Bodies, Accountability, and Journalism: What’s So Offensive about the Steubenville Trial

Judge Thomas LippsA guilty verdict was handed down by Justice Thomas Lipps today, for both defendants in the Steubenville, Ohio rape case that has caught the attention of the nation. As the verdict was read, reality descended on the two young men charged with raping a drunk and unconscious young woman at a party last August. Multiple reports about the incident noted that before and during that party, young men on the high school football team were used to behaving however they saw fit with no boundaries enforced by the adults in their lives, and that their coach, Reno Saccocchia, was considered a frequent aid in cleaning or covering up the antics of his football players. The trial highlighted accounts by several witnesses and text messages that rather than one awful moment in which Trent Mays and Ma’Lik Richmond had a terrible, hurtful lapse in judgment, this rape behavior was more about an accumulation of unaccountability by the young men, their coach, their friends, and their parents.

The trial itself was not free of misogyny. As I’ve written about during other publicized sexual assault investigations, questions swirled around regarding the ability of the young woman to give consent to her treatment. Even though there were concerns that she’d been drugged by the defendants or their teammates, even though many witnesses attested that she was drunk–which ought to have answered the question of consent right there–and even though the assailants and others said in various media that she was unconscious, “not participating,” or passed out, the defense still saw an avenue to drag her reputation and prior behavior into the testimony at trial. Decades old questions regarding the (in)ability of men to acknowledge or notice a lack or removal of consent were brought to bear as valid discussion once again. In what some analysts called a re-victimization of the young woman, texts, photos, and video of the assault were circulated among other football team members, high school students, and the Internet at large. And of course the trial called up many of those humiliating moments after the fact as part of the prosecution as well as the defense’s case.

I’m not suggesting that the prosecution shouldn’t have looked at the stream of mockery as part of its case that the defendants had no remorse for their actions and knew what they were doing was wrong (although perhaps deleting the photos was more revealing of that than anything), but rather that no matter the intent of the court, these details are another violence against this survivor and other survivors of sexual assault, precisely because justifications for violent sexual acts are so very common.

This case reminds me of another notorious moment between high school football players and a vulnerable young woman–the case from Glen Ridge, New Jersey in the late 1980s, documented in the book Our Guys. In this case the football players came from more entitled, upper middle class backgrounds, and the young woman in question was developmentally disabled, rather than intoxicated. Both cases used specious reasoning to suggest that the victims really wanted the degradation they experienced at the hands of men known around town as wild. Both came with scads of media attention and sloppy reporting. Glen Ridge, however, shows us how very little progress we’ve made since that case. Somehow, more than twenty years after Glen Ridge’s football team gang raped a classmate, journalists still see fit to lament the now “shattered” future of the rapists, without questioning what has become of the future of the young woman, who will surely continue to feel the effects of that August party well past her 21st or 24th birthday (the estimated ages that Mays and Richmond will be when they are released).

And more than the question of what constitutes consent and its counterpart of rape, we have come no nearer to conceptualizing the other failures of ethics in either of these cases–that of the students who witnessed the activity and either decided to participate or who decided not to report it to authorities (or their parents). That of the students who got past their shock at the texting and photos and then added their own comments but who never suggested that what had happened was unacceptable. That of the prosecutor’s office who took so long to investigate the situation even after so many people in town knew of the event. That of the journalists who without consideration for the effects of their reporting–save maybe ratings results–opted to release gruesome detail after gruesome detail of the crime, in a way that sensationalized the emotional and physical damage to the young woman as if she were merely a character on Law & Order: SVU.

It would have been inconceivable for Judge Lipps to rule in favor of the defendants, and yet many of us watching the trial were braced for that result. If that alone doesn’t signal to us that our society’s ideas about women’s agency, men’s “rights” for violent behavior, journalistic ethics, and the concept of consent are outmoded, ineffectual, and anti-feminist, then I don’t know what else could happen to stir us to such a realization. We are so very far from where we need to be on the subject of sexual assault, possibly because we’ve gotten used to incendiary rhetoric around banning abortion even in the case of rape and incest. We’ve familiarized ourselves with a constant flood of violence against women in American popular culture. And in the calls for gun control–because let’s not pretend guns aren’t used in domestic violence assaults against women every day–we’ve even capitulated to the NRA when our youngest children across the country are maimed or killed. In all of that, we’ve given up the woman who before saying no to a man said yes, and we’ve given up the woman who has had more than one abortion, and we’ve given up the woman who was tipsy but not falling down drunk on the night she was assaulted. We progressives have lost our voice in framing issues around women’s agency and right not to be assaulted so much that now we hold our breath when THE MOST OBVIOUS cases come to the forefront. And we have lost millions of women along the way, who are too frightened about retribution or humiliation on a public stage or who are afraid to call what happened to them an assault at all, and that may be the worst aspect of this trial.

It ought to also be our new starting point to getting to a better place.

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Categories: ponderings, Pop Culture

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2 Comments on “Bodies, Accountability, and Journalism: What’s So Offensive about the Steubenville Trial”

  1. March 17, 2013 at 3:44 pm #

    Thanks for the detailed commentary here. It is necessary that people continue to point out why it is so hard for women to come forward when they need to–or more to the point–why most never will.

    I appreciate the time it took for you to analyze this case and all the blather surrounding it.

    • evmaroon
      March 17, 2013 at 3:57 pm #

      Nearly half of all American women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, most probably between the ages of 15-25. And yet, our concepts around sexual assault focus on whether women “asked for it” or not. That is appalling.

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