by Joe Donovan
The last couple days have seen a great deal of (completely justified) outrage at CNN’s absurdly inappropriate response to the convictions of the two teens on trial for rape in the Steubenville case. I’m glad that the segment in question has been met with derision from all corners of the feminist world. To divorce the consequences of their actions from the context of the actions themselves – the rape of a human being – is absurd and infuriating and a reflection of the worst and most dangerous side of patriarchal ideology.
But being a feminist and being outraged at rape culture, victim-blaming, and the normalization and justification of violence against women should not bar us from feeling sorrow for the boys who were found guilty. The primary tragedy is, always and of course, the harm suffered by the survivor of the rape. But that is not the only tragedy, and incarcerating the boys is not a victory.
We should never celebrate when we find someone guilty of violence. Every time an act of direct violence is committed, it is a failure. Not just a failure of the individual who committed the act, but a dramatic failure on the part of our society to form individuals with the resources and the skills and the empathy to live and act in non-violent ways. No one is born wanting to murder, molest, rape, harm. Violence is taught, and violence is spread. Every time we decide that the only way to keep our community safe is to remove a member from it and lock him (or her, but usually him) away, we should feel shame, we should feel sorrow, and we should question what we’re doing wrong as a society to make violence seem normal or acceptable or rational. Individual accountability absolutely and always matters. But social and communal accountability absolutely and always matter too.
So even if we cannot all bring ourselves to mourn for the future of boys who have committed rape, we should all mourn for the present, for the culture and the conditions that make such violence possible. The boys alone are responsible for their actions and the harm they caused, but we are all collectively responsible for that culture and those conditions. We are all collectively responsible for training so many men to view women as objects, as inferior, as responsible for their own victimization. Rape is an insult to everyone’s humanity. It is an insult for which each of us is and will remain responsible until we have succeeded in overturning the structures that enable it.
This recognition of collective responsibility for our collective humanity leads to a final and perhaps more radical point: as feminists, we should not only mourn for the boys as symbols of a violent culture, but we should feel empathy towards them as complex human beings who have strengths and flaws and beauty and most importantly are not evil.
I don’t blame you if you feel anger after reading that statement. What beauty? How can you empathize with a rapist? It’s worth clarifying that empathy doesn’t mean or imply acceptance of actions or forgiveness. Still, I will not argue that building empathy for those who have done terrible things is easy. I will, however, argue that it is at least necessary to try.
Truly and meaningfully dismantling rape culture and patriarchal ideology requires not only lifting up the voices of survivors and ensuring accountability, but also recognizing the humanity of the offenders. Because if we don’t, if every man who has ever raped is only a Rapist and nothing else, an evil person whose evil nature led to evil actions whose punishment is to be celebrated, then we are losing sight of what we should be fighting: not bad people but a violent culture.
The reality is that patriarchy does not simply give bad men the power to express their badness. Instead, it steeps all of us in horrible ideas about power and that we come to internalize and express. Again, no one is born a rapist. Rape culture makes rape possible. It takes men who would never rape if raised in a culture and environment of respect and equality and peace and instead teaches them incredibly harmful lessons in misogyny, superiority, privilege, impunity, and violence. That is how men like the boys in Steubenville can do such unthinkably terrible things and not even understand that it’s wrong. Not because of some innate and irrevocable badness, but because that’s the message they received and internalized and expressed throughout their lives.
It is easy to create an Enemy. It is harder – and, I think, more brave and ultimately more truly feminist – to see the humanity in those who have caused harm. When we do, we are recognizing and embracing the potential for change. We are recognizing that things don’t have to be this way, that if we build peace and respect for women and replace patriarchal structures with equality then it will matter.
Feminism only has a purpose if those who rape are more than just rapists. If not, then we’re accepting that men are just “that way,” that there’s nothing we can do about it, that rape is inevitable. If we’re willing to take the step towards empathy and towards recognizing humanity, we are moving towards hope. We are expecting more from ourselves and, crucially, we are expecting more from offenders. Rape is even more unacceptable when we recognize that it is never inevitable and that all men have the potential and the responsibility to do and be better.
There are many things to mourn in the wake of a tragedy like Steubenville. Let the offenders be one of them.