One of every six American women has experienced rape (completed or attempted), yet few of the incidents ever get reported. If you followed the courtroom activities a few years ago during the Steubenville, Ohio rape trial in which two high school football players were convicted of raping a 16-year-old girl at several end-of-the-year parties, it’s easy to understand why so few women come forward.
After the evidence is presented, questioning often turns to attacking the alleged victim’s credibility. In this case, how much had the teenage victim had to drink? Could she remember the events of the evening? Was she known for lying?
And then when attacking the victim got old, defense attorneys turned the spotlight to the parents of the students who hosted the parties. Why weren’t they there to prevent the rape?
This tendency to try and place blame for rape anywhere but on the rapist speaks volumes about our society’s attitudes towards women. It is clear that many men and, as this case reminds us, boys in our macho culture do not respect women. These teens were just one more example of the pervasive belief that women and girls are sexual objects to be used and abused.
In the Steubenville case, the victim bravely took the stand for more than an hour. She was subjected to a barrage of questions trying to insinuate that she somehow brought the rape upon herself. As it is in most rape trials, the burden fell on the female to prove her innocence, rather than where it should be — on the boys and men who rape and assault women.
At least in this example the victim’s public humiliation in the courtroom led to consequences for the perpetrators. Trent Mays, 17, and Ma’lik Richmond, 16, will both serve time in a juvenile detention center for at least a year (Mays will serve an extra year for having uploaded nude pictures of the victim to the Internet.). But often times in our sports culture, particularly in towns like Steubenville where football teams are revered and its players celebrated, it is easy to lose sight of the fact boys and men should be held accountable. In this case they were. However, jail time is not the solution for this epidemic cultural problem. The answer lies in changing male attitudes about women, starting when boys are young, whether or not they ever play sports or become super stars.
During a series of media interviews, Zerlina Maxwell, a rape survivor and advocate for changing this culture where males are blameless, offered a five-point plan to teach boys to respect girls and women and not to rape.
(An expanded version is in Ebony Magazine):
- Teach young men about legal consent. Legal consent tops my list for a reason. Without it, sexual contact with someone is rape…whether you intended to rape or not. A woman who is drunk, unconscious or sleeping cannot give legal consent. And it’s not about a woman simply saying “no,” it’s really about making certain she’s saying yes!
- Teach young men to see women’s humanity, instead of seeing them as sexual objects for male pleasure. There is a reason why women are shamed into silence and why teenage boys in Steubenville, Ohio are caught on camera laughing about gang raping an unconscious girl at a party. The dehumanization of women spans all areas of American life.
- Teach young men how to express healthy masculinity. The question that’s being asked about what women can do to prevent violence against them is the wrong question. It’s not what can a woman say or do that can prevent being attacked. We need to turn that paradigm upside down. We need to focus on the messages that men are getting and about how they relate to women.
- Teach young men to believe women and girls who come forward. The vast majority of women do not report their rapes to the police. Many more only tell one or two people in confidence.
- Teach males about bystander intervention. When we talk about bystander intervention, it’s more about simply intervening when you see someone doing or about to do something wrong…Our young men shouldn’t shift uncomfortably when a peer jokes about bringing home a drunk classmate who can’t possibly give verbal consent; they should know to speak up and to do all they can to prevent it from happening — even when it simply seems like a vague possibility.
These messages should be part of conversations with our sons and repeated frequently. They should be part of school sex education or health programs. Society must move away from exalting tough guys and sports heroes and blaming the victims.
The Steubenville case centers on high school boys, however, most boys today go on to college. Sexual assault is a major issue in higher education circles including our elite colleges and universities: Harvard reports it, too, has a problem. And in March, Princeton released survey numbers. The headline: “In 2008 survey, 1 in 6 female undergraduates reported non-consensual vaginal penetration.”
I don’t believe the outcome of one trial will change centuries of attitudes toward women. Where women are concerned, we need to reeducate boys who will become men.