National and even international attention has focused on the rural town of Steubenville in southeast Ohio following the rape of a young woman by two high school football players. They were found guilty yesterday but since they were juveniles (aged 16 and 17) they received lighter sentences than if they had been tried as adults.
There were many aspects of this case that were highly disturbing even apart from the rape but what prevented me from writing about them was that I could not bear to read the reports describing the events. What was done to the woman was so brutal and callous and inhumane that as soon as news reports started describing them I had to stop reading.
But apart from the horrendous nature of the crime, what I want to talk about is the light it sheds on the cult of American football, especially in small towns where high school football seems to viewed as reverently as church, perhaps even more so, and where atrocious behavior by men is shrugged off, covered up, and even condoned with ‘boys will be boys’ and ‘just letting off steam’ excuses as long as they are athletic stars.
It is quite possible that if it were not for the storm of publicity that this particular rape received on the internet, it might not have even been prosecuted. And sadly, that is probably what happens in a lot of such cases all around the country. But in this case, the state’s Attorney General has convened a grand jury that will look to see if there was wider culpability.
CNN, though by no means alone, has drawn the most outrage for using in its coverage the angle that the rapists were themselves somehow also victimized by this tragedy since their lives have been ruined by having a criminal record that would follow them and ruin any chance of further football stardom.
But as Kelly McBride who works with rape survivors points out, painting the victims as permanently damaged and the rapists as unthinkable monsters does not help either because it prevents people from recognizing that people all around them could become rapists. She says that two-thirds of assaults are committed by someone known to the victim and 38% of rapists are friends or acquaintances.
It’s a misplaced anger that will do nothing but further confuse the public about issues of rape and sexual assault, particularly as the crime affects children and teenagers, who make up 44 percent of rape victims.
Here’s the problem: Rape and other forms of sexual assault are incredibly common. (For more information and statistics go here or here.) Researchers estimate that one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually assaulted before age 18.
Rape is complicated. It is also common. We have to find ways to discuss the nuances of an epidemic that hurts so many children. Hyperbole undermines this goal. If all rapists are monsters, that means that mom’s boyfriend, or the coach, or star athlete can’t be a rapist. If all victims are destroyed, or worst yet, destined to victimize others, then healthy, intelligent men and women can’t be victims. And that’s just not true.