On the Steubenville Rape Case

On the Steubenville Rape Case

(This post is a reflection on the New York Times article Rape Case Unfolds on Web and Splits City published on December 16, 2012.)

Steubenville reads like a playbook of how rape culture is perpetuated in our society. We see the roles of alcohol, hypermasculinity, and close-knit male groups coming together to lead to this crime. There was little deterrence in Steubenville, where alcohol was freely given to minors, and school administrators were party to the cover up of these crimes. We also see interesting intersections of class, age, race, and gender that complicate the situation. If we could only choose a handful of specific cases to analyze in depth, this one would make my short list.

In this case one of the big questions is why didn’t someone step in to stop the rape? Plenty of people witnessed the way these young men were treating this incapacitated young woman, and yet no one intervened. Here we see the reluctance of people to step in when they see a potential sexual assault or rape in development, a strong example of the bystander effect. Most people keep to themselves, perhaps thinking that it’s not their business or feeling too scared to help. I think combatting this “instinct of inaction” will be an important step in preventing future assaults, especially in settings that already have so many risk factors (e.g. alcohol, hypermasculinity). I know during my SARV experience freshman year at MSU we talked about ways to intervene if we suspect foul-play. This is one of the few parts of that training I still think about because it was something of a call to action. I do try to watch out for people, especially other young women, when I’m out at a bar or at a party where these risk factors are more obvious. I’ll watch interactions that seem out of place until I am convinced that both parties seem okay. I’ve never actually stepped in to actually ask if people were okay, however. It’s scary to do, and I do not feel like my advances would be appreciated; people could react very strongly at the (however tempered) accusation that they might be assaulters. If it were socially easier to “check-in,” however, we might be able to make it more difficult for rapists to get away with taking advantage of their targets.

Another interesting point in the Steubenville case in the relationship between technology, social media, and sexual assault. Much of this case was reliant upon pictures taken and distributed by members of the football team. Tweets were used to help piece together what happened and when. Blogs (like this one!) played a major role in complicating the case and how it was perceived by the larger community. The law has a lot of work to do to catch up with this technology in a number of ways that relate directly to sexuality. There are currently very few laws on the books that deal with revenge porn, for example, where one party (most commonly a man) posts risque photos of of his partner or ex-partner (usually a woman) as a form of revenge. We can all (hopefully) agree that is practice is appalling, but the law still needs to catch up and develop appropriate deterrence to this behavior. An additional example is child pornography laws, where minors are prosecuted for distributing naked photos of themselves or other minors. While minors who distribute photos of other minors should definitely be punished in some way (as we see in this case) child pornography laws don’t necessarily feel like the right way to do this, because the distributor is also a minor. I personally find these intersections of technology and sexuality very interesting, and am fascinated to see how the law (something that moves very slowly) is going to evolve to accommodate technology (something that moves very quickly).