Steubenville Media Coverage Is a Case Study in Rape Culture

by | March 22, 2013
filed under Can-Con

no-more-rapeby Jasmine Peterson

By now, you’d have to have been living under a rock to have not heard about the Steubenville rape case (I essentially do live under a rock, and I’ve heard of it). The feminist community has been abuzz about the case, how it was handled, and also how the mainstream media has covered it.

As tired as I am of hearing and saying the term ”rape culture” this week, I am about to say it again. Media coverage of the case and the resulting convictions of the two accused is a glaring example of it. When I first heard about the case a couple of months ago, my question to myself was: “How could young men think that this behaviour was okay? How could bystanders not intervene? How could nobody have come forward before now?”

The questions were rhetorical and the answer simple: rape culture. And rape culture has been perpetuated and reinforced in how this crime has been talked about.

When reporters and media sources place emphasis on how sexual assault has negatively impacted the perpetrators’ lives, giving them a sympathetic portrayal, that is rape culture.

Poppy Harlow, a CNN correspondent, stated that it was “incredibly difficult even for an outsider like me to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believe their life fell apart.” When Brian Duncan, representing  one of the rapists, Trent Mays, told 20/20 that what had occurred was consensual, that was rape culture (and it baffles me that a lawyer would not know, or would assert otherwise, that intoxication negates consent).

When media focuses on the fact that the victim was drunk, that she dressed “inappropriately”, that’s rape culture. The message that is internalized, for both victim and perpetrator, is that rape is the victim’s responsibility (and so how could we then expect 16 and 17-year-old boys to take responsibility for their actions when we’ve already told them that it was the victim’s fault because she drank too much, dressed a certain way, acted in a certain manner?).

What is essentially being said by these media sources is that these poor boys’ lives are somehow more valuable or important than that of the young woman they raped because they’re “good students” and football players. What is being said is that, even though they’ve been convicted of a heinous crime, their loss is somehow more tangible. And this tone, this victim-blaming, rape apologia, is exactly why crimes like this happen. The media didn’t seem quite as concerned about what a good student the victim was, that she has people who care about her, and that her life and future are impacted by this.

I, too, sympathize with the boys, but not because their lives are over, and not because this destroys their football careers, and not because they worry that nobody will want them or that they won’t be able to find employment: I sympathize with them because their sense of entitlement, lack of compass and actions stem from rape culture. I do not excuse what they’ve done, but we have to understand the context in which this occurs in order to prevent it from occurring in the future. We have to understand that the culture we allow and accept creates and perpetuates this sense of entitlement and apathy about consent and a person’s bodily autonomy.

This happened because, in our rape culture, rape jokes aren’t uncommon and women and girls are regularly devalued by media and culture at large. It happened because, when prominent sexual assault cases are spoken about in the media, the coverage often consists of blaming and discrediting the victim and sympathizing with the poor accused perpetrator(s). It happened because sexual education in schools is not only inadequate, but because we are not teaching our youth about healthy boundaries, consent and sexual autonomy.

If a lawyer, a person who has studied law, a person who young people might look up to as an authority on such things, can say something so ignorant as that this young girl, intoxicated to the point where her body was limp, where she was blacked out, essentially unconscious, could consent to sex in any way, then how can we expect these two young men to stand up and feel actual remorse? They’re being told that they’ve done nothing wrong, really – by their lawyers, the media, their coaches, rape apologists online, and some of their community.

How we talk about rape is important. How we talk about victims is important. How we talk about assailants is important. It’s all important. And the media is failing us, these boys, and everyone, by sympathizing with the convicted youth, blaming the victim, and perpetuating an already far too engrained tradition of rape culture.

(photo via Radical Housewife)

Editor’s Note: More than 1/4 of a million people have signed a petition on calling on CNN to apologize for its particularly insensitive coverage of the case. Sign it here.

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