Why Steubenville is not Delhi: How we are failing in this country

By — January 14, 2013

The father of the woman gang-raped and killed in Delhi in December has told the media that the crime against his daughter is “an awakening” for India. It certainly has been an awakening for much of the world, as I wrote in this op-ed for CNN. The local and international media have been cracking open issues from dowry-related burnings of women to street harassment, asking exactly what is wrong with men in India to have created such a culture of hate and violence against women. It is heartening to watch the introspection.

At the same time, this global soul-searching has made one terrible thing very clear: What is happening in this country in a different but similarly disgusting case of sexualized violence is lacking in reflection, in analysis, and in courage. The rape of a teenager in Steubenville, Ohio, is being dissected to pieces in terms of the “who, what, where,” but very few people are taking a look at the “why.”

We are watching history repeat itself as it has for centuries—as a woman gets blamed for the brutality inflicted upon her, we shake our heads, saying, “What a shame”—and we are sitting on our hands allowing it to spool by.

In this country, we are asking if the “boys” actually did it. We are dissecting the “football culture” of their town and watching sit-down interviews with parents and coaches. Matt Lauer actually sat down on the “Today” show with the legal guardians of one of the defendants—showed sweet childhood photos of the guy—and discussed the defendant’s “character.” Lauer asked whether the guardians have done their own sit-down with the teenage defendant and said, “Malik, what happened?” As if we could really clear this whole thing up if we could only hear him explain. Yes, we need to hear all sides, but no, I’m not sure the defendant’s explanation is what we need right now.

What we need is to be ripping open the seams of our status quo, the oops-there-they-go-again mentality that “Boys will be boys until they’re rapists” (oops) and “Coaches don’t make mistakes” until we decide actually, no, they’re shielding criminals (Penn State … Steubenville?). What we need more of is a media that speaks to experts the way The New York Times’ “India Ink” blog did in this excellent interview, which asks: “Why do groups of men attack lone women?” What we need is to deeply uproot a culture that blames women for their own assaults and idolizes men that assault them.  

We need to do it immediately.

We all know by now that the coaches and parents and various citizens of Steubenville are defensively blaming the victim and ascribing to her evil motivations that make it possible for her to have made the whole thing up: “What else are you going to tell your parents when you come home drunk like that and after a night like that?” Nate Hubbard, one of the Steubenville team’s 19 coaches, told The New York Times. “She had to make up something. Now people are trying to blow up our football program because of it.”

But we also know that the defense lawyer in the Delhi gang-rape trial has blamed the victim too, saying she should not have been out after dark. He implied she was not a “respectable lady.” He even blamed the victim’s friend, who was also beaten with a metal rod, for not saving her life. One of the Steubenville defense lawyers has said that the victim’s online posts shows she was “clearly engaged in at-risk behavior” before the attack. Only whores get raped, of course. Which makes it not rape at all, of course. Whores can’t be raped! Right?

What we need to do is question what creates young men who think it’s OK to violate an unconscious woman. To hurt her physically and emotionally and then smear her verbally on the Internet. What kinds of damaged masculinities are we nurturing (consciously or not) to fruition in this country? How does the cult of masculinity play out in the United States? Why do we have institutions like Penn State protecting old men who rape little boys? Why do we have judges who tell women that if they’d only stayed home, they never would have been sexually assaulted?

We have a justice system that has an abysmal record of arrests and convictions of men who commit sexualized violence. We have a media that doesn’t delve deeply into why that is. We have parents who want to blame anyone but themselves for the boys they’ve raised who become rapists. Teachers who blame parents, parents who blame school districts. We are so busy not blaming ourselves and/or blaming each other that we are stuck in a sad, empty loop of nothing-changing, nobody-caring, ongoing violence that we barely even talk about until something weird and quirky like social media factors into a case, as it has in Steubenville.

Do you really think that Steubenville is the only case of rape of a teenage girl this country has seen since August? Do you really think worse things haven’t happened to women in this country since?

In India, the media is daily reporting new, horrifying rapes: Here’s this woman, gang-raped and hung semi-naked from a mango tree after being pulled off a train to Delhi; and this 16-year-old girl, gang-raped, then self-immolated, and now barely clinging to life. What’s the last rape case besides Steubenville you heard reported on by the news media here?

It doesn’t just happen “over there.” Not when the stats show that a woman is raped every two minutes in this country. Here’s a shocking, easy formulation: Raw Story’s Megan Carpentier wrote on January 8 in The Guardian that “in the 149 days since the Steubenville survivor was assaulted, statistics indicate that nearly another 85,000 sexual assaults have been committed in the United States.” So up that number a bit.

Carpentier gets it exactly right when talking about how the teenager raped in Steubenville will be grilled and scrutinized on her “prior behavior,” which includes posting photos and “provocative comments” on Twitter, because that’s what we, as a culture, have decided makes sense to do to rape survivors.

“Undoubtedly,” Carpentier writes, “she'll have been asked to explain those to the police and prosecutors as well, to determine what sort of justice society wants dispensed to the victim at hand.”  

And what sort of justice do we, as a society, want? Do we want this repetition of victim-blaming and soft-handling of “boys” who violate our girls? Of dismissal of this as a “one-off” case, rare in its brutality? Of making this about “football” or “video games” or whatever excuse is of-the-moment? Or do we want something better for ourselves, from ourselves? We have the opportunity to decide that right now.