By Claire Lanini
On March 17th, Trent Mays, 16 years of age, was sentenced to two years in prison and Ma’lik Richmond, 16, was sentenced to one year for raping a 16-year old girl at a football party in Steubenville, Ohio the night of August 11th, 2012. During the course of the night, photos and video of her being violated were uploaded to social media sites including Instagram and Twitter. Both boys played football for the local team, the Big Reds. This case is far from unique, but the way the media has portrayed it and how the public has reacted speaks volumes about a deeper issue present in society.
The media has tended to focus on the boys’ side of the story. Candy Crowley, a reporter for CNN opened a broadcast on the day of the trial by explaining that it is “incredibly difficult…to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart.” An article from The Guardian published on the same day quickly summed up the situation: “At issue for many residents was not the specifics of the case alone: whether two stars of the town’s much-loved high school football team raped a drunken teenage girl during a night of wild parties… It was also whether the town itself was being seen to be on trial.”
But perhaps even more telling are the comments not on the news. Nate Hubbard, one of Big Red’s coaches has been quoted as saying “The rape was just an excuse, I think. What else are you going to tell your parents when you come home drunk like that and after a night like that? She had to make up something.” On Twitter, many have blamed Jane Doe for “asking for it.”
The truth is that there is an imbalance between how rapists and victims are represented, especially when the victim is female. Too often the victim is told that they were the one at fault and so rape often goes unreported. It was indeed only on March 20th that CNN published an article entitled “What about the Victim?”
A Global issue:
At the end of December 2012, in India, a twenty-three year old woman was murdered after being the victim of a gang rape. In the capital of New Delhi, there were six hundred and thirty-five reported rape cases in 2012, but only one made it to court. In January of this year, The Guardian estimated sixty-nine thousand females and nine thousand males are raped every year in England and Wales alone, but less than sixteen thousand are recorded by the police, and less than a thousand five hundred are convicted.
According to the World Health Organization, 30-60% of women will be victims of sexual and domestic violence and yet the United Nation’s Convention for the Elimination of All Discrimination Against Women, adopted in 1979 by the General Assembly is signed, but not ratified by the US and South Sudan, and is not signed at all by the Holy See, Iran, Sudan or Somalia.
But there has been progress:
A petition on Change.org calling for CNN to apologize for its sympathetic portrayal of the Steubenville rapists has currently amassed more than two hundred and fifty thousand signatures. In the United States, the Violence Against Women Act, originally passed in 1994 under Bill Clinton, was reauthorized in 2005 by Barack Obama, while an extension of the bill passed in February of this year. It now includes provisions to set aside government funding to ensure the quality of rape test kits, to increase preventative programs on campuses, and to close the gap between the number of domestic and sexual assaults committed and the number reported.
What remains to be done:
The underlying issue is still how we view victims, especially female victims, of sexual assault and domestic violence. Lindiwe Mazibuko, the parliamentary leader of the Democratic Alliance in South Africa has contended: “We live in a deeply patriarchal and injured society where the rights of women are not respected. Indeed, there is a silent war against the children and women of this country – and we need all South Africans to unite in the fight against it.”
The knee jerk response is too often to that the woman should have acted differently – she shouldn’t have let herself get drunk, she shouldn’t have worn that short skirt – but rarely do we hear the blame immediately being put on the rapist. But why is it the case? Does it not put the man in the default position of a rapist?
As the status of women in society continues to improve, women will be seen less as sexual objects or a means of proclaiming authority and power. But it will take more than a class on gender violence while incarcerated or a short-term jail sentence to change the way we think about rape and victimization, and what is says about us as human beings.