Deconstructing Victim-Blaming in the Steubenville Rape Case

The tragedy that is the entirety of the Steubenville rape case has taken over headlines, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, e-mails, texts, and live news coverage (among other forms of instantaneous media) for the past few weeks, and has had yet another explosion after the announcement of the sentencing of the the two athletes—16 and 17 year-old boys—who raped the 16 year-old girl from Steubenville, Ohio. And amidst this explosion of reported facts, sensationalism, and opinions—centering on expressing rage and anger at the case itself or the guilty verdict and the 1 to 5-year sentences in juvenile detention centers— lies one more infuriating aspect: the number of purported “liberals” and “progressives” who are celebrating.

Let me start, as many have had to do in defending such opinions, by saying that yes, what those boys did was absolutely horrible, and my heart aches for the victim and her family. It was violating, it was disrespectful, it was humiliating, and completely atrocious behavior. And while there is no excuse for assaulting the very core and essence of someone’s body and being in the ways that they did (namely, for the pleasure and enjoyment of the perpetrators at the expense of the victim), there are many, many reasons, and none of them have to do with the state of the victim at the time she was raped nor some purely spawn-of-satan evil living inside of the boys. And it is for these reasons that my heart also aches for the perpetrators of this violent and inexcusable crime.

You see, one of the reasons for this blog was to point out the sometimes hypocritical rhetoric that mainstream progressives and liberals alike employ, in the hopes that we can do better. In this case, individuals and organizations everywhere are railing against the ever pervasive patriarchal rape culture that creates a rationale that blames the victims of rape and sexual assault as opposed to the perpetrators. But it seems as though far too many are willing to ignore the fact that the patriarchy constructs problematic and readily-embodied male ideals which value misogyny and acts of abuse, among other oppressive behaviors, as traits that are not only desireable, but necessary to ensure one’s masculinity. So therefore, I ask, how are we constructing and using the term “victim” in this case, and who is engaging in “victim blaming”? It is on this complex topic that I write the inaugural post of this blog.

I find it quite disheartening that many of the people who truly do understand, at least in part, how masculinity is constructed encouraged, performed, and regulated—particularly within male athletics—seem to the first to toss this knowledge aside to join the choruses of “justice has been served!” that have resounded throughout the country, often in staunch defiance of those who would state that justice failed the perpetrators. Additionally, many of these same people acknowledge—or, at least, claim to understand—the challenges faced by adolescent and young adult males in asserting their identity through masculinity, knowing they tend to lack, from a purely physiological and cognitive standpoint, fully developed behavioral management “tools”, such as fully developed frontal lobes (which underpin planning, intent, forethought and judgment), the hypothalamus and amygdala (which regulate aggression and sexual urges), and the somatosensory cortex and the insula (in which emotional processes have been found to have been deeply written and encoded, though emotional responses in general come from throughout the body). Yet despite all of this much-needed information that progressives/liberals are constantly attempting to get into mainstream rhetoric and dialogue, many have once again fallen into victim blaming—this time, of the perpetrators of the rape.

Again, let me emphasize that this is NOT to excuse the actions of these boys. But it is almost sickening to think that this case is anything but lose-lose-lose: it was a loss for the victim when this horrible tragedy first occurred, it was a loss for these boys as they have grown up with harmful ideologies about women and sexuality, and it continues to be a loss for society as a whole for being responsible for creating the beliefs that led to this crime in the first place (as, let’s be honest, these boys weren’t raised in a socio-ideological vacuum). We have an extremely flawed system that continuously produces victim-blaming ideologies, equates sexual conquests with masculinity (a.k.a success, power, status, etc.), and individualizes all crimes with the intent to scare individuals from becoming first-time offenders or prevent them from becoming repeat-offenders through punitive measures that disproportionately incarcerates poor people and people of color.

Black Girl Dangerous beautifully writes:

“I also feel sorry…[t]hat we have created a world in which, at just 16 years old, and even younger, boys can already dehumanize and degrade [girls]. That misogyny is so insidious and so effective as to make 16-year-old boys incapable of respecting this girl, of seeing her as a human being with the right to make her own choices, even when drunk, and the right to remain unviolated, even when passed out. I am sorry for these boys that, at 16, some of their humanity is already gone.”

It is within this flawed system that has created the insidious misogyny, homophobia, and heterosexism of which she speaks. Additionally, when it comes to criminal cases, we have perpetuated false dichotomies of victim-perpetrator, plantiff-defendant, winner-loser, and guilty-innocent. We are led to believe that it is simply not possible for the system to allow for multiple tragedies from which recuperation is impossible, and that any and all crimes have a way of “settling the score”, so to speak, between the two parties. So is it really that much of a victory when, within a social structure as broken as ours, two boys were convicted of a crime and assigned the totality of the blame? Is this what we call a “success” within our system of justice?

Neil Irvin, executive director of Men Can Stop Rape, responds to the tragedy by stating:

“I can admit that my first instinct on these kinds of cases is to demand my pound of flesh…For many of us, this is what happens in a society dominated by unhealthy masculinity, and the easiest way to react to something like rape that scares, shocks, saddens, and wounds us is to be angry. But our anger won’t help us understand why these boys felt it okay to rape an unconscious girl, it won’t help the survivor heal from her trauma, and it certainly won’t address the underlying causes of rape culture…[T]he pressures to showcase traditional ideals of masculinity will always outweigh the news stories that only capture our attention for one week at a time.”

Astute observations such as these desperately need to be understood by the general public, yet they remain largely overlooked and/or ignored. By and large, the liberal/progressive reaction to the verdict has consistently been one of triumph. Understandably, the staunch displays of nearly unconditional support is, in part, likely a response to much of the mainstream news coverage that disgustingly ignored the victim and her family, which is nauseating beyond words. However, that doesn’t mean we must ignore the fact that these boys exhibited behaviors that reflected deep-seated, subconscious ideas about women’s’ bodies and human sexuality that undoubtedly led them to commit their atrocious crime.

Focusing on punishment on the individual level will forever blind us to the necessary systemic change that would actually give us cause to celebrate and say “no, this will never happen again.” Obviously, crimes such as this must be dealt with, but even the most optimistic of us should realize that corrective “punishment” is too little, too late for the victims. Teaching healthy sexuality, healthy social and personal identity development, consent, and the inherent value of others (especially women in the case of rape, though persons of any and all sexual and gender identities, orientations, and performances must be included) that is backed up and reinforced by society at large are a necessary first step. Otherwise, we are only fooling ourselves in being surprised that hundreds of women are raped in the United States each and every day. If we want rapes and sexual assault to stop—which, for my own sanity, I have to assume that we all do (please let me have SOME faith in humanity)—we need to wake up and realize that right now, there are victims on both sides of the coin, and blaming and punishing one is no better than blaming and punishing the other.

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One thought on “Deconstructing Victim-Blaming in the Steubenville Rape Case

  1. First of all I would like to say terrific blog! I had a quick question that I’d like to ask if you do not mind.
    I was interested to know how you center yourself and clear your thoughts before writing.
    I’ve had difficulty clearing my mind in getting my ideas out there.
    I do take pleasure in writing however it just seems
    like the first 10 to 15 minutes are wasted simply just trying to
    figure out how to begin. Any ideas or tips? Kudos!

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