How the Ariel Castro Trial Exposes America's Rape Culture
Ariel Castro — the sadistic monster who enslaved three teenage girls and tortured them for 11 years — will be spending the remainder of his life in prison. On Thursday, an Ohio judge sentenced Castro to life plus an additional 1,000 years, which is an apposite sentence for his heinous crimes. Kidnapping, and repeatedly raping, starving, and chaining up teenage girls are ruthless acts, and they were committed by an uncompassionate, debauched man. Amazingly, Castro's explanation for his acts is almost as astounding as the crimes of which he’s been convicted.
In his sentencing, Castro made it clear that he's fallen into the welcoming trap of blaming his victims for his behavior, a classic move that epitomizes our country's rape culture. He resides in a false world where victims are responsible for preventing attackers from striking. In his mind, and in those of other rape apologists, victims are responsible for their own abuse, including the repeated rapes inflicted upon them.
Lynn Phillips, a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and producer of Flirting with Danger, a documentary that explores consent in heterosexual relationships, offers a concise definition of "rape culture" that clearly applies in Castro’s case: “Rape culture is a culture in which dominant cultural ideologies, media images, social practices, and societal institutions support and condone sexual abuse by normalizing, trivializing, and eroticizing male violence against women and blaming victims for their own abuse.” According to Phillips, “Everywhere you turn there's condoning, trivializing, and eroticizing rape, and collectively it sets a tone that says this is no big deal or this is what women deserve.” As non-profit organization Force, which attempts to diminish rape culture through constructive dialogues, points out, “rather than viewing the culture of rape as a problem to change, people in a rape culture think about the persistence of rape as 'just the way things are.'”
Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight didn’t deserve the abuse they endured. All three women are survivors who will endure countless counseling sessions before their lives resume any sense of normalcy. All they’ve known for 11 years is chains, plastic bags as restrooms, and windows lined with slats of wood. But according to the testimony Castro offered during his sentencing hearing, he's the real victim. Castro seems to think that America should compose violin-laced ballads and organize candlelight vigils in his honor, instead of condemning him as the monster he is.
For starters, Castro passed the buck to the pornography industry. In his statement to the court, the convicted kidnapper said he began watching porn because he was a victim of sexual abuse as a child. Though he acknowledged that people might find him “repulsive,” the fact that Castro blames porn for his actions shows his refusal to accept responsibility for his cruel behavior. As is common in rape culture, he avoids blame by faulting others for his actions. Porn made him do it. A failed mental health system that costs too much and offers too little may have failed Castro, but pornography was never the issue. He is.
Castro proceeded to blame his victim, Amanda Berry, for her own kidnapping, since, according to him, she climbed into his vehicle without knowing who he was. At his sentencing, Castro said, “I’m not — I’m not putting fault on her, but I’m just saying I’m trying to make up a point across that I am not a violent predator that you are trying to make me look like a monster.” Even if his account is accurate, he clearly made a decision to capture and imprison Berry. He could’ve driven her home instead. All rapists possess free will. A rapist can always opt to escort an incoherent victim home, instead of leading her or him to bed. No matter how tight-fitting a victim’s clothing, or how flirtatious she or he was, the victim is never to blame. Rapists rape because they’re rapists. Berry may have gotten in Castro’s car, but she isn’t the issue. He is.
Castro’s deflection of blame continued when he testified that he never coerced his victims into having sex. “These allegations about being forceful on them, that is totally wrong,” he said. “There was times that they would even ask me for sex. Many times. And I learned that these girls are not virgins from their testimony to me. And they had multiple partners before me. All three of them.” Virtue doesn’t preclude rape. Even if the three women had previously had sexual encounters, that didn’t grant Castro permission to rape them. Castro’s insistence that his abductees were willing participants in their rapes is no different than countless rapists' claims that their victims “wanted it.” The virtue of the victims isn’t the issue. He is.
Castro's last attempt to find fault in others instead of himself came when he blamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation for not further investigating him. In his statement, Castro said, “I feel that the FBI let these girls down because when they questioned my daughter, that’s OK, but they failed to question me. I’m her father.” Castro went on to claim that if the FBI had questioned him, the girls could’ve been surrendered to authorities, ending their decade of torture. But the FBI isn’t the issue. He is.
Castro attempted to minimized his impact on the women, pointing out that Gina DeJesus “appeared normal” in the weeks preceding the trial. This is another classic attempt to blame the victim by minimizing the victimization. He also told the courts, that “I know what I did is wrong but I am not a violent person. I simply kept them there without them being able to leave.” Keeping someone there without them being able to leave is kidnapping. It is enslavement. It is brutal. It is violent. It is wrong. It is not to be minimized and dismissed.
At the core of Castro's crime was his need to be in power. As Becky Lockwood, associate director of the Center for Women and Community in Amherst, Massachusetts, points out, “Rape culture is anything that supports a culture where people think that it is okay to use sexual violence to get what they want,” Lockwood said. “And, it's usually not about sex .... It's usually about power.”
Ariel Castro is a monster. He is a rapist. He is a kidnapper. He is a manipulator. He is an abuser. He is a symptom of a larger issue that must be systemically addressed. Rape culture is real. Castro is a perpetrator of its worst possible mutation.