Steubenville rape conviction raises legitimate questions about Media priorities

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Winner of the Spring 2013 Harvard Crimson Award for Best Editorial Writing
Winner of the Spring 2013 Harvard Crimson Award for Best Editorial Writing

Last month, two teenage boys from Steubenville, Ohio were convicted of raping and exploiting a sixteen-year-old girl. At the end of a summer party in August 2012, members of Steubenville’s Big Red Football team sexually assaulted the girl while she was passed out.  Text messages, videos, photos, tweets and Facebook posts about the assault rapidly made their way around the Internet.  When an eyewitness from the Steubenville case, Evan Westlake, was asked why he didn’t stop his friends, he testified, “It wasn’t violent. I didn’t know what rape was. I pictured it as forcing yourself on someone.”  How can it be that people in this country still don’t understand what rape is or how to stop it?

Rape is any kind of sexual act without consent. Consent is explicitly saying yes. Consent is showing continued interest and participation in the act. The two young men in this case took advantage of a girl with no ability to consent to any sexual act.  Whether or not she explicitly said no is irrelevant.

While it is terrifying that the Evan Westlakes of America don’t comprehend the basics of rape, one would hope that professional journalists had a better understanding.

Unfortunately, this was not the case.

American mass media had a chance to report on the Steubenville rape trial with the gravity it deserves; instead, some members of the media used this case as an opportunity to glorify football players. News channels such as CNN and NBC News lamented over the fact that these men had to walk away from their promising athletic careers, serve time in prison, and register as sex offenders. CNN anchor Candy Crowley said, “It was incredibly difficult to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart.”

Yahoo News’s coverage of the conviction began with the following: “Inside a small Steubenville, Ohio courtroom filled with sobbing and exhausting emotion, Judge Thomas Lipps found Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond guilty Sunday of raping an intoxicated 16-year-old girl.”

As with Crowley’s coverage, this article’s first goal is to focus on the “sobbing” of the rapists and the “exhausting emotion” associated with their pronouncements of guilt, while its second goal is to ensure that readers know that these two raped an “intoxicated” girl.

If a man was murdered while in a state of intoxication would media entities repeatedly remind viewers that the murderer was convicted of “murdering an intoxicated man”?  Of course not.  Descriptions of the rapists having been found guilty of raping an intoxicated girl reek of victim blaming.  One has to wonder how many future Senate candidates will run on a platform to ensure that “intoxicated rape” is classified in a separate category from “legitimate rape.”  What people must understand is that no matter what a woman wears, how she acts, with whom she associates, how many sexual partners she’s had, or how much alcohol she consumes, she is never “asking for it.”

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Yahoo! News was not alone in focusing on the victim’s inebriation when reporting on the conviction of the rapists.

These teenagers deserved every ounce of their punishment, and a media that laments their conviction will lessen how the populace views crimes such as these in the future.  News channels were more unsettled by the tearful athletes and their families than the fact that this young girl was assaulted and humiliated–that she’d carry this nightmare and label with her for the rest of her life. Certain news channels, such as Fox News, even allowed the victim’s name to be aired on television, further diminishing her right to privacy.

What truly made us angry about the Steubenville rape case is not the case itself but what it represents – that society still teaches women to blame themselves for being victims of sexual assault, and that some Americans care more about their football teams and the glorious young men who play for them than the women those football players are hurting.

What stings most is that this situation could happen to any young woman.  And as young women in 2013, we now no longer know how America would answer if we asked:  “Would you stand up for us?”

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