In the wake of the the guilty verdicts in the rape trial of two high school students from Steubenville High School in Ohio, there seems to have been a forgetting of the true victim, which is the young woman who survived the rape. Rather than expressing outrage over the crimes committed against her, there has been an apologetic and mournful tone expressed in defense of the perpetrators of crime.
The list of media outlets and social networking sites that have expressed their horror at the ruined lives of the two convicted teens is long, growing and depressing. Before the verdict was announced, both ABC and NBC aired rosy depictions of the rapists, emphasizing their future potential and playing up their dreams of going to college. Reporter Poppy Harlow, who was in the courtroom when the verdict was read, reported to anchor Candy Crowley on CNN that it was incredibly difficult to watch two boys who are great football players and very good students “with such promising futures” have their lives destroyed as a result of their crimes. Two girls from Steubenville High School have been arrested for threatening to take the life of the rape survivor, shaming her for coming forward and prosecuting the rape. One of the boys’ lawyers argued that he should not be punished harshly because, at age 16, his brain is not yet fully developed and therefore he cannot be held responsible for his actions.
Unfortunately, the narrative expressing sympathy with the perpetrators is coupled with a strong victim-blaming discourse. Countless Facebook messages and tweets have argued that if the victim hadn’t drunk as much alcohol as she did then the rape wouldn’t have happened. For example, Jimmy Momenee, a disc jockey at the University of Toledo tweeted, “Disgusting outcome on #Steubenville trial. Remember kids, if you’re drunk/slutty at a party and embarrassed later, just say you got raped!” Tragically, his comments are not isolated or uncommon; they are part of a large social chorus arguing that women falsely cry rape and that attire and demeanor are asking for sexual encounters even when they say “no.”
No matter the angle, all of these accounts are disturbing. They conflate responsibility, blaming the victim for the rape and grieving the perpetrators. It was not the verdict that ruined the young men’s lives. It was their choice to rape an unconscious teenager. What she wore or didn’t wear or whether she drank alcohol is not to blame for the assault. The two young men made a choice that affected not only their future, but hers. They should be held responsible for their actions and so should the media. Their depictions of the crime and those involved are an integral part of the cultural discourse of rape culture. Changing the accepted popular narrative is an essential step to stopping future rapes.
Sarah Topp is a professor in the department of human communication. She is also the debate team coach.