Steubenville Makes Rape Culture Harder to Deny

By Amanda Marcotte
Thursday, March 21, 2013 12:05 EDT
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[Image via Anton Bielousov, Creative Commons licensed]

One of the remarkable things about the Steubenville, Ohio case is how it’s been a rapid lesson in how wrong so many rape myths really are: The myth that rape is about an excess of sexual desire instead of an exercise in dominating and humilating the victim.  The myth that men rape by accident, instead of as a deliberate choice to get one over on the victim. And, of course, the myth that rape is just a matter of a stranger in the bushes, instead of what it usually is, which is a man choosing to attack a woman he knows.

But what’s most interesting to me is that Steubenville has made it harder to deny that there is such a thing as rape culture. Of all rape myths—oh, irony, as rape myths are part of rape culture—the claim that there is no such thing as rape culture is most pernicious. It’s easy to see why people deny the existence of rape culture. Formally, our society condemns rape. We pass laws banning it and occasionally, we even enforce those laws. It’s insulting as fuck to call someone a rapist, so much so that even when we have irrefutable proof that someone is a rapist, it’s hard to get people to form their mouths around the word. (But of course, the unwillingness to accept the reality of rape in this way is ultimately evidence for the existence of rape culture.) It’s easy to imagine that our society is just against rape and that’s all there is to it. Follow that line of logic far enough, and you’re forced to conclude that rapists rape not because they feel empowered to do so, but because of some kind of biological drive that is untouchable by social pressure. In fact, some have made this argument, going so far as to suggest men are instinctually driven to rape.

But what Steubenville has made hard to deny is that society gives a lot of leeway and support to rapists, and in many ways, encouragement. The young men involved didn’t furtively rape someone and then refuse to tell a soul about it. No, if anything, making sure everyone knew that they had thoroughly conquered and humiliated the victim was the point of the rape. They thought people would admire them for raping someone, and they were right. That’s why the video of the kids whooping it up over the rape was so telling; except for the one kid protesting the situation, the rest of the boys seemed to think the rapists were kick-ass. As Laurie Penny explained:

Here we have incontrovertible evidence of happy young people not only hurting and humiliating others, but taking pleasure in it, posing with their victims. The Abu Ghraib torture pictures were trophies. The Steubenville rape photos are trophies. They’re mementoes of what must have felt, at the time, like everyone was having the sort of fun they’d want to remember, the sort of fun they’d want to prove to themselves and others later. The Steubenville rapists had fun, and they broadcast that fun to the world. They were confident that nothing could touch them, so baffled by the idea of punishment that they wept like children in court.

Even after the verdict, there continued to be immense support for this belief that raping someone is not a crime so much as just fun times that the victim has no right to protest. That’s why two girls were arrested after the verdict for harassing the victim, holding her accountable for speaking out but not holding the rapists accountable for raping. Nor is this situation unique to Steubenville. A Connecticut teenager, this time all but 13, is pressing charges for rape against two 18-year-olds, and sure enough, she’s getting the same kind of abuse and harassment from people who don’t have a problem with rape, but very much have a problem with people trying to stop rape. The victim in the Steubenville case admitted she had to be pushed to press charges, because she knew she would be blamed. She was right, of course, and not because Steubenville is unique in this way. That’s just what happens to rape victims, and she knew it, despite being just a teenager.

How our culture manages to rectify the conflict between our formal opposition to rape and the widespread cultural support of rapists is itself a fascinating, if disturbing, thing. The main way is to refuse to call rape by its name. Phrases like “legitimate rape” exist solely to exclude the majority of rapes from being considered rapes, so that society can both claim to oppose rape while refusing to do anything about it or even celebrating it. Every time a feminist gets cornered by guys online trying to get her to adjuciate what levels of coercion they can use before it’s really considered rape, that’s what’s going on: Trying to figure out how much fun they can have abusing and mistreating women before they get into trouble for it. In his research, David Lisak has found that as long as he avoids the R-word, he can get rapists to admit to all sorts of crazy shit. Why? Because they are proud of themselves:

It might seem like it would be hard for a researcher to get these men to admit to something that fits the definition of rape. But Lisak says it’s not. “They are very forthcoming,” he says. “In fact, they are eager to talk about their experiences. They’re quite narcissistic as a group — the offenders — and they view this as an opportunity, essentially, to brag.”

They believe that people, especially other men, will admire them for forcing women to have sex with them, as long as you don’t call it rape. There are plenty enough men who view sex not as a fun shared activity, but as a competition where women lose and men win if sexual contact is made, and they’re ready to support their friends who brag about treating women like garbage. Other men don’t feel the same way at all and find the entire entreprise distasteful, but they often refrain from speaking up, because they fear that they’ll be mocked and considered emasculated if they don’t play along. Their silence is taken as assent. Women who object are dismissed because they’re women.

What Steubenville has done has made it much harder to deny that these forces are in play. It shows we do, in fact, have a rape culture and not just a bunch of meaningless, isolated attacks. It’s all very depressing, but there is good news: Accepting you have a problem is the first step towards fixing it. Let’s just hope the lessons of Steubenville stick.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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