March 14, 2013 / News

Hometown Heroes: Media Victim-Blaming In Steubenville


The trial has started in Steubenville against two teenage boys who stand accused of raping a girl at a party. The expected media feeding frenzy has begun.

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An article on Good Morning America’s website is titled “Steubenville Rape Case: What You Haven’t Heard.”  In it we learn that one of the boys came from the rough part of the town of 18,000 and has memories of “stray bullets in his living room and watching most of his male role models being killed or incarcerated.” The other is the son of a football coach. He’s an honor student who has dreamed since childhood of hearing fans roar as he took the field with his high school team. The implication is that these boys are star students, gridiron gods. They wouldn’t do such a thing.

In the article one of the boys said, “It just felt like she was coming on to me.” The other boy said, “I turned around and I can see the flash on his phone. Trent was rubbing on her breasts and she was kissing his neck. And then he was trying to unbutton her pants.” In other words, it wasn’t their fault. She invited it. The writer goes on to clarify that the accused, “…used their hands to penetrate her while she was too drunk to consent, By [sic] Ohio law, such a crime constitutes rape, as it does in many places.” The boys, as the GMA article notes, “face incarceration in a detention center until their 21st birthdays and the almost-certain demise of their dreams of playing football.”  They didn’t really rape her, it’s just a technicality in the law. They will be ruined. We are to feel sorry for them.

In the movie Hoosiers Myra Fleener (Barbara Hershey) says to the coach, “You know, a basketball hero around here is treated like a god… I’ve seen them, the real sad ones. They sit around the rest of their lives talking about the glory days when they were seventeen years old.” Like the town in Hoosiers, Steubenville is pinning the highest of their hopes onto the shoulders of teenagers, vicariously reliving glory days through high schoolers. It’s appalling that the main focus of the town is preserving what’s left of its now-wretched reputation, not what can they do to help this girl and how to prevent future incidents. Perhaps a better response would be one similar to that of Vancouver, B.C. Their “Don’t Be That Guy” campaign saw a 10% reduction in sexual assaults in 2011.

Instead, the town of Steubenville put up a website called Steubenville Facts for the sole purpose of damage control – for themselves. The day before the trial began city leaders called a press conference, where “City Manager Cathy Davison began the conference by telling those gathered that the conference was about the city, not the trial, and defended the city against negative press.” Anger and denial will heal neither the impossibly wide rift dividing Steubenville nor the nation’s opinion of it. This is a town so blinded by the glare of stadium lights they are unable to see the fact that it is their callousness and refusal to believe any of their own could be capable of such a heinous act that the rest of the country finds so unfathomable.

In an ideal world we would read stories outlining the difficulties that lie ahead for the victim. We’d hear about what a great student she is, which extracurricular activities she likes, how she loves to sing and dance and doodle in the margins of her notebook. We’d discover her dreams for the future. Writers and pundits and news anchors would implore us to show compassion.  And we’d learn that the town where it happened had rallied around her, doing what they could to help begin her healing process.

The reality of all of these articles is that this isn’t just about Ohio. It’s also about survivors sitting at home watching the events unfold, reading these things. It’s a harsh reminder of the difference between how victims and survivors of sexual violence are regarded versus perpetrators. For those who are unsure about revealing the what happened to them, these interviews and articles illustrate that speaking up and telling the truth is an exercise in futility. For all of us these articles tell us that our lives don’t matter nearly as much as the lives of the perpetrators. A brightly lit scoreboard and a shiny trophy in a glass case are more important. The silence coming from all of us is deafening. Then again, that’s the point, isn’t it?