The Steubenville, Ohio rape case

Over the weekend, the New York Times published an extremely disturbing article about a rape case in Steubenville, Ohio that is getting a lot of publicity there. In August, a teenage girl was apparently sexually assaulted by members of the local high school football team, and evidence of the alleged assault was broadcast all over the internet:

Twitter posts, videos and photographs circulated by some who attended the nightlong set of parties suggested that an unconscious girl had been sexually assaulted over several hours while others watched. She even might have been urinated on.

In one photograph posted on Instagram by a Steubenville High football player, the girl, who was from across the Ohio River in Weirton, W.Va., is shown looking unresponsive as two boys carry her by her wrists and ankles. Twitter users wrote the words “rape” and “drunk girl” in their posts.

Two members of the football team have been charged with rape and are awaiting trial. Meanwhile, the town is sharply divided about the case. Debates about it have broken out on the internet, and some of it has gotten extremely ugly. Though the girl has gotten more support than I would have thought, the Times reports that her friends have “ostracized” her. Some friends! Meanwhile, the accused rapists’ lawyer is sliming the girl and blaming her for her own rape:

He said that online photographs and posts could ultimately be “a gift” for his client’s case because the girl, before that night in August, had posted provocative comments and photographs on her Twitter page over time. He added that those online posts demonstrated that she was sexually active and showed that she was “clearly engaged in at-risk behavior.”

I have a couple of thoughts about all this. First of all, it’s astonishing how often male athletes, and football players in particular, end up committing or at least being accused of sexual and domestic violence. We saw it with Jerry Sandusky and Jovan Belcher and now we are seeing it here — and that is just to name a few. I don’t know exactly why this happens. Certainly, many athletes have a huge sense of entitlement, and they tend to be strongly supported in this by their local communities, and, in the cases of college and professional athletes, by fans, sports media, and a multi-billion dollar sports industrial complex. Male athletes also operate in an all-male context where they never have to deal professionally with women as equals, which does not help matters. All this has allowed a culture of silence to develop around the issues of sexual and domestic violence in the sports world. Sadly, I don’t know of a single prominent person in professional sports who is speaking out about these matters.

The other thing that strikes me about this story is how weak rape shield laws often are, in practice. Rape shield laws are supposed to guard against irrelevant evidence about a victim’s sexual past being used against her. But in practice, lots of evidence about a victim’s sex life often gets admitted, because it’s considered relevant to issues of consent and the accused’s defense, and that is allowed. Unfortunately, I think these kinds of “she’s a slut” defenses will continue to be used, and continue to work, for as long as we continue to have a sexual double standard.

About the only encouraging thing about the Steubenville story is that the accused rapists have been charged and will be prosecuted, and that not absolutely everyone in this town is against the victim. Other than that, though, her life has become a nightmare. It’s a terribly sad story, and this is one case where social media has made things much worse for the victim than it would have been otherwise.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee