There has been, and will continue to be with a grand jury looming a month from now, no shortage of commentary about the Steubenville verdict. Some observers have reacted with victim-blaming protests to the delinquent verdicts handed down to Steubenville football players Trent Mays and Ma'Lik Richmond. Others have suggested that the two teenagers should have been tried as adults for raping and cruelly mocking an unconscious 16-year-old girl. One thing, however, is clear: outrage, no matter how well-founded or righteous, is not going to prevent future Steubenvilles. We need to take the opportunity that the very public Steubenville proceedings have presented to us in order to engage in a meaningful dialogue about how our society can do more to prevent sexual assault.
Outrage is certainly a good place to start because it gives us all a common jumping-off point from where we can begin discussing the Steubenville rape case. We're all in agreement that sexual assault is a disgusting problem that all too leads to victim-blaming? Good — now what are we going to do about it?
This is more or less where Henry Rollins begins his lengthy rumination about the Steubenville verdict. It's worth reading in its entirety, not least because Rollins asks a lot more questions than your average observer, and though he makes it pretty clear that we should all be in agreement that something must be done to address sexual violence, he isn't quite sure what that something is.
What made these young people think that that what they did was ok? What was in their upbringing, the information and morals instilled in them that allowed them to do what they did, minute after minute, laughing, joking, documenting it and then calling it a night and going home? Out of all the people who were witness to what happened, why wasn't there someone putting a stop to it?
What I am attempting to get at, and I apologize if I am not being clear enough is that this is a failure on many levels. Parents, teachers, coaches, peers all come into play here. I am not trying to diffuse blame or lessen the awfulness of what happened but I want to address the complexity of the cause in an effort to assess the effect so it can be prevented.
Some might say that the two going to the youth facility are as much victims as the young women who was assaulted. I do not agree. The two are offenders. What they did was obviously wrong. That being said, we cannot end the discussion at that point and expect things to change.
I have yet to say anything about the damage done to the young woman involved. It is ironic and sad that the person who is going to do a life sentence is her.
So, where do we go from here? Earlier on, Rollins asks rhetorically what one one "learns" in the sort of juvenile detention facility Mays and Richmond are being sent to, and seems to follow the Socratic breadcrumb trail to the conclusion that the teenagers will probably not reflect on their heinous crime in any meaningful way:
...after five years locked away, does the idea of assaulting a woman seem like the wrong thing to do, more than if you were incarcerated for one year? Would you be "more sorry" about what you did? Is that possible? Or, would you just be more sorry for yourself about where your actions landed you? At what point do you get "better", how many years in one of these places does that take?
If Rollins doesn't offer a concrete answer to any of these questions, it's only because the answers have to come from a lot of different places. Some fundamental things about the way women's bodies are commodified in pop culture, or the way American athletes are worshipped as demi-gods, or about how sex education is taught in this country's schools all need to change, and any sound discussion of Steubenville should lead us to take careful note of the many ways in which our culture creates an unequal gender divide that often encourages sexual objectification. When an actress, for instance, is reduced to a mere assemblage of sexualized body parts, her humanity becomes secondary. And dehumanization, Rollins argues, is what allowed the Steubenville football players to openly mock their unconscious victim:
I think to a great degree, we humans still divide ourselves into two species, even though we are monotypic. There are males and females. We see them as different and not equal. Things get better when women get more equality. That is a bit obvious but I think it leads to better results up the road. If it's a man's world as they say, then men, your world is a poorly run carnage fest.
It is obvious that the two offenders saw the victim as someone that could be treated as a thing. This is not about sex, it is about power and control. I guess that is what I am getting at. Sex was probably not the hardest thing for the two to get, so that wasn't the objective. When you hear the jokes being made during the crime, it is the purest contempt.
Celebrity media is partially to blame for this "poorly run carnage fest," and Rollins suggests that, if we're going to sexualize so many female celebrities, then "sites like Huffington Post should have sections for male anatomy hanging out instead of just the idiotic celebrity ‘side boob' and ‘nip slip' camera." He then adds a very stern denunciation of victim-blaming aimed at all those in the media who point to a person's outfit, for instance, as "attention-seeking," as an open invitation to be objectified:
I know what some of you are saying. "Then why do they wear clothes like that unless they want those photos taken?" I don't know what to tell ya. Perhaps just don't take the fuckin picture? Evolve? I don't know.
You heard it from Henry Rollins — cultivating empathy for other people is how we start preventing instances of sexual violence like the most recent one in Steubenville. Anything less is unbefitting are evolutionary gift of self awareness.