Recently the small city of Steubenville, Ohio has been the center of a rape trial that has captured the attention of the nation.
Teenage football stars Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond were recently found guilty of the juvenile charge equal to rape for sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl whose name has not been released. In the wake of this verdict—and the firestorm of criticism it has unleashed directed toward both the rapists and Jane Doe—our society is left with two vitally important subjects that need to be addressed.
First and foremost, convicted rapists do not deserve sympathy. Contrary to the rabid railings of rape apologists on social media sites like Twitter, Jane Doe did not ruin the lives of Richmond and Mays by reporting her rape. Mays and Richmond ruined their own lives when they chose to commit rape—and, even worse, they severely scarred Jane Doe’s.
Some members of the media (particularly on CNN) have focused on Richmond and Mays, noting how “difficult” it is to watch two teenage rapists being led out of a courtroom, lamenting how their convictions will get in the way of playing football—and sparing no time to speak about the only real victim.
Even more appalling, some reporters have expressed concern that the label of “registered sex offender” will follow Mays and Richmond for the rest of their lives. But there is no tragedy in the social branding of convicted rapists. The tragedy is the rape these criminals chose to commit.
Second, we need to address the definition of rape and the meaning of consent. If posts on social media sites are anything to go by, countless Americans are deeply confused about both.
In our society’s rare conversations about rape, we often present rape as a single circumstance: a boogeyman leaping out from behind a bush to attack a woman walking alone at night. We do not, however, talk about how rape takes many sinister guises. Forcing sex on someone who is drunk or unconscious, for example, is rape. So is pressuring and bullying until the victim doesn’t feel that he or she can safely say no, even if the rapist does not use physical force.
We don’t teach this to our young people, which explains why one boy who testified at the trial said that, when he saw one of the defendants raping Jane Doe, he didn’t intervene because he “didn’t know it was rape.” The rape he witnessed did not match up with society’s standard and he was unable to make the connection.
The fact is that we live in a rape culture. Sexual violence and victim-blaming are the norm. Instead of teaching boys and men not to rape, we teach women and girls a series of impossibly complex social rules to avoid rape: how to dress, how to speak, how to behave, when to make eye contact, when to go out and with whom, when to return and with whom, how much to drink, how much affection to show or give.
If a woman or girl is raped and is found to have violated any of these social rules, we round on her and tell her it’s her fault, while simultaneously apologizing for the rapist: “She shouldn’t have worn such skimpy clothes!” “She shouldn’t have been drinking!” “She shouldn’t have led him on!”
Revealing clothing is not consent to sex. Drinking alcohol is not consent, either. Agreeing to go on a date is not consent. Allowing someone else to pay for dinner is not consent. Kissing is not consent. Silence or not saying no (out of fear or because of incapacitation) is not consent. Being in a relationship with someone is not consent. Having consensual sex in the past is not consent to future sex.
Ultimately, consent is a clear, definitive “yes.” That is the only definition. There is no room for interpretation. Additionally, even after consent is given, it can be withdrawn at any time—and that wish must be respected. Everyone has the right to change their mind.
The bottom line is that no one deserves to be raped, ever, under any circumstances. Revealing clothing, alcohol consumption, “promiscuous” behavior—none of these are justification to completely and utterly violate someone else’s body.
Rape is not an accident. It’s not an “uh-oh” mistake. It’s a deliberate choice, and we need to recognize that. It’s time to stop apologizing for rapists and blaming the victims.