fact that so many people have been commenting on this case in what I take to be terrifying ways. I am commenting too, and there is something to be said about public debate and continuing dialogues when, especially when, we’d rather slam our doors, flip the bird, and judge people simply wrong. As Denise Riley, the fantastic theorist once argued, in high stakes debates where emotions run wild such as in many Pro-life and Pro-choice debates, there can be no winner because no one is able to hear points of view through any other lens other than the one that enables their ok-ness. I agree with her that we need to think about the horrible crimes we commit against one another through, with complex lenses, if we are ever going to relearn how to become better people, caring communities, loving societies…even though my body so wants to jump on the revenge train.
So, The Killing. I watched it last night and got to episode three before my heart stopped. The set up of the show is very dark and calm, tortured in a way. The premise is harsh but simple: A teenaged girl has gone missing and is found dead in the back of a trunk. She didn’t die well, and the family and town is left to figure out what happened. The acting is incredible and the script is not gratuitous or Hollywoodized. You just feel awful, sustainably so, throughout every episode. Your mind is transported until you can hear nothing but nails scraping down chalkboards, or crying cats at your window. You too need to figure out why young boys, kids really, are behaving in ways that conjure images of our worst nightmares: the Boogieman, the Devil, Jack the Ripper, the monster under all beds, the reason I stayed in my closet for as long as I did. Hatred. Stupidity. The Promise of Bravado. Unfettered Violence.
Episode three, however, takes the case a step in a direction I was not prepared for. A teacher finds a video on a student’s cellphone and witnesses the missing girl being raped by two young boys. One, a childhood friend, the other an ex-boyfriend. It is horrific. And impossible to watch without wanting to grab these two boys and strangle them, both for their rage and hatred, but also their arrogance and, perhaps surprisingly to me, their naive stupidity. The show does a brilliant job of creating two characters who are not hateable to their core. They are loved by their parents, and in at least one case, one of the rapists is described by the murdered girl’s father as “a good kid.” So what the fuck are we supposed to do with this?
Good versus evil, happy versus sad, nice versus mean, all is complicated here and it disturbs the stasis of our quick judgement.
I think most of us can actually, when our anger is not at an intense high, not hate those young people who do terrible wrongs. We are confused by them, and wonder what happened to make these kids so violent or non compassionate. We jump on mental illnesses for answers, or accuse parents of negligence, looking everywhere and anywhere as long as we don’t need to look in the mirror at ourselves and the world we have created. The Steubenville rape is no exception.
Turning to the Steubenville case, I need to go over a few of the facts that have been presented. I am sorry if this upsets anyone but I assure you I am not writing here for shock value. I will be quick and succinct.
Here’s what we think we know-ish:
1. There was an end of summer party in Steubenville, Ohio and a young, 16 year-old girl attended it. It should matter not at all that she was an honor student and an athlete, although the media has made much of these points.
2. She was drunk, as were the football boys who raped her: Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond who the girl thought were her friends.
3. An Instagram photo was found that showed two boys dragging the limp girl by her arms and legs, smiling. This photo went viral.
4. A 12-minute video was found that showcases and talks about the fingering and anal rape of the young girl over a course of several hours. The video also highlights the oppressive and abusive comments that were made during and afterwards by the other boys in the room. (I mention the facts about the actual assault only because so many people have questioned whether or not “fingering” counts as rape. Of course it does and always will.)
Other videos surfaced as well where kids in the room like Michael Nodianos talk explicitly about the raping and then spend their time joking about how “dead” the girl is, and how hilarious it is that she is so: “She’s deader than OJ Simpson’s wife” Nodianos says, laughing into his arm, looking at the girl who is out of camera as you can hear the other boys around her.
Yes, there were bystanders. And yes, they videotaped as opposed to stopping the rape. These kids presume to find rape hilarious. As William McCafferty, the Steubenville police chief, says: “If you could charge people with not being decent human beings a lot of people could have been charged that night.”
5. There were text-messages found where the rapists and others in the room recounted the event as a lost opportunity. One actually said: “I’m pissed all I got was a hand job. I should have raped since everyone thinks I did.”
6. The young girl remembers little of the incident. She was too drunk.
7. Unlike the “he said, she-said” battles witnessed throughout a lot of rape trials, the piles of media footage and data made this case stand out as a social media court case, where the digitization of these young peoples’ night, and their routine, everyday use of Twitter, Facebook, Blogs and texting served to ensure they could not be found innocent.
Social media has become a bizarre version of a diary for a lot of young people. In this case, all evidence was presented front and centre, including words the rapists uttered and the witnesses’ reactions. There was little to argue against. They were guilty. They had posted the words “rape” and “drunk girl” all over their twitter accounts and had documented everything as though it were a bad reality television miniseries.
What has ensued over the past weeks is a new sort of trial where we, the audience, are not being asked to decide whether or not the rapists actually sexually assaulted the girl–of course, everyone knows they did except for a group of naysayers who I can’t even be bothered mentioning. But, we are being bombarded with people debating whether or not the boys should be punished for it. Their age, their futures, their sports careers, their families, their religions, all are being touted as reasons that we (the bystanders to this case) should provide a way out for these kids and their violence.
This case has become one that this girl cannot hide from. As Adam Cohen states, “the Internet never forgets.” Everyone who has access to the Internet can choose to see her entire trauma anytime they wish. There is no escaping this moment for her, or the two boys and the bystanders.
A lot of people have taken sides which is not at all a shocker to anyone who has seen rape trials unfold publicly. The critics, though, in this case have been particularly hard on the young girl, almost martyring the two boys who raped her as though they were victims of their own larger misfortune.
Many people have said that the “promising lives” of the two star football players should not be ruined because of this one night. One reporter, Poppy Harlow shares a melodramatic tale of woe as she recounts her day in the courtroom as the verdicts were heard. She tells us how hard it was for her to sit in her seat and watch the faces of the two boys who cried and repented. CNN chose to show footage only of the two convicted rapists begging for forgiveness, broadcasting how “difficult” and “emotional” it was for those in support of the boys and yet forgot to mention the victim and the toll this trial has taken on her. As Mia MacKenzie says, “CNN went all boo hoo for the boys who did it” and refused to acknowledge the girl who lived it.
Wearing her red blazer and seal puppy face, Poppy Harlow argues, to see these two poor boys crying…. she’d never experienced “anything like it.” She highlights Ma’ lik’s absent father, an “alcoholic,” who attended the trial and who got up in front of everyone to say,”I love you” to his son, saying it was his fault that Ma’ lik made these mistakes. In a way, Harlow turns this rape trial into a movie of the week where the young, convicted man is the hero under bad circumstances.
Anchor woman Candy Crowley actually asked an expert what “lasting effect” this sentence could have on “the two young men, being found guilty in juvenile court of rape essentially” and the expert, told her the bad news: being “labelled as registered sex offenders” will “haunt them for them rest of their lives.”
The fact that CNN allowed their anchor to say “rape essentially” makes me fucking angry. Not sure what is uncertain about the fact it was rape, but I will not dwell in my fire, trying to give her some benefit of the doubt.
What’s harder to process for me is the fact some have said that this girl asked for rape. She was drunk for a reason: she wanted sex, some have argued. She wasn’t too drunk to say no, many have claimed. In fact, the rape trial became a ridiculous farce where the Prosecutor was left fighting with the Defense, trying to prove that the young girl was too drunk to say yes or no to being penetrated, pissed on, and left naked outside in her own vomit. The defense, on the other hand, suggested that if she had had one more beer than maybe a rape might have occurred, but her being passed out and unconscious was clearly not indicative of her lack of consent. Any girl who shows up at a party wearing shorts and is drunk deserves to be raped, right? Or as one of the kids at the party said, “deserves to be pissed on.”
What constitutes consent in these critiques is not an enthusiastic yes, but, rather, the fact that the boys did not receive physical resistance to their sexual advances and so the advances were fine. As though you are always presumed touchable until you say otherwise. Emmett MacFarlane calls this line of defense the “clumsy Don Juan” argument, where men are thought incapable of saying no to their own sexual urges and so it becomes the woman’s job to do so at all times. Anything less is consent.
I am not surprised. We live in a bullying culture of victim-blaming and Internet machoism. There are entire sites dedicated to hate pages, and kids in Elementary schools are telling one another that they are so ugly that they should kill themselves. People are feeling their way all over the web, outing their impulsive emotions as though they were having conversations in their heads with no repercussions. There is no time in a young person’s life to think about how they feel because the web is so fast in its delivery. By the time you might wish you had have waited to say or think or feel online, the world has been playing with your thoughts already, and is commenting all over the place.
I have spent my academic career speaking and writing about queer teen suicide, bullying and the effects that our ramped digital culture has on our emotional development. And I’ve seen a lot of sorrow where victims are blamed for being the victim: Suicide victim Amanda Todd was harassed even in death, demonized for images that were released of her breasts online, and told she deserved to die; the recent, brutal rape of the Swiss cyclist by a gang of men in Datia was told the rape was her fault for not informing police of her travel plans; A police force recently implied women deserve to be raped if they wear certain clothing, hang about drunk men, and travel around at night; an 11 year-old girl in Texas was recently called a “seductive Man Luring Spider” by lawyers after being gang-raped by 18 boys and men.
In cases such as these, I’m reminded of the Tyler Clementi suicide in New York in 2010. Clementi jumped to his death off of a bridge when he discovered that his roommate, Dharun Ravi, had videotaped he and his male lover making love, streaming it live for the world to see. Tweeting: “I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes it’s happening again,” Ravi didn’t think anything of his act. Although it turned out the recording actually failed to work, Clementi took his own life believing all of his classmates and family had seen him having sex with a man online. Ravi got 30 days in prison and 300 hours of community service.
Am I saying that the sentences for Ravi, and these two rapists were too light? Well, it would seem so. The crimes committed were horrific and the time being served is pathetic. Two things bother me more though: our blind ignorance about the effects of living in a world where our lives are digital coupled with the surprise we feign when something like this happens. And the fact some people are calling for these boys’ incarceration for life rather than dealing with the violence that continues to circulate as normalcy.
We have to get a handle on how we are all being affected by this digital moment. Adults too. We can’t simply blame the kids for behaving horribly online when we foster and support their acts everyday. Chucking angry arrogant, stupid, violent kids in a prison for life won’t teach us or them anything.
I don’t believe prison is a place for anyone to learn anything other than how to continue to hurt and be hurt by others. Henry Rollins makes the point that the two Steubenville rapists failed the girl they raped, and yet they too have been failed by society, their parents, their teachers, and their environments. Prison, he argues, will simply compound failures. However, while Rollins suggests that after reading all of the newsfootage, he “thought first about these two men,” this is troubling for me. These boys are being talked about as though they now are the only ones who have to reclaim some sense of everyday life. The girl that was raped, splayed all over the Internet, judged, and forgotten is now also being rendered invisible in ways that are unethically vanquished.
She’s strong, a fighter, and will find peace and solace. We have a responsibility to respect her privacy, to refuse her spectacularization, to fight beside her, and to not forget her or the circumstances that enabled her rape. No one will forget the two boys or what they did; I don’t worry about that. And I hope they too can learn to be compassionate people. Prison won’t do that for them. We must teach care, by example and by putting compassion first, over and above hatred and anger.
This is the best thing about this case I have read, by far. Thank you.
thank you Jess. You’re so lovely. please spread it wide! xo
I agree with Jess. This piece definitely captures the multiple levels of awfulness. Thanks for writing this, Melissa.
I am grateful for the power of your voice. It is, indeed, complex. Please continue to speak. I also want us to grow our compassion.
Thank you so much Annette. You are wonderfully supportive and kind.
You think in such broad terms. I am amazed. Exceptional post!
Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. 🙂