On St Patrick’s Day, in Steubenville, Ohio, two high schoolers were found guilty of raping a sixteen-year-old girl at a party in August, 2012. In this case, there was a YouTube video of other high schoolers laughing about the assault, describing how they had witnessed it, and how the victim had deserved worse. Photographs were taken of the aftermath of the assault and shared widely around the internet. Though sixteen people refused to testify in the trial and the victim was intoxicated to the point where she remembers little of the night, this photographic and video evidence made the case that the two footballers — and possibly others — had assaulted the victim much more solid than many other sexual assaults. One of the attackers took a photograph of the naked victim and circulated it through the community. There was no “he said, she said” in this case; there was clear evidence of the state of the victim and her inability to consent, as well as the recorded knowledge of witnesses that she had been assaulted. Most sexual assault cases go to trial with far less concrete evidence and far more oral evidence, generally only of the victim.
But even in this case, the fact that the victim had been drinking gave her attackers an out. On social and traditional media, America seemed to mourn the guilty verdict. The attackers were 16 and 17 — the same age as the victim — and part of the school football team. CNN stated that the guilty verdict made “lives fall apart” and described the attackers as “football stars, very good students”. Much of the focus was on the attackers, how difficult the sentencing process was for them, what the lasting effect on the attackers would be — and little about what the lasting effect on the victim would be. A young woman was raped. She was the victim. The attackers— no matter their age — committed a horrendous crime, and the media focusses on how this crime will affect them for the rest of their lives, not how it will affect the victim.
Social media was even more horrifying. People calling the victim a liar, a “loose drunk slut”, stating “it’s not rape … it’s the girls fault” and “be responsible for your actions ladies before your drunken decisions ruin innocent lives [sic]”. Those innocent boys sexually assaulted a young woman, and she is the one to ruin their lives? The internet may bring out the troll in everyone, but sifting through the tweets makes it obvious that the attitude is an epidemic, not just the belief of a few isolated assholes.
Unfortunately, it just reinforces what a lot of people have been taught their entire lives. It’s your fault if you get assaulted when you’re drunk. It’s your fault if you get assaulted when you’re wearing a short skirt. It’s your fault if you get assaulted when you’re walking home alone. It’s been said before, but that isn’t what we need people to hear. We need people to hear what rape is — that it’s not just a stranger assaulting a young, scantily clad woman in the bushes — and we need to teach people that it’s never acceptable. Not for any reason. We need to teach people the importance of consent, understanding it, and that alcohol is not a replacement for it.
Until we do that, sixteen year olds — and every other age too — will blame themselves for sexual assault when they’re the victim. They won’t report it when it happens to them, because they think that they are in the wrong, or they think that no one will believe them anyway. Because they were drunk. Because their attackers are such nice, promising boys. Because she can’t commit rape, she’s a girl!
I was sexually assaulted when I was sixteen. Like the victim in the Steubenville case, my attacker was a nice, promising boy. He was well-loved in our high school community, which was close-knit, to say the least. Unlike the victim in the above case, I wasn’t intoxicated — but there was something else holding me back, as well as the fact that he had such a good reputation. He was my boyfriend at the time. At that point, I didn’t really have the conception that rape could really happen in a relationship, and it’s because of that lack of education that I never reported the rape. I told myself that it was my fault. That I hadn’t been a good enough girlfriend. That even if I could report it, I was seen as a slut at school anyway, and there was no one that would ever believe me. Not the police, not my schoolmates, and probably not even my friends.
And if this recent case is anything to go by, I was right.
If I had reported him, it’s not likely that the case would have caught the media attention like the Steubenville case did. But maybe someone’s case would have; someone who didn’t report their assault because they were so afraid of the backlash that has accompanied sexual assault trials again and again and again. Sexual assaults continue not to be reported for a number of reasons; perceptions that it won’t succeed even if they report the assault, perceptions that they won’t be believed, perceptions that it “wasn’t really rape”. Survivors of sexual assault continue to suffer in silence, coping in their own way, and the attackers continue to suffer no repercussions as a result. Now, no victim of sexual assault — or victim of any crime — has any obligation to report the crime, but we should be minimising the barriers to reporting crime, and not making the victims feel like they are the ones in the wrong. Because victims of crime, particularly victims of sexual assault, are not in the wrong.
It just seems like the media needs to get that message as well, before we can pass it onto the victims.