The Steubenville High School rape allegations were more than a controversial court case; they were a true test of character. Unlike most tests, however, assessments weren’t about achieving a final grade or score. Responses to the allegations were a measure of an observer’s own personality traits, such as personal temperament, sympathies and loyalties. The judiciary system has, of course, already made its evaluation: the two young students were found delinquent in a juvenile court. The court of public opinion, however, has not being unanimous in its verdict and already appealed the judge’s decision. Many people continue to object that the victim was really to blame while others maintain that the defendants should have been tried and convicted as adults. Various media outlets have similarly courted public opinion by instinctively sympathizing with the convicted rapists at the expense of the real victim.
Indeed, societies’ general response merely confirms that there is no such thing as an impartial observer. The court of public opinion is a prejudicial tribunal, as there appear to be no rules of evidence or independent adjudicators. Consequently, people’s judgment of the case has really been a ruling on their own characters. Sections of the media have been particularly guilty here, as they’ve editorialized in the dis/guise of reporting. By playing to the gallery, they’ve reproduced a world view that minimizes and condones sexual violence against women. Such an outlook provides an insight into a societies’ own characteristics — as evident by its tendency to blame the victim while defending the character of men who don’t fit the stereotypical image of a rapist. As MS Foundation laments, this is what a rape culture looks like: hiding in plain sight and viewed as normal (defensible, acceptable, etc).
The irony is that the Stuebenville High School rape case began the way it ended: as a trial by media. The young defendants sought the judgment of their peers when sharing news of their victim’s degradation through social media. The goal was to court favor by appealing to their own peer group. Unfortunately for them, a female observer conducted another trial by media before incriminating evidence could be destroyed. The first ‘trial’ therefore briefly provided an unobstructed view of the sexism learnt from their elders—and these norms would have otherwise been visible if they hadn’t already blended into the environment.
The students invariably incriminated themselves by bringing questionable attitudes out into the open. It was their own eyewitness testimony that implicated them in a serious crime. The young students provided a sobering lesson about popular culture by publicly exposing the fact that the sexual domination and objectification of women is part of the fabric of society. Indeed, sexual humiliation is so normalised that it didn’t even register as a crime in the minds of the assailants and target audience.
There use to be a time where the true test of a person’s character was what s/he did when no one was watching. The internet appears to have changed the way people are examined: apparently people should now be tested by what they are prepared to show one another or watch each other do.
The sexual assault was particularly horrifying because it originally occurred without the victim’s knowledge and she was subsequently forced to watch herself become the talk of the town. Equally troubling is what happened when she made a formal complaint to the police. She was held in further contempt for daring to cast aspersions on the character of the community.
Therein lies the rub: the rape allegations turned on the question of who had the better ‘reputation’. Steubenville’s cultural standing was linked to a sport where the very image of manhood was laid bare. Football was more than a game, it was symbol of male potency that galvanized and rejuvenated a struggling community and young women ideally cheered the home team on in their underwear. Football is where traditional conceptions of masculinity are reinforced through male bonding and competitiveness. It lets the best men win by using the male body as instrument of sanctioned aggression and violence. The irony is that football attempts to preserve male dominance in a society increasingly threatened by the power of women. It should therefore come as no surprise that the rape was a calculated act of revenge, as the victim had reportedly rejected another team member and they wanted to show her who was really in charge.
Particularly offensive was the way the defense tried to paint the accuser in a negative light with the footballer’s own images and stories. The victim’s degraded state was allegedly the true test of her character. The young girl’s intoxicated state was a measure of her real worth and a convenient excuse to blame others. The footballer’s were really trying to protect her from herself as she threw herself at them. It’s difficult to know, however, how an unconscious girl could be capable of consent, let alone upward mobility. The defense conveniently neglected to mention, then, that alcohol is the rapist’s weapon of choice and that most rapes are committed by someone known to the victim. And so like many women before her, the rape victim will be serving a life sentence for trusting her male ‘friends’ in the first place.