Chilling video taken at a high school party in Steubenville, Ohio in which attendees laugh and joke about an unconscious 16-year-old allegedly raped by members of the football team, propelled the case into the national spotlight earlier this winter.
The deeply disturbing video focuses on Steubenville High School alum Michael Nodianos as he holds court with a grim comedy show, cracking up to quips such as, “They raped her quicker than Mike Tyson!” and “They raped her more than the Duke lacrosse team!” Those with the stomach to endure the entire 12-minute video hear the victim repeatedly referred to as “dead,” offering ugly details including, “They peed on her! That’s how you know she’s dead because someone pissed on her.” The death motif is so amusing to those involved that it leads to a litany of references to her being “deader than” everyone from Caylee Anthony to Trayvon Martin.
The video combined with other digital remains of the attack mined from Twitter and Instagram stirred public outrage at the accused perpetrators, at the bystanders who failed to intervene, and at adults — coaches, police, prosecutor, and parents — perceived as having been complicit in covering up the assault, preferring to sweep the violence under the rug to protect the football team and the young men on it. Protests sprouted around the courthouse and are expected to resume on Wednesday as the trial begins.
This video and other digital souvenirs of violence, such as the photos taken and circulated of Savannah Deitrich while she was sexually assaulted, may or may not have significant legal consequences. Yet their cultural legacy — the opportunity they have to undermine our most resilient rape myths — has the potential to be even weightier.
Advocates have spent decades trying to ensure that rape is taken seriously and that survivors are treated with respect and compassion. They have problematized the victim blaming that permeates conversations about rape, fought to make clear that rape is not only perpetrated by strangers, but also by acquaintances and partners, and worked to improve the way survivors are treated when they enter emergency rooms, police stations, and courthouses. But the truth of the matter is, when it comes to rape, the shame and blame heaped upon victims is still often so great that it keeps survivors silent. Much is said about the importance of breaking that silence, but in a culture that stigmatizes victims, speaking out is a lot to ask of people — mostly women — who are already suffering.
But victims aren’t the only voices we need to hear in order to understand rape. These new, digital residues of sexual assault remind us that there is another silence at play: that of the perpetrator. The social media emerging from the Steubenville case breaks that silence, giving us a rare window into rape.
What we find makes the cultural myths that serve to silence victims and excuse perpetrators far more difficult to maintain. Watching the video and seeing the laughter, hearing the braggadocio, it becomes harder to assert that those football players are “nice kids,” and nearly impossible to sustain the idea that the event was an unfortunate “miscommunication,” or that this was “just a stupid mistake.”
And as for the victim, seeing a photo her of her body being dragged around like a corpse makes the idea that she “sent mixed signals” or “was asking for it” laughable, unless you are of the knuckle-dragging variety — of which there are too many — who think a woman being incapacitated absolves her attackers of culpability.
Acceptance of rape thrives on myths like these that highlight individual decision-making and deny the existence of a broader rape culture that promotes male aggression and trivializes women and the violence against them. The Steubenville digital trail makes this culture visible, as the various pieces combine to paint a picture of a teenager dragged unconscious from party to party, and assaulted multiple times over the course of several hours, while participants and bystanders laughed. “Some people deserve to be peed on” one tweet proclaimed. The very desire to document reveals a pride in accomplishment. We share photos of the moments we wish to remember, not the moments we regret. And when this 16-year-old victim went to the police she was attacked for making the team look bad, not only by team members, but by adults in her community. Why protect her? She was no longer an honor student or athlete, she was “the dead girl.” That’s rape culture.
But the broader public response has been different. Early accounts on CNN treated the rape as unacceptable male behavior and a failure of adults to talk in depth about appropriate conduct with young men, instead of focusing on what to tell girls about how not to get raped. That shouldn’t feel as revolutionary as it does.
Advocates, academics, and survivors have been talking about rape culture for decades, but rarely do we become witness to its most unsettling manifestations. Actually seeing it has been so shocking that it is tempting to push it away as a problem unique to these young men or to Steubenville, but such denials would also be myths. Rather than deny, let’s dwell on these new uncomfortable insights and allow the rupturing of this silence to shift the shame and blame where it belongs.