Dehumanized prey

Soraya Chemaly has some trenchant thoughts on the Steubenville rape case and the culture that enables such cases.

While teaching people about consent isn’t going to change the behavior of predatory serial rapists, it will cultivate a culture that encourages effective bystander intervention and teaches both women and men how to reduce risk.  What we have now and by default are subtle and overt messages that teach children, like the two Steubenville boys and the kids who watched them, to treat other human beings — disproportionately female ones — as dehumanized prey instead of as people for whom they should feel compassion.

Seriously, what is that? Why did everyone else just let it happen? Why didn’t anyone stop it? How horrible that is. Imagine you’re at a gathering with a lot of adults and one person – a woman – becomes ill, and gets so groggy and dizzy that she can’t respond properly. What happens? A couple of men proceed to pull some of her clothes off, and stick their fingers up her, and text their friends about it, and drag her around the room, while everyone else stands around and laughs?

Well, no, at least I hope the people you know aren’t like that. No, people help, and suggest going to the ER, or lying down for a minute, or whatever seems appropriate.

So what the hell is this? What’s wrong with everyone? I know teenagers don’t have a complete prefrontal cortex yet, but that doesn’t mean they’re grizzly bears.

In the meantime, kids in Steubenville will pay a high price. The thing is, the boys probably are basically “good.” Although I think they are clearly at fault for violating this girl’s body and human rights, I do not think it’s their fault that they were born into a culture where “nice guys” rape all the time and get away with it.  We could avoid an awful lot of hardship and wasted lives if we disregarded the repugnant antics of those who are aggressively opposed to a fairer distribution of rights and confronted these issues head on.

As I recently said when participating in a Women Under Siege forum on victim-blaming, explaining context and shifting the focus from individual people to the systems that produce them isn’t a mentality of victimization, it’s a critique of the deeply entrenched, destructive attitudes at the heart of violence and oppression, and the first steps toward dismantling them. That is a matter of personal responsibility.

Tame the grizzly bears.


  1. lochaber says

    I disagree with the bit about the “boys probably are basically “good.” ”

    Admittedly, I’m a bit biased against jocks, and most of the ones I’ve met tend to be more predatory and prone to bullying then non-jock teens.

    Aside from that, vomiting is generally considered a nearly universal sign that someone is not well. There is a chance that someone passing out could be mistaken as tired, but it’s hard to mistake vomiting for much other than what it is: a very clear sign that something is wrong with that person.

    Furthermore, if they were “basically good”, they would have apologized, or did something other then victim blame and get their coach to ‘fix’ it for them.

    The sad thing is that this probably happens rather frequently, and it took a case with undeniable evidence to even make it to trial. Even so, they are still victim-blaming that women and calling her a ‘slut’

    I imagine some of it is related to how we(especially males) think of sexual acts, and use terms like ‘getting head’, ‘getting pussy’, ‘getting your dick wet’, etc. I don’t know whether that is just an indicator of the person dehumanizing the female participant, and mentally separating the genitalia from the individual, or if phrases like this actively contribute to the dehumanizing of women, or if it’s a bit of both.

  2. Lyanna says

    Imagine you’re at a gathering with a lot of adults and one person – a woman – becomes ill, and gets so groggy and dizzy that she can’t respond properly. What happens? A couple of men proceed to pull some of her clothes off, and stick their fingers up her, and text their friends about it, and drag her around the room, while everyone else stands around and laughs?

    I once asked a guy, who I was dating at the time, what he would do in that situation. This is someone who is generally pretty feminist-friendly, who understands what consent means, etc.

    His answer? He would ask the friends of the woman and the man involved if this sort of behavior was “their thing” (i.e. something they had consented to before hand).

    This sent me into a RAGESMASH because, really, (1) how are their friends to know if it’s their thing, and why would they be reliable on the subject rather than just reaching for the most convenient explanation, and (2) why is the trivial chance that they are into public drunken sex at parties more important than the possibility of rape?

    The equivocation, self-doubting and ‘who am I to judge/act’ element of bystander syndrome is the most pernicious part of it. We need a culture of valuing women; we also need a culture that values free thought and independent action enough so that people feel empowered to step in. Even if they might be wrong. Even if it might lead to some mild embarrassment or inconvenience to them or others. Even if it means sticking their neck out a bit.

    Fear of action is horrible. I suspect that’s why people at this party did nothing. Yes, a few people are truly horrible and just think “oh, it’s okay if this girl is getting tortured, because she’s not me,” but that’s not the majority of humans. The majority of humans are cowardly and passive, not malicious or amoral. That includes these teenagers (or such would be my guess). They were paralyzed by self-doubt and sheep-like mentality.

  3. brucegee1962 says

    I’m glad this case is getting so much publicity, because I think advance modelling is hugely important. The current anti-bullying programs that are being put into schools are great, because they let kids think ahead of time about what their morals are if they’re ever spectators in a group attack situation like this one.

    Thinking back to my teenage self, and considering the fact that if I’d been a bystander to something like this it would have been my very first glimpse of female nudity, it’s possible that my prefrontal cortex would have simply shut down and I would have lost touch entirely with my sense of ethics just to see what would happen next. I would have felt terrible about not doing anything later, but that would have been too late. (Oh, who am I kidding, I never would have been invited to a party like this in a million years.)

    But if, on the other hand, I’d been primed ahead of time to think about what I ought to do when confronted with a public assault like this, it’s way more likely that I would have done something like confront the rapists or call the cops.

  4. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    it’s possible that my prefrontal cortex would have simply shut down and I would have lost touch entirely with my sense of ethics just to see what would happen next.

    And people wonder why women and gay men try to avoid groups of men of the same age.

    Get the fuck away from me. Jesus.

  5. canikickit says

    Seriously Josh? I understand your argument, but your myopic view of brucegee’s post is a bit disheartening. I think that preconditioning adolescents to respond to this type of situation would be very beneficial. Adolescents are not necessarily prepared to deal with these situations, especially in an inebriated group context. Prescribing a particular response to this behavior and reinforcing it through education early on, or “priming” as suggested above, is a good suggestion. Rather than knee-jerk condemnation of someone, perhaps you can contribute constructively? Apologies if this hits close to home, and it is an emotional response. Argument still stands though.

  6. Tsu Dho Nimh says

    Thinking back to a conversation with collage student … she was OK with a fellow dorm resident being “tea-bagged” in the dorm hallway. Of course the cictim wasn’t one of her friends, so that may have made a difference.

    Maybe now she wouldn’t be, but the impulse to protect a helpless human didn’t happen then

  7. Jackie, Ms. Paper if ya nasty says

    I agree with Josh. The sight of a woman’s body does not magically shut down your mind or your morality. The suggestion that women’s body might have this effect on helpless adolescent men is just skeevy and wrong.

  8. Martha says

    I agree with both Bruce and Josh.

    As Jackie says, it’s definitely not the case that the sight of a woman’s body magically shuts down one’s mind or morality, but I don’t think that’s what Bruce is really saying. There are times in all of our lives, whether due to inexperience or excitement, that we’ve been at a greater risk of getting carried away, even in a way that increases the risk of harm to ourselves or others. I read Bruce’s point to be that the best way to make sure that one behaves well in such circumstances is to have thought about the possibility beforehand and to be prepared. That prevents all sorts of mistakes– and misbehavior. That’s independent of gender or privilege.

    The role that privilege plays– in this case, straight, cis male privilege– is (at least) twofold. First and most obviously, society teaches men and boys that their needs are more important than those of women and girls, leading to rape culture, among other ills. Perhaps just as importantly, though, straight, cis male privilege means that men and boys are almost never asked to put themselves in the place of a woman or girl, whether that be through listening in real life, reading a book, watching TV, or going to a movie. That makes it much harder to put oneself in the place of a woman– or gay or trans man– when so-called boys-will-be-boys misbehavior takes place, with dangerous consequences to the victim or potential victim. It’s also a damned shame that a man can go through his life completely unaware of what it’s like to be a woman, while the converse is impossible.

  9. Ysidro says

    Just today I had a shouting match with a coworker who said he doesn’t feel bad about women who get drunk and then raped. I just don’t know what to do about that kind of belief.

  10. says

    Had some houseguests last week, including an 18yo boy/man, not a demographic with which I’m terribly familiar. And he’s a freshman at a religion-affiliated college, so that although his family is not religious, he’s required to attend a Christian chapel service three times a week. And on the subject of rape? His response is to wonder why “Thou shalt not rape” isn’t one of the ten commandments.

    I’m heartened that this kid gets that sexual assault is a heinous act. But once again we have pointed out to us that religions don’t give a flying whatever about the wellbeing of women. The scary thi–no, *one* scary thing about this is that it never occurred to me that “Thou shalt not rape” *could have been* one of the Christian’s commandments…

  11. says

    Okay, here goes… re the apologist statement that the boys have ruined their lives:

    I’m *not* a rape apologist, by any means. But there has to be more to it than girl-victim good, boy-criminals bad, because when we say that we live in a rape culture, such that girls are seen as fair game, prey, of less value as human beings than males and indeed of little value other than as playthings for males, surely that affects both males and females. That doesn’t exonerate rapists, but to see it in black and white seems to me to be letting the rape culture off the hook.

    To be excruciatingly, pedantically clear: I realize that the Steubenville football players are responsible for their own cruel, horrible, criminal behavior. We legitimately expect them to–and they damned well should–fight all the acculturation that tells them that when somebody hands you female genitals, it’s your manly duty to have some fun. They *should* have respect for the humanity of the girl/woman involved, and that respect should over-ride their acculturation by a society that winks at rape; they should as individuals have some principles, have some respect, have some sense that their entitlement doesn’t stretch to allowing them to do whatever they want with an unconscious human being.

    But they are living in a world in which an authority figure is willing to say, formally, for the record, in court, that there can be some question of whether an unconscious woman is or isn’t consenting!! (Here’s a tip: Way back in Victorian times they passed a law in Scotland saying a drunken woman couldn’t be said to have consented to anything.) I *do* expect those boys and all the other ones like them across the country to behave like decent people, but I recognize that a teenager, in a society in which figures of authority can ask questions about whether an unconscious woman consented, is getting mixed signals to say the least, and I believe that some blame attaches to the culture that’s sending the a-little-light-rape-is-okay message.

    I’m not apologizing for the rapists, but I do think that failing to look at the context in which the crimes occurred is letting society off the hook, and that part of what people are saying when they say that those boys’ lives are ruined is that those boys have smashed their lives against the hard fact that the society that leads them to think they have all this sexual privilege wrt unwary girls, that they have a right to behave as they did, is dead wrong. They are personally responsible, but the rape culture is societally responsible as well.

    There’s often more than one victim involved in any court case, and more than one villain. In this case, the criminals, in the form of two boys, were found guilty, but when is American rape-culture going to be found guilty and held accountable? Okay — I don’t even know what that would look like! But there were more villains in that room than just Mays and Richmond.

    If you Google for info re rapes that occur when a man sexually attacks a woman who is drunk or sleeping or passed out, you get a surprising number of cases, and a depressing number of them let the guy off for one reason or another. (A couple of months ago in LA, a rapist’s conviction was overturned because the law apparently says that if you impersonate someone in order to rape them, it isn’t a crime unless the victim is a married woman and the rapist impersonates her legal husband, so the guy who crept into the bed of an unmarried woman and penetrated her, when she thought it was her boyfriend–who had just left, and the rapist saw him leave and came in–and only pushed the guy off her when she woke up enough to realize that it wasn’t her boyfriend at all, wasn’t guilty of rape.)

    So yeah — they joked about it being rape, but I don’t think that means they really thought it was rape. (I made inappropriate jokes at that age; I still cringe to remember something callous I said about a mining disaster in which men died, trapped underground.) And I could surely be wrong about whether the crass joking was just laddish bravado; I haven’t been able to bring myself to look at the video. But against that, there are the surveys that come to light every once in a while, in which over half of men/boys surveyed say they’d rape a woman if they thought they could get away with it. So there are lots of factors, lots of influences, and while none of these excuses the behavior of individuals, there was more than one set of villains in the courtroom: the Steubenville football player rapists, and the society that taught them that they had the privilege of treating a girl they way they did. I won’t go so far as to say that the rapists in the case were victims, too, victims of society, but the rape culture had a hand in ruining those boys’ lives, and we can’t let society off the hook.

  12. Sylvia says

    “… never occurred to me that “Thou shalt not rape” *could have been* one of the Christian’s commandments ”

    I was under the impression that “don’t murder, don’t commit sexual perversion, don’t kidnap” pretty much cover it.

  13. says


    Sorry, I don’t follow you. I meant that in all the time I spent growing up in a fundie church, it never occurred to me to question why there was a commandment not to lie, but no commandment not to rape. I questioned Christianity in the round, as it were, as a belief system, but had never questioned a list of vital commandments that omitted any reference to sexually abusing other people.

    Your three-part rule might cover it all, but as those three aren’t part of the Big Ten, I’m not sure what your point was…

    (There are Christians who’ll tell you that the ten commandments are all derived from “Love thy neighbor as thyself” anyway.)

  14. says

    M E, no, I agree with you. I do blame the culture. This is part of why I get so enraged at stuff like MP Tom Harris’s “ran away like a girl” tweet, and macho dudebros insulting each other by calling each other girls, and the like. The constant relentless drip drip drip of taken for granted contempt for girls and women – yes that’s definitely part of the picture.

    That’s a cause for the MRAs, if you like. That shit messes up men’s lives as well as women’s – it trains men to have contempt for people that the majority of them want to live with.

  15. sylvia says

    @ MEFoley “Your three-part rule might cover it all, but as those three aren’t part of the Big Ten, I’m not sure what your point was…’

    Those are three of the ten commandments. Not sure how a commandment can get more blunt than that – if you consider rape to be a sexual perversion, its covered right there.

    If you consider that most stranger-rapes involve kidnapping and/or murder, those are also covered.

    Taking someone who has passed out from place to place, in order to humiliate her – is that considered kidnapping?

  16. says

    @sylvia — Now this is getting interesting; looks like there’s more than one list of 10 commandments out there. I’d be very intereested to see the rerst of the commandments on the list you’re using, and to find out where that list comes from.

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