Steubenville Rape Case: We Must Avoid Victim Blaming


I’ve dedicated a lot of time to researching the Steubenville rape scandal and I find myself going back to the same questions. Will this case the way Americans view rape trials and rape in general? 

The cover-up and defense of the football team by the community has divided the town. But as many have pointed out, we’ve seen the defense of individuals who rape in lieu of believing rape victims. 

Ma’Lik Richmond, 16, and Trent Mays, 17, are charged as juveniles. They are accused of sexually assaulting the girl who we only know as Jane Doe, once in a car, and once in the basement of a house. Richmond maintains that he didn’t rape anyone, nor does he believe he witnessed a rape occur. How can his recollection of the night be so divergent from what other witnesses say happened? 

Part of it could have to do with the way we have been socialized to believe what rape means. We believe it is a violent, physical attack with screams of no. That socialization, however, does not appear to encompass what the definition of rape actually is. 

“The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” 

A compiled list of state statutes and definitions of rape and sexual assault can be found here

What the case of Steubenville is really asking of us to reexamine how we define consent. 

Is consent someone saying "Yes"? Is consent the absence of "No"? What must an individual do to indicate that they do not consent? Must they physically resist? 

Ohio law says that physically resisting is not necessary for rape to occur. More broadly, consent is not possible in situations where an individual has been forced, coerced or threatened. Consent cannot be given if the individual is impaired due to the ingestion of drugs or alcohol or in cases of physical or mental disability. Despite the legal definition of consent, legal cases where consent is obviously lacking, still seem to befuddle us. 

CBS has a headline about the story, “How drunk is too drunk to consent to sex?” That’s truly media framing at its finest. It highlights the precise issue with the way rape cases are tried in the public and in court. The focus is now on the girl, how intoxicated was she? What were her behaviors like? What was her history with the boy? Is it necessary to physically resist/say no for it to be rape? 

“She didn't affirmatively say no." That’s what defense attorney Walter Madison says of the victim. It is clear the defense will spend much of their time attempting to prove that no rape occurred because a clear"no" was never given. 

The defense also filed a motion to have their case dismissed unless the victim and other witnesses were called upon to testify. The Atlantic is reporting that the defense motion has been withdrawn. This is conflicts with other reports that say that the victim is expected to take the stand. Whatever happens, we know this is standard defense for those accused of rape, put the victim on trial, blame the victim for not taking enough precautions to prevent their own rape.  

The image of the girl being held up by her hands and her feet has been shared many times. The picture will obviously play a role in the trial in establishing a timeline of events, reactions, and who was involved. The picture is not an easy one to look at, her body appears limp, nothing about it would give you any indication that it was a joke. But that’s what the defense and the accused Richmond will be asserting

"She was just like laughing, we were all talking, just clowning around and that's when her ex-boyfriend was like, 'Let me get a picture of this drunk B. And that's when we took the picture."

The coverage of this case has already given way to some important conversations about rape culture, sports, and what we all can do to prevent rape from happening. As this case progresses, it is important that we remain vigilant and fight against victim blaming. Prior sexual history does not indicate that an individual was able to or did give consent to sexual acts. What you wear is not consent, and how intoxicated a person is also does not equate to consent.

While the conversations that have occurred around this case are important, and need to be had, how victims are treated in the courtroom and how rape is perceived and covered by the media and public, affects the outcomes of rape trials. That's why this trial is so important, that's why we can't stop paying attention. Hopefully, we can prevent these defense charades from stymieing who is on trial and what they are accused of. 

Judge Tom Lipps will preside over the Juvenile Court proceedings, you can watch PolicyMic coverage of the case here