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Making Meaning, Taking Action: Reflections on Steubenville

(Note to readers: the hyperlinks in this post that are followed by asterisks are links to external coverage or narrative of the Steubenville and other cases, many of which contain graphic descriptions of rape, threats of rape, and commentaries that may be difficult to read. Those without asterisks are links to resource sites.)

If you're a consumer of any sort of media--television news, print journalism, or especially electronic media--you've likely seen the wall-to-wall coverage of the juvenile delinquency hearing and sentencing of Ma'lik Richmond and Trent Mays in Steubenville, Ohio.

Briefly, Richmond, 16, and Mays, 17, were convicted of raping a 16-year-old female friend in August, 2012 during a night of partying that sounds, from all accounts, like the sort of nights that happened often in their town, and many others.

What stunned people about this night in Stuebenville was the sheer volume of real-time narrative that Mays and other young people present captured that night. According to the prosecution, they recovered over 350,000 text messages, photos, and videos from that night, and blogger Alexandria Goddard initially screen captured* many of the tweets about the rape. In early January, the hacker collective Anonymous released much of the video* taken of the survivor and others. Part of the reason for that release were the allegations that the Steubenville head football coach, an intial judge, and some in the DA's office were declining to prosecute or pursue the case because of their close connections to the football team that Mays and Richmond belonged to.

I remember when the video was released just after New Year's. I clicked through to it, looking for context, certain that because the pulled quotes were so contemptuous that there must be a story or a perspective there that was missing. Trying to make meaning. I could take only about 2 minutes before it was too much, and I had to turn it off and go for a walk.

We talk constantly--in workshops, on the hotline, in conversations with survivors during office visits--about why people withdraw (recoil?) from survivors and from engaging with the issue of rape, or say things that are "victim blaming", and the explanation comes from a place of sensitivity: that people distance themselves from survivors in order to distance themselves from the magnitude of rape and sexual assault. This doesn't diminsh the immense hurt that those words and actions cause, but it allows room for the people saying and doing them to be whole human beings, both caring and cruel.

I realized, though, sorting through links for this post that the explanation might be more literally visceral: the actual physical feelings of deep and real empathy and true revulsion are very similar to one another. One can bring tears to your eyes and tightness to your throat, the other squeezes your eyes closed and tightens and curls your shoulders into a cringe. The physical ache in your chest could be easily mistaken for the twisted knot in your stomach. Either way, they're uncomfortable, overwhelming feelings, and most of us cannot and do not linger long with them. We turn away, crack a joke, or try to mold what we're hearing and seeing into something a bit more digestible.

Knowing that we need some kind of access point, some doorway for a conversation about this, many people have spent thousands of words and hours of commentary trying to make meaning of what happened in this town. I don't believe that sexual violence is complicated, meaning difficult to analyze or unknown and unknowable. I do believe that it is complex, that there are many components that overlap and intersect, that work in concert with one another and that work in opposition.

Come, let us walk through some of these doors together.

Door #1: The media, social and otherwise

The witnesses and participants in this rape produced a staggeringly large volume of, for lack of a better word, content that ultimately ended up as both the catalyst for and evidence in the trial of Mays and Richmond.

Here are a couple of facts:

  • Young people (and less young people) in the U.S. and elsewhere increasingly rely on social media and mobile devices to communicate and engage.
  • One of the major cognitive tasks for teens is to attain cognitive maturity: to win the struggle between acting immediately on impulse versus making decisions based on consideration of the pros and cons of their options. 
  • Social media and technology are not always helping teens with this task.

This may be what many commentators on this case wanted to say. Instead, it came out sounding a little like, "Rape is kind of frowned upon, but you know what's really bad? Tweeting about it for everyone to see!" Maybe they also meant to say, "I don't understand how so many people could have sent so many texts, tweets, Facebook messages, and videos and not done something." Implicit in that is that we see those as tools, but what is it, exactly, that we would have had them do? What is it that we believe we would have done differently in the same situation?

In their recap of Day 2 of the trial, the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) note

many teens are afraid of intervening in sexual assault, partly due to peer pressure and other factors. In a study released this week, conducted by GfK Public Affairs and Corporate Communications, it highlighted the following: "53 percent would find it difficult to intervene, and 40 percent wouldn't even know what to do if they witnessed such a crime."

To that end, Ali Perrotto wrote an excellent blog for the NSVRC on the role of social media in prevention illuminating some of the ways that social media could be used for prevention or interventions.

And now on to the TV news. Lots of times, in trainings for professionals of various kinds, we get questions from participants who are worried that they'd be unable to respond appropriately to a survivor of a different gender than they are, and wonder whether they should stop to find someone with the same gender as the survivor. Often, it's male professionals worried about working with female survivors.

To that, I would show them to CNN's coverage* by Candy Crowley and Poppy Harlow of the verdict and senencing for Richmond and Mays.

Just kidding. That would make me a snarky and ineffective facilitator. But I would say that just having the same gender (or race, or sexuality, or age, or nationality, or any identity) as a a survivor does not gift someone with the tools to say exactly the right things, and CNN and a lot of networks missed the mark spectacularly with their commentary in the process of making meaning of the sentencing. Media analyst Flavia Dzodan hit the nail on the head with her tweet:

Now, someone once said that 75% of the commentary on Twitter and blogs basically boils down to, "You're doing it wrong." Indeed, leading media ethicist Kelly McBride, encourages us not to spend all of our righteous energy on tearing down CNN, focusing instead on highlighting the examples of journalism that were outstanding. For example, Dan Wetzel's coverage for Yahoo! was nuanced and compassionate. Full disclosure: I was a participant in one of the Poynter Institute's seminars for advocates and journalists on writing and reporting about sexual violence, which is now offered as an online course that is a huge professional development opportunity for any journalist or writer taking on the issue of sexual violence.

Door #2: Finding our common humanity

BARCC turns 40 on March 23rd, and for forty years, we've been saying something revolutonary and subversive. Rape is wrong. Always. Full stop. It's revolutionary and subversive because people will work very hard to chip away at that, to find ways where, perhaps rape could be, if not justified, then at least somewhat expected.

Over on the Huffington Post, author and political correspondent Keli Goff lurched through an argument* that was fundamentally, "Don't binge drink, because rape is an expected consequence." Binge drinking and substance use can have many negative impacts-physical, social, psychological, professional, financial--and those are strong enough to stand on their own. But every time we locate the problem in the binge drinking, and not the raping, we whittle away at "Rape is wrong. Always."

For many years, it's been a popular empathy-building strategy when working with men to ask them to envision survivors and potential survivors as a female who's important in their life: a daughter, a sister, a wife. In her blog, Anne Theriault rightly calls out that this line of thinking embues women and girls with value and a right to safety only insofar as they "belong" to a man. Not only that,

what does it say about the women who aren’t anyone’s wife, mother or daughter? What does it say about the kids who are stuck in the foster system, the kids who are shuffled from one set of foster parents to another or else living in a group home? What does it say about the little girls whose mothers surrender them, willingly or not, to the state? What does it say about the people who turn their back on their biological families for one reason or another?

That they deserve to be raped? That they are not worthy of protection? That they are not deserving of sympathy, empathy or love?

And what about the survivors who are male? Or trans*? [Ed. note: The asterisk there is meant to mean inclusive of other identities, not a trigger warning.]

Everyone deserves safety. Everyone.  All the time. Because they are human beings, and so are we.

Door #3: What is "enough"?

One of our volunteers (and former blogger in this space), Dave, posed the question on Twitter, "Wondering if we have any numbers about how many survivors want convictions of their attackers. Should we be pushing more for criminal justice?" On Facebook, a member of my extended family responded to a post about the sentencing by saying, "Promising careers? Is that why they only got a year? Very lenient, don't you think? I've heard in the news others have gotten 20 to life. Too little? Too much?"

Here's how we look at it.

Some survivors want to use and have access to the legal system for various remedies. That might mean wondering what's involved with reporting to the police, but it also might mean forensic evidence collection, and other law-related issues, like information about restraining orders or how to protect their privacy, or what options they have around their schooling or employment. Not only do we provide information and advocate for those survivors on an individual basis, but we push those systems to be more responsive and fair in their handling of sexual violence-related issues.

Many people have lamented the sentences that Richmond and Mays received: a one-year minimum for Richmond and two years for Mays, and a maximum of 5 years for Richmond and 4 years for Mays, because they will be in a juvenile facility that holds them until they are 21. But what is "enough"? 10 years? 20? 200? Does enough mean that the survivor's pain is erased and it's as though the assault never happened? To call detention facilities a "corrections" system is a misnomer of the highest order. As Mia McKenzie wrote in a thoroughly essential blog post, "On Rape, Cages, and the Steubenville Verdict,"

What they did was terrible. There is no excuse. [...] But what I know for damn sure is that jail does not fix broken people. It only breaks them harder.

The fact is that once these boys enter the prison system, even ​in juvenile detention, chances are that they will return to it. It will, with little doubt, fuck them up more than they are already fucked-up. They will not likely emerge from prison as two well-adjusted men who respect women and understand that sexual assault against them is not okay. That's not what prison does for people.

We know that detention settings--juvenile and adult--harbor their own cycles of vicious sexual violence. We're also caught in a terrible catch-22. There seems to be evidence that adolescents with sexually inappropriate behaviors who are noticed, stopped, and given developmentally appropriate treatment have good prospects for not re-offending. And, it is incredibly difficult for anyone to access appropriate therapeutic care for children, adolescents, and adults with sexual behavior problems without first going through an adjudication process. If I am a parent or adult who cares for and is concerned about a young person's behavior, there is little incentive to bring that to anyone's attention until they've harmed someone else. In order to get them care, there is always already a survivor.

Finally, the case in Steubenville highlights the total inability of the criminal legal system to fully address and hold people to account for rape.

By most accounts, the institutions of Steubenville and the adults who made them up--the coaches, the administrators, the police--supported the behavior that Mays and Richmond and others engaged in. We know this because in both the testimony and commentary, there seems to be little sense from the young people that what they did and had been doing was anything other than ordinary and commonplace.

So how do we hold those institutions, and the adults who made them up, accountable for embuing those young people with both an utter contempt and disregard for the humanity of their friends, and a sense of entitlement so deep? Do we arrest and prosecute all of them? Doing so reminds me a little of the scene in that Billy Crystal movie, Forget Paris, where he plays a professional basketball referee who goes off the deep end and ejects everyone from a game.

What now?

Interestingly, recent research indicates that institutional betrayal where sexual assaults take place (for example, at a school, or within a faith community)--things like making the experience seem like no big deal; not taking proactive steps to prevent or address experiences; making it difficult to report an experience; covering up the experience; responding inadequately; and punishing the survivor in some way--magnified the impact of the sexual trauma. That is something we've heard from survivors for 40 years. Along with this research, it points us toward concrete legislative and organizational policies that we can work with organizations to develop and implement.

Know that Steubenville has the support and expertise available of our colleagues at the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center. They are incredibly skilled and offer very similar services to what we offer in our communities. Know, too, that it was Steubenville that we've been hearing and talking about, but it also is and has been the experience of survivors here.

And because of that, we are called upon to come together and not just declare but embody our values as a community. We hope those of you who can will join us to Walk for Change on April 7th, to take up and hold onto a piece of our every day revolution: Everyone deserves safety from sexual violence. Everyone.  All the time.

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Posted by Meg

Meg formerly served BARCC as its coordinator of Community Education and Outreach. Prior to that, she was involved with various aspects of sexual violence prevention, education, and response at Northeastern University and Williams College. Her work focuses on mobilizing communities to prevent sexual violence.

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