Last week a juvenile court in Steubenville, Ohio validated the horrible experience of a 16-year-old girl by convicting two teenage boys of raping her and taking nude photos and videos of her assault. The nation is split, and teenagers and adults alike are screaming bloody murder, sometimes at the victim herself.
The case has opened a world of conversations. Some have been productive; others, not so much.
Ohio's legal definition of rape includes "[insertion] ... without privilege to do so, however slight, of any part of the body or any instrument ... into the vaginal or anal opening of another." An important distinction to understand as we ruminate about "legitimate" and "forcible" rape, in general.
First, we should hold legal rape as the only standard. And as a society we should understand the importance and influence of the scope of that definition. But more importantly, we need to address the de facto rules that apply to how we treat women. From the words we use to the subtle way we portray women in gender specific roles, the backdrop of justification is so widespread that some women themselves can't see it.
A transcript of text messages between the delinquents and other football players emerged among the articles and commentary that have erupted from the verdict of this case. These messages were crucial in the decision to find the defendants delinquent, the juvenile equivalent of guilty.
Probably a combination of male boasting and truth, the seemingly private messages convey much more than a drunken conversation between teenagers. They show how colloquial ideas like "guy talk" can lead to extremes like rape. The use of jargon to deprecate a young unconscious girl exposes the crude foundation to a general culture that justifies sexual assault.
The messages are abhorrent from beginning to end but we can extract important insight from these specific, albeit anecdotal, examples:
Juvenile 1: I wanna see the vid of u hitting her with your weiner.
Delinquent 1: I don’t know who took it lol. [sic]
Although I respect the age of the minors in not using their names, in a few months time they would be able to vote or go to war. The language and immaturity cannot be attributed to age but, at a bare minimum, a lack of respect. Not just for the victim but "her" in general.
Throughout the messages the victim is referred to only as "her," or "the dead body." Who would feel bad about violating one of those?
A common critique of media and advertisements (among active feminists) is the use of women as objects. Women are used as props; thrown onto cars as decor or beside men as accessories to boost the appeal of a product. Typically their faces aren't shown, because objects don't need identities. They can just be an "it," or in the case of these vile text messages, a "her" or a "dead body."
We see that very clearly in the following messages:
Delinquent 1: I talked her into a handy cause if she moved, she’d get sick
Juvenile: I don’t see how that dead body could give you a handy
Delinquent 1: She rolled over and faced me. I put her hand on my weiner and we started making out. [sic]
As many people have already heard and protested, multiple news programs have conveyed the story in terms of the lives of two "star football players." CNN particularly has been under fire for sympathizing statements like that their sentencing "was very difficult to watch" and "that [the incident] will haunt [the boys]for the rest of their lives.”
This small study in the European Journal of Social Psychology explored the idea that humans can recognize objects upside down much easier than we can people.
The study explains that this is because "analytic processing, which is involved in object recognition, does not take into account spatial relations among the stimulus parts." In terms of a chair, the stimulus might be four legs and a seat, but in women it's legs, breasts, butts, and vaginas.
Not surprisingly, the small sample size, of both men and women, was able to identify men in "person-like recognition" much better than in "object-like recognition," whereas women were recognized the same in either position.
CNN, then, naturally empathized with the young men, because who could empathize with a chair or a woman.
The messages that exposed how the juvenile rapists referred to our Jane Doe is only a drop in a bucket of words, images, beliefs and myths about women. All justify violence. All are dehumanizing.
A 16 year-old is raped, and further humiliated by having the assault photographed and distributed, but our culture is more concerned with where the careers of two football players will go.
We live in a culture that is more concerned with whether Jane Doe was drinking than her assailant saying, "I’m pissed all I got was a handjob. I shoulda raped her since everyone thinks I did." [sic]
We live in a culture where we watch this video and hear protests to the rape as an after-thought and coupled with "she was really drunk though."
We live in a culture where we have the audacity to judge "how badly India treats its women" while we ignore and perpetuate violence against women in all aspects of our own society.
The list goes on here.
We live in the United States in the year 2013. We live in rape culture.