The Rape Blame Game
Unless you live under a rock, you would have heard about the Steubenville rape case, in which two teenage boys took advantage of a sixteen year old girl while she was inebriated from a night’s worth of drinking. The case brought forward many aspects of current popular culture that I’d like to explore, and also made me ask some very difficult questions about the nature of humanity.
First and foremost, I have no doubt that the two boys (possibly more) did take advantage of the girl, who was too drunk to be able to walk or stand, let alone make any decisions. I won’t go into the grizzly details of the night in question, as there’s been plenty enough detail written about elsewhere. (If you want to read a great piece on this, check out Soraya Chemaly’s piece in the Huffington Post.) It seems that this is not an isolated incident for the boys in question, nor is it an isolated incident for the town’s football culture. In fact, as we can see from stories coming out of India, it is not an isolated incident at all, and gang rape happens all over the world daily.
In both the cases I’ve pointed at above, one thing was common in the way these cases were treated by the press and the authorities: blame of the victim. In the case of the Steubenville girl, the blame was squarely pointed at her alcohol consumption. The press and media (including CNN) looked at the case and saw only a girl who took it upon herself to get so completely plastered that the boys had no choice but to rape her. In the case of the Swiss woman in India, she was blamed for being in the wrong place, one known for being unsafe, so she was basically “asking for it“. And even though the men and boys who perpetrated these crimes have been brought to justice, one thing remains clear; Society will always blame the women for their own rape, because it seems males are incapable of controlling their own animalistic drives.
It seems to me that it is a cultural norm to blame the victims of rape and assault on the person, usually a woman, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, being drunk, being dressed in a certain way that is “provocative”, or any other number of excuses that psychologically leave the men in the cases blameless. While it is true that, to a certain extent, that we write our own destinies to the extent that had we not been in situation A, done B, then C would not have happened, this point is circumspect, and is of little use. We can’t blame the person who is violated for being in a compromising situation, because the perpetrator is just as liable for their own causal situation as is the victim in this sense. The main difference between being in the wrong place at the wrong time and choosing to perpetrate an act of violence against another is the idea of choice; In both of these cases, the victims had no choice in what happened to them, so therefore cannot be blamed. The choice was taken away from the victims by the perpetrators by their opportunistic and unwelcomed actions, and it left two women with a lifetime’s worth of irreparable harm which will be with them until they die.
The biggest difference in the two cases outlined above, is that in the Steubenville case much of the media attention was on the way the guilty verdict would affect the “promising” lives of these two would-be football heroes. There was an audible outcry of outrage by the American public for these two boys, lamenting how the decision had wrecked their futures, and that they would never be the football stars that their community so badly wanted for them. Of course this is ridiculous, but it shows an element of American culture (and other cultures including Australian) which worships male sporting heroes, and sees their actions as excusable simply because of their talent on the sporting field. By this, these boys, who will now have criminal records, will never fulfill their potential as national heroes, and it’s all blamed on the actions of the young girl they violated. In many reports, there was little mention of the victim.
Even more ridiculous is the claims that the girl is simply making it all up, and that somehow the story is aimed at sabotaging the reputation of the Steubenville football team. I even read that the coach of the team referred to her as a “terrorist”, a knee-jerk buzzword sure to garner some level of revulsion for the victim. Someone took it upon themselves to collate the reactions from social media on a Tumblr blog, publicshaming.tumblr.com, which is worth a look at if you can stomach the blame they are dishing out. As the case progresses it seems that the authorities who are dealing with the case have also been complicit in the covering up of evidence.
Let’s bring this back to reality for a moment, and away from the hyper-analysed philosophical realm of causality, and the outrageously misplaced rage of the American public, and see this for what it is.
A young girl was raped. She was violated without her consent while she was in no state to give consent or otherwise. To make things worse, it is alleged that they not only physically violated her, but that she was also subjected to other physically demeaning acts, including being dragged around the room by her arms and legs, being photographed and videoed, and being urinated upon. These are not the actions of people who hold any kind of respect for fellow humans. No, these are the actions of people who have psychologically removed themselves from society, creating not a girl, a human being, but an inanimate sex toy, to whom they show no regard, and certainly no respect. Once the girl was dehumanised, it freed these boys of the burden of guilt, and allowed them to do whatever they pleased with this girl.
It’s too early to tell, but I doubt that these boys are monsters. I doubt they would grow up to become mass murderers or serial rapists (then again, they may, who knows?) They have definitely been brought up in a culture where women are treated as objects, and where weakness or vulnerability is seen as an invitation to brutalise.
It has been said that we live in a pornografied society, where porn is available at every laptop, on every phone and tablet. Far be it from me to make a judgement on whether porn is bad or not, much of the porn being circulated these days is based on an idea of “pleasure for men”. Men’s faces are rarely seen, just as we don’t see our own faces unless looking in the mirror, and it often ends in an act of seeming domination over the woman in the piece, having her face covered in semen. No doubt the Steubenville boys have seen plenty of this kind of porn, and it seems that this domination over women is being normalised to an extent in the way they treat members of the opposite sex. Take this out of the porn-theatre, and look around at the way women are portrayed in the mass culture. Much of the advertising industry uses pornographied images of women, designed to entice us, tantilise us, and subdue us, making psychological connections between consumption of goods and the reward of sex. It is all around us, and the mass media knows how this moves and motivates people to consume. This does not justify any acts of violence against women, nor does it place the blame for these boys’ actions upon their upbringing. It only serves to highlight the society in which we live, and the culture that emerges from this. When it comes down to it, these boys must take responsibility for their own actions.
In any situation, we take responsibility for our actions. In a conscientious society, we give heed to the rights of others in an empathetic and thoughtful manner. In both the Steubenville rape case and the case of the Swiss woman who was gang-raped in India, these men have removed themselves from the what is acceptable in a modern world, and given in to their own selfish urges. There is no situation where “no” means “yes”, and there is no excuse for these deplorable acts. To bring an end to this kind of violence against women we need to foster a society which doesn’t worship women as sex-objects, but respects the rights of women in the same manner as that of men. This should be our aim, and if successful, while we may not stop the violence completely, we will at least stop blaming the victims of rape for the actions of others. As Soraya Chemaly says in closing her article:
It is the personal responsibility of each and every one of us to foster a society that nurtures, respects and cares for itself and others, and only then can we move toward a more equitable and fair society for us all.