What Are We Going To Do About Steubenville?

20 Mar

by Erin Riordan 

*Trigger Warning*

I am done with rape. I am done with men raping an unconscious girl at a high school party. I am done with videos and pictures of that rape being distributed on the Internet. I am done with men in Tahrir Square raping women, attempting to intimidate them from participating in the political process. I am done with gang rape. I am done with colleges and universities that refuse to take the experiences of their students seriously. I am done being angry and pissed off and hurt and hopeless and heartbroken and frustrated and scared. I am done with rape and rape culture and slut shaming and victim blaming. We need to be better than this. We are better than this.

We need to address why our society has a culture of violence against women, and what we can do to change it. We need to talk about why men rape, and address the root causes of violence that permeate our society. We need to stop holding women accountable for their experiences of sexual assault. We need to stop punishing women for their behavior, their drinking, and their dress, and instead acknowledge our responsibility to take real action against sexual assault and recognize the responsibility of those who perpetrate it.

(Note: I essentially exclusively address men as perpetrators of sexual violence in this piece. This does not mean that all men commit sexual violence, or that only men commit sexual violence. There are many men in the world who do not participate in violence against women, and many wonderful men who work to combat violence against women. That said, 99% of sexual assaults are committed by men, and our culture is one that inculcates violence in men in a variety of different ways, and thus I feel it is worth addressing.)

Teaching Consent

We need a universal definition of consent, and it needs to be taught in Sex Ed classes in schools, and reinforced throughout a person’s life. Kat and myself have both written about consent before more extensively, but ultimately what I think we should be teaching is a culture of active, participatory consent. When engaging in any sort of sexual activity, you must ask for consent. Consent should not be presumed, and the absence of a no is not a yes. Consent should not be coerced, and it cannot be given by when someone is underage, when someone is drunk or otherwise incapacitated, or when someone is unconscious.

If everyone were taught this definition of consent then there would be a basis of respect in more sexual encounters, and an understanding of active participation from all involved. A better understanding of consent would help to prevent sexual assault. It is also easier for friends or bystanders to intervene earlier on in an assault or altercation when everyone has the same understanding of consent. Beyond that, with a universal definition of consent it easier to hold those who commit sexual assault accountable. A universal definition of consent may also better empower survivors to speak up about their experiences, and if they choose, to prosecute their rapists.

Establishing Accountability

We need to establish accountability. Far too many men believe they can get away with sexual assault, and will face no consequences. The texts sent by Trent Mays indicate that he believed his coach had “taken care of it,” and did not expect to face any real consequences as a result of raping a 16-year-old girl. When a girl was raped by a Notre Dame football player and reported the assault, she received a text from the rapist’s teammate saying, “Messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea.” Only 46% of rapes and sexual assaults are reported to the police, and only 3% of rapists spend any time in jail at all. We need to stop letting athletes, fraternity brothers, and university students from committing rape and going unpunished. We need to stop giving free passes to men who are famous and successful, men like Chris Brown, Michael Fassbender, Christian Bale, Josh Brolin, and Dominique Strauss Kahn. We need to create a culture of accountability, where men realize that committing sexual assault is wrong, and that doing so will have real and lasting consequences, both for the men themselves and the survivors.

Women as People

We need a culture where women are consistently treated and recognized as people. We can’t live in a world that consistently objectifies women, showing exploitative images of women on TV, in ads, and in magazines. When we are overwhelmed with images that present women as objects rather than as people, with many ads literally just presenting various parts of a woman’s body or her headless figure, it is easier to view women as objects rather than as people. And it is far easier to commit violence against someone seen as an object rather than commit violence against someone recognized as a person (Jean Kilbourne explores this idea further in her excellent documentary Killing Us Softly 4). A culture where in 80-99% of women experience street harassment in their lifetime is one in which violence against women is normalized, and in which women are viewed as objects and not as people.

Rehabilitative Justice

We need a system of rehabilitative justice that will better address the culture of violence and what it does to individuals. We do not need a system that simply punishes and dehumanizes the men and women in prison. A system that offers educational opportunities, counseling, therapy, and other rehabilitative services will better address underlying causes of violence, and will be more likely to be effective in reducing the likelihood of violence caused by individuals in the prison system.

Support for Survivors

We need to offer better and more accessible support for survivors. We need to listen. We need to believe survivors and let them talk. We need to let survivors make their own choices of what actions they will or will not take- whether that is pressing charges or not, and if, when, and who they go to for help and support. We need safe spaces on campus for survivors to share their story if they choose to, and to find the resources and support they need. We need campus to be a safe place for survivors to live and live safely- physically, mentally, and emotionally. We need clear policies and laws regarding sexual assault, and clear, just processes to prosecute those who commit sexual assault. We need to challenge every instance of victim blaming, and not allow attitudes that hold the survivor responsible for their assault to exist in our communities. We need to be allies and advocates for those who are survivors of sexual assault.

These changes will take time and will not come without great effort, and they are by no means exhaustive, but they are key steps in a start to end violence against women.

If you found this post triggering, know that there are resources and support available. 

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