Every two minutes, someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted. Yet, somehow, the Steubenville rape case has managed to capture the nation's notoriously restless attention span. Is it too optimistic to hope the increasingly high-profile case will help dispel some of our country's most deep-rooted myths about rape?
According to RAINN, 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime; a recent government survey found the number was closer to one in five. So why can't the country stop talking about the Steubenville rape case?
Steubenville is described by the media again and again as a football-crazed town; the teenagers charged with raping a 16-year-old girl were rising football stars on a legendary team with heavy emotional and financial significance in the area. Big Red volunteer coach Nate Hubbard told the New York Times that the rape was "just an excuse" and that "now people are trying to blow up our football program because of it" — a popular point of view in countless communities across the country where athletes are glorified.
Our culture has a difficult time comprehending that the revered athletes can be rapists. But the outrage prompted by comments from athletes like Hubbard imply that 2013 might finally be the year that we stop glorifying jocks and start taking accusations against them more seriously.
Americans are big fans of stories about government cover-ups — it's not only Tea Partiers and Occupiers who distrust The Man. The Steubenville rape case is rife with corruption; all sorts of high-ranking officials are allegedly implicated, and rumors of massive cover-ups have been circulating since August, to the point where the city and its police force recently launched a website to disseminate facts because so many people mistrust them and are therefore turning to other sources of information. The Atlantic Wire has a compelling rundown of "Why nobody trusts Steubenville" — the city's shady reputation is 70 years in the making.
If Anonymous sub-group KnightSec hadn't taken a passionate interest in this case — they've hacked into the football team's website, posted the names of athletes, published lengthy accounts of what they believe happened that night, and undercovered damning social media evidence — would as many people still be interested? No way.
Internet vigilantism has some serious drawbacks — KnightSec has "outed" numerous Steubenville residents whom they believe are involved with the case and deserve to be punished, and we currently have no way of knowing if many of their accusations are true — but if Anonymous hadn't wielded its enormous influence and "complicated" matters by doggedly pursing the case, we probably would've moved onto some other atrocity by now. People may not remember the names Trent Mays and Ma'lik Richmond in a few years, but they'll likely remember the time Anonymous made a serious statement by combatting rape culture.
Goddard originally posted a YouTube video of former Steubenville student Michael Nodianos cracking joke after joke about how "dead" (read: unconscious) the rape survivor was the night she was assaulted by Mays and Richmond, but most people didn't watch it until Anonymous re-released it last week. Nodianos's smug giggles and nausea-inducing commentary ("She is so raped," he says. "Her puss is about as dry as the sun right now") really struck a chord throughout the country — the incident was reminiscent of the Todd Akin "legitimate rape" debacle.
As someone who writes and thinks about rape culture all day, I was disgusted but not surprised by Akin's comments, nor by Nodianos's — but for most people, who aren't forced to grapple with the misogynist attitudes of many of our country's bright shining politicians and athletic superstars on a daily basis, the video was a stark reminder that what happened that night in Steubenville was nothing more than a laughing matter for many. Again: people may not remember the names Trent Mays and Ma'lik Richmond in a few years, or even Nodianos, but I bet few people who watch that video will be able to get his joyful shrieks of "They raped her quicker than Mike Tyson!" out of their heads.
I'm a fan of the SlutWalk movement because it allowed women who didn't feel comfortable discussing feminism in more "intellectual" terms to identify with the movement nonetheless. The concept was simple —no one deserves to be raped regardless of what he or she chooses to wear — and women donned both bikinis and pajamas as they marched down streets in cities across the world and felt empowered in numbers. I see a similar phenomenon happening here. The case is both horrifying and simplistic, modern thanks to social media but a tale as old as time. All different groups of people can relate: sexual assault survivors, small town residents, critics of macho jock culture, Anonymous's fans.
You could lambast the media for paying more attention to Steubenville instead other sexual assault cases involving, say, sex workers or the LGBTQ community — and, of course, those deserve just as much publicity. But we need cases exactly like this one to start changing pervasive attitudes about rape and victim-blaming.
Wouldn't it be amazing if this case went down in history as a turning point in rape culture history? Perhaps we'll tell future generations that, after Steubenville, more parents started educating their kids about consent, college students stopped thinking their peers were "asking for it" by going out to bars, police and cities started prioritizing sexual assault cases, and fewer people thought that a teenage girl is ready and willing when she is actually just unconscious.
That may sound like wishful thinking, but we're already reaping the benefits of not letting Steubenville go. When's the last time a city and police force felt it necessary to launch a extensive fact-based website? Thanks to internet vigilantes and social media, cops are under increasing pressure to take rape accusations seriously and be transparent about their decisions. Ohio State University announced that Nodianos left the school yesterday; it's unclear whether he dropped out due to threats or if the administration played a role. While I don't wish him physical harm, his inability to hide from the comments he made gives me hope for a new era of blaming rapists and perpetrators of rape culture instead of their victims.