The Steubenville rape case

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.

This link says that “Rape is the fastest growing violent crime in the U.S.”. Given that violent crime overall has been declining steadily, I don’t know what to make of the increase in this one crime.


  1. northstar says

    Rape, alone among any other crime I can think of, does not have any economic basis or motivation.

  2. northstar says

    That might have sounded a little mysterious; I was rushed. My larger point is: the overall rate of violent crime has been dropping over the last 30 years; I’ve heard it posited this is not so coincidentally along with the legalization of abortion so that women who did not want/could not afford children were not weighed down economically with them. Fewer children grew up impoverished. So crimes committed by young persons with an economic motive, i.e. robberies of various kinds, declined.

    Rape, however, doesn’t have an economic motive. Though I’m sure there are a lot of cultural factors at work here, I think there might be just a greater amount of reporting.

  3. jamessweet says

    I also suspect that the purported increase in rape is an increase in reportage — which is an unqualified good thing, of course! This particular crime would certainly not have been considered rape 30 years ago, and many people might not have considered it rape 10 years ago. I mean, she didn’t say no, right? (Never mind that she was unconscious) Once upon a time, that meant it wasn’t rape. Meanwhile, even as the definition of rape expands, the victim can expect somewhat better treatment than ze might have just a decade or two ago. All of that could lead to an increase in the reported instances of rape, even while the actual number decreased or stayed the same.

  4. left0ver1under says

    You are utterly mistaken. Economics and high rates of unemployment definitely ARE factors. You can find many news and science articles on the link between high rates of assault by and of family members (what is mislabelled “domestic violence”) and high rates of unemployment.–domestic-violence-linked

    The very high rates of unemployment in Steubenville may explain the community’s lack of decency in responding to the rape. They are collectively externalizing upon one person the violence that is common in their homes, directing the frustrations in their lives upon her.

  5. Heidi Nemeth says

    How much does gender selection in utero lead to more young men than young women in society, hence, more aggressive behavior by some of those young men trying to “have” a woman?

  6. Andrew G. says

    Heidi Nemeth @4:

    The US sex ratio at birth is approximately 105:100 male:female, which is pretty much dead centre of the natural range. By age 16 or so this narrows to approximately 103:100.

    There is no evidence of statistically significant artificial gender selection taking place in the US outside of certain small ethnic subgroups.

  7. northstar says

    All — or even most — domestic violence is not rape. I would absolutely agree that economic pressure increases the rate of domestic violence. I don’t think your link at all indicated that it caused men to rape.

  8. Mano Singham says

    I think the difference is too small in the US to be a factor but there are suggestions that in countries where it is significant, this could be at play. The recent spate of highly publicized rapes in India has prompted suggestion that this might be a factor there.

  9. MTran says

    We are *not* encountering new or novel definitions of rape. That’s an excuse that the football player rapists and their supporters have been making.

    When I started practicing law some 30 years ago, the legal definition of rape included penetration (no matter how slight) by any body part (including mouth or fingers) or penetration by an object. That was pretty standard and uncontroversial at the time and for a good while before that.

    A sex act perpetrated on an unconscious person is sex without consent or even the ability to give consent. That has been called rape since early common law, so we’re talking a couple hundred years for that definition, at least.

    I think that some of the media have created needless confusion when they make comments such as saying that the rapists were convicted because “under Ohio law” digital penetration is considered to be rape. That makes it sound as if Ohio is some weird outlier in legal standards when it has a rather standard legal definition. Perhaps the media is trying to explain the law to an ignorant public but I think the way it comes across undermines the effort.

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