Trying to Make Sense of Steubenville

17 Mar

Like most people I know, and most people you probably know, I’ve been to some boozy parties where instances of bad judgment outnumbered good. In my case, those parties were all in college, because I didn’t go to parties in high school. Except for a matter of degree, I have some doubt that the parties were substantially different, especially those I attended as a freshman with other freshmen. We were all pretty young, even by the time we weren’t teens any longer. By the time I was old enough to set legal foot in a bar, I’d done enough heavy drinking to find the whole thing kind of passé.

And like at least 25% of the women you know who attended college, I experienced sexual assault. On one of these occasions I was roofied by a frat boy who became, in later years, well known for drugging women and locking them, via enormous keyed padlock, in his frat house room. This wasn’t one of the countless nights I engaged in binge drinking. Neither were any of the other nights when incidents that fall on a spectrum between coercion and assault took place. On the nights when I was truly out of control, somebody always took me home and put me to bed.

And yes, we all knew the rules: Don’t go out alone. Use the buddy system. Whatever other bullshit you’ve been told that makes you responsible for keeping another person’s appendages out of your body. This was the heyday of the Take Back the Night march. We played along. Dismal things still happened, because whether or not we followed the rules, we got hurt—the guy with the padlock was a trusted friend of a trusted friend; on the night when he locked me in, he physically shoved my friends out the door; he was able to hurt us again and again because, in our shame, in our habit of seeking our own responsibility for the things that happened to us, we didn’t tell each other. The rules we give girls to “avoid rape” are simple lies of social control. They have nothing to do with rape; they’re about telling girls and women how they’re supposed to behave. Their only meaningful outcome is the collective silence, born of self-blame, that lets a young man with a padlock on his door and a healthy supply of hallucination-inducing chemicals with which to spike drinks do what he does over and over again.


The Steubenville trial hinged on just how drunk that poor girl was. Just a little drunk, and she must have consented, despite the fact that she distinctly recalls, during the one chance she had, saying no. Blackout drunk and it was an undeniable rape. It’s pretty clear here that in the usual he-said/she-said circumstances of a rape trial, these boys wouldn’t have even been charged. Lots of attention has been paid to the use of texts and tweets in the trial—and I’ll concede that I find their delivery, the actual testimony, endlessly interesting—but it seems to me that the focus on level of intoxication, on the possibility that her status as blackout drunk insured conviction—is a remarkable factor. Hasn’t it been the case, always, that the more drunk a woman was, the less able she was to call what happened to her a crime?

I’m also struggling with these words, accuser and victim. (You can probably tell by some of the awkward diction in that last paragraph.) Accuser, of course, is a nice men’s-rights dog whistle implying that the woman* in question has any choice about what happened to her and about the narrative that unfolds afterward, that she had agency in the events at hand far beyond what is actually the case, and that her primary identity is as someone who makes an accusation, not as someone who pursues legal recourse for herself and for her attacker’s future targets. Victim, while more accurate, implies that a woman has no agency whatsoever—which is generally true during the course of a rape or sexual assault—and that her lack of agency will follow her indefinitely, will define who she is. Probably people better educated on this point than I am, who’ve seriously studied this stuff, have a better word for this. But if they do, it hasn’t entered the public lexicon yet. We need a new word.

A few years ago, when two boys attempted to argue in almost identical research essays that 98% of all rape accusations are false**, I had an out: The papers were so dismal that I didn’t exactly have to take on the content to deal with the problems. When I did challenge the assertion, their explanation was that women who report rapes are looking for attention. I said, “Do you know what comes with that attention? Social ostracism, a public and accusatory airing of her full sexual and social history, accusations of lying and manipulation? Would you seek out that particular variety of attention?” One of the students, the one with some potential, looked at his feet, ashamed, and said, “I guess not.” The other kept smirking the same smirk he’d smirked all semester. So 50/50 on the making an impact? More importantly, this is the legacy of socially conservative anti-woman rhetoric: a sense among boys and men—the ones who believe it, anyway—that they can and will take what they want from women when they want it, that women are mere functionaries in a world that should cater to them. And in the case of the believers of the men’s rights bullshit, a sense that, because they perceive that world as catering a little bit less to them than it used to, they should take things from women, that it’s their responsibility to do so, to teach the women and the rest of the world a lesson.

This, of course, is not what sex is for. The thing about Steubenville that I can’t figure out—that I’ll never figure out—and therefore that scares me the most is how these boys see this as a context for sex. To be completely crude: How does this circumstance result in sexual arousal? I understand the dynamic of teen boy groupthink, of the ways they one-up each other to establish dominance, and the roles deviance and pranksterism play in that dynamic. I also understand that rape is power-fueled, that it is a function of one human exercising power over another; I understand how that power can beget arousal. I even understand, to an extent, the need to document and disseminate evidence of behavior that breaks the social rules. And I’ve read again and again about how the widespread availability of any kind of porn you might want to see has impacted the way people think about sex, especially those who’ve grown up in an era when they’re likely*** to encounter degrading sexual imagery long before they find themselves in actual sexual situations. But I can’t figure out what makes boys like these think that this is what their sexuality is for, and to believe it so fully that their bodies participate.

I’m obviously not going to make sense of anything here. And I’m sure somebody will poo-poo that last paragraph in some suggestion that it’s naive to think that boys can’t get aroused anytime they like, but hello, I know a few men. I knew some boys once upon a time. Those generalizations, like all generalizations, are for idiots who aren’t interested in thinking. This is a complex and difficult thing, and it’s nowhere near an isolated incident. It’s not about them not knowing it’s wrong—it wouldn’t have happened if they didn’t know it was wrong. Its wrongness is part of the appeal. So what do we do? Really, I have no idea. What do we do?

I have felt for a few years now that our culture and our politics are beginning to swing around to something more closely resembling sanity. I think we’re headed back into another era when it’s reasonable to publicly stand up for women, when those who shout us down when we do so are pretty widely recognized as fringe idiots. I think we’re headed back toward Take Back the Night marches. It was during an era like this, in the early and mid 90s, when I was introduced to feminism, and when feminism became a driving force in my life. I’ve seen more student essays about women’s rights, about rape and sex trafficking and gender roles, than I have since I started my current teaching position nine years ago. I think that the anti-woman forces have finally pushed their rhetoric too far. So I have just a little hope that we’ll be okay. But I also know that before long, our beliefs and behavior will swing back in this direction, and we’ll be asking the same questions and fighting the same fights all over again.


*I’m using woman as a default here in acknowledgment of the overwhelming statistical likelihood that if you have been raped, you are female, and also because the dynamics of our mainstream socialized genders are pretty important here. If you have been raped and you are not a straight, cisgender, cissexual female, the circumstances of your situation/case are even more difficult to discuss in anything less than a 10,000 word treatise.

**The FBI’s own statistics on this count consider up to 8% of reports to be false; only 24% of reports result in arrest and prosecution. That leaves 68% of reported rapes completely unresolved in the justice system, alongside the 75% or so that are never reported because, well, see above.

***Obviously, such material has existed for practically ever, and those who wished to seek it out have had the chance to do so for practically ever, but if the internet fear machines are accurate at all, both boys and girls are now likely to encounter such material before they’ve even hit puberty.


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