Jessica Valenti

Hump Day

Two high school students, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, were found guilty Sunday of raping a 16-year-old girl in a controversial case in Steubenville, Ohio.

Despite a myriad of photos taken the night of the party on August 11 and the victim reporting she had little recollection of the entire night, much of the arguments focused on victim-blaming and whether alcohol had “substantially impaired” her ability to consent to sex. 

Although Mays himself texted “LOL, she couldn’t even move” after friends wondered how he had sex with “a dead girl,” referring to the girl’s intoxicated state, defense attorney Walter Madison claimed consent is not an affirmative “yes.” Madison told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that what happened wasn’t rape because the victim “didn’t affirmatively say no.”

In an article for The Nation, feminist writer Jessica Valenti explored the common theme of victim-blaming by our court system, writing that “until American culture and law frames sexual consent as proactively, enthusiastically given, there will be no justice for rape victims. It’s time for the US to lose the “‘no’ means no” model for understanding sexual assault and focus on “only ‘yes’ means yes” instead.” 

The Steubenville trial draws attention to the crucial need to engage men and women in conversations regarding sexual assault and how to actively ask for and give consent. Through education in school, we must address what consent is and how to recognize the circumstances in which someone is unable provide consent.

The case in Steubenville also brings forth the stark reality that the myth that “all rapists hide in dark alleys” still persists. Although the trial has generated steady media coverage since August, it became apparent during the trial that the two defendants and those involved still had little understanding of what constitutes rape.

“It wasn’t violent,” teammate Evan Westlake told Yahoo! News when asked why he didn’t stop Richmond and Mays when he witnessed the assault of the non-moving and highly intoxicated girl. “I didn’t know exactly what rape was. I always pictured it as forcing yourself on someone.”

“That was part of the arrogance,” Dan Wetzel, Yahoo! News writer, wrote. “Arrogance from the defendants. Arrogance from the friends. Arrogance within the culture. Arrogance based on the fact that this night, witnesses testified over and over, wasn’t strikingly different than any other night in the life of a Big Red football player.”

Rather than recognizing the events that unfolded as a violation of human rights and dignity, multiple teens at the party in Steubenville recorded the events, and later jokingly posted the videos and photos on social media. 

Recovered Video footage showed the victim naked and passed out with the onlookers laughing and saying “she’s dead” and “I’m going to join the rape crew.” Moments prior to the alleged sexual assaults taking place, she laid out in the middle of a street puking in only shorts and a bra as a group of boys offered each other $3 to urinate on her. 

The inaction of the onlookers and the rape jokes show a tragic way in which rape culture is perpetrated in our society — instead of standing up for what we know is right, we may feel more compelled to join in with the crowd. 

In her book, “Trauma and Recovery,” Judith Herman writes, “It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil.”

It is crucial that we empower each other and our communities to take active roles in stopping rape and sexual violence when we see it occurring. Until we realize and take collective responsibility that Steubenville is not an isolated incident — that this could have been practically any town or college campus in America — we will not see change.  

Published on March 20, 2013 as "Steunbenville rape case begs consent discussion".