Clearing the Water on Rape

steubenville protest

A lot of people have wondered over the last eight months, and especially the last few weeks, how teenagers in Steubenville, Ohio, could witness someone being raped and not do anything about it. But we know why. Of course we do. They watched as she was raped because we haven’t taught them otherwise. Not as parents. Not as friends. Not as a society. We’ve let the waters remain muddy, and some of us have muddied the water ourselves.

Over the last year, I’ve come to know three survivors of rape and their stories intimately. Some, I featured on my blog. In each case, the perpetrator did not seem to know he’d committed rape. One tossed a friendly wave at his victim from across campus the day after the incident; another texted his victim a detailed apology–ie., confession of a felony, indicating he probably didn’t know he’d committed a felony. (Despite said confession—“I was too drunk to realize you were saying ‘No’”—the man was not brought to trial due to lack of evidence.)

There’s a fantastically sarcastic piece on Gawker by Mallory Ortberg in which she writes of the Steubenville football players: “Your ability to perform calculus or play football is generally not taken into consideration in a court of law. Should you prefer to be known as ‘Good student and excellent football player Trent Mays’ rather than ‘Convicted sex offender Trent Mays,’ try stressing the studying and tackling and giving the sex crimes a miss altogether.”

It’s tempting to write these guys off as assholes. Many men do not rape; if those men learned how to avoid becoming sex offenders, then surely Mays, Richmond, and the thousands of other rapists could have as well.

But consider, again, the bystanders. Add them to the whole mess and we have a crisis of definition, not only of rape but of consent as well. The waters are so muddy, we can’t see halfway to the bottom.

Candy Crowley and others got a lot of grief about their compassionate coverage on CNN of the conviction of the two Steubenville boys, lamenting the ruination of the young lives. But what I found most striking were these words of Crowley’s: “two young men…found guilty, in juvenile court, of rape, essentially.

Well, no. Just plain “rape” will do. It wasn’t “sort-of rape” or “the essence of rape.” It was rape.

Because, as we all should know, rape is the penetration of anyone, anywhere on their body, by anything. So, the fingers of Mays and Richmond into the vagina of the victim count, Candy.

Gosh, if an esteemed CNN journalist didn’t know, I think it might be safe to assume that the two boys who raped the girl might not have known, either. This does not excuse them. It just adds ignorance to their hubris, to their willingness to violate and humiliate a fellow human being, no matter the legal definition.

One bystander, when asked why he didn’t stop the rape, said, “It wasn’t violent.” Another boy who videotaped the assault said afterward he did it because he was, “Being stupid. Not making the right choices. I don’t really have a reason.”

Had he, and the others, been watching the stereotypical stranger-with-a-knife raping the girl, he probably would not have whipped out his video camera. Someone probably would have called police.

It’s got to be hard to rationalize that the same boy you sit next to in Algebra 101 is the same one raping a girl right in front of you. It would be less hard if we made it clear that about 84% of women who are raped know their assailant.* It would be less hard if we had no such distinction as “acquaintance rape.” If we have any distinction at all, it should be “stranger rape.”

Crowley’s addition of a cupful of mud to the water, on national television, regarding the definition of rape is almost imperceptible (all the more dangerous, I say). More overt are the bucketfuls of mud dumped by May’s and Richmond’s defense attorneys. Their two-tiered attack on the definitions of rape and consent are scattered among our various newspapers and on television, stating that the victim never actually said the word, “No” and “There’s probably a lot of indiscretion on her part as well.”  An intelligent and compassionate lawyer I know told me that though this defense is reprehensible, the lawyers were just “doing their job.”

I wonder where that argument ends and responsibility begins. I mean, if young people see those defenses being said out loud by adults, written in newspapers, and stated in court, aren’t they going to see them as legitimate arguments instead of what they are—dangerous and irrelevant arguments? Because, it doesn’t matter if she did not say no. Lack of consent does not mean saying, “No.” It means NOT SAYING YES. Being unconscious or asleep is a lack of consent. Being too drunk is a lack of consent. And, as long as we’re clearing the water, being too drunk does not mean, “Shit, I made a poor decision. You may rape me.”

Those defense lawyers know all this, but instead, to do their job, they decided to turn the victim into a whore at worst, someone who wanted it when she was sober anyway at best. They decided to play on the age-old misperceptions of what rape and consent are. Misperceptions that contributed to all those teenagers watching a rape and doing nothing but laugh and record it.

boy-spray-paintingLet’s make sure boys and girls, and men and women, know what consent means, that “No means no” doesn’t cover it. That consent is indicated by saying, “Yes.”

Let’s make sure they know that rape is the penetration of anyone, anywhere on his/her body, by anything, without affirmative consent.

Women are often warned, as if the responsibility rests solely on their shoulders, that if they drink too much, bad things might happen to them. Let’s warn the men, too. As in, “If you drink too much, you might think it’s okay to stick your penis or finger or marker inside the girl passed out next to you. You might even think it’s funny. But guess what? If you do that, it’s a felony.”

As a blogger, I can check my site statistics. These include all the various search terms people enter in a given day that end up leading them to my blog. One of the most recurring search terms I find is, “Was I raped.”

Let’s clear the water and make sure they—and their rapists and any bystanders—never have to wonder again.

* Source: “Rape in America: A Report to the Nation.”

7 thoughts on “Clearing the Water on Rape

  1. Thank you for this most awesome, eye opening, and frightening article. I’m afraid that as I’ve aged (55 yo now) and my son as grown and married, I’ve not been as active or vigilant as I should have. Tell me what to do, where do I sign up?


    1. Rowena, thank you for your interest and concern–there are many good organizations out there. I’m not sure where you live; here in Chicago, a great one is CAASE–Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation ( I profiled Rachel Durschlag, the founder, in Rebellious Magazine last year and they are doing wonderful, wonderful things for victims of rape and the sex trade.

      And of course — share this information, share the article, and shout it far and wide! Talking about rape–what it is and isn’t–is one of the best things parents and grandparents can do.


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