I know this is not the sunny St. Patrick’s post that I was anticipating writing but I’ve got something else on the brain. I’m about to get a little more serious than I normally am on this blog so I’d like to extend a caution to anyone reading who might be triggered by reading a graphic post about sexual violence.
In a world full of troubling things, very little has been as troubling for me as the Steubenville rape case. I’m not going to use this space to rehash the very public and explicit details of the case. All of that information is available online. I recommend extra care be taken if you decide to read or investigate farther. I have been a hospital advocate for rape survivors for three years and have heard some incredibly difficult things – this still turned my stomach in a really big way.
So why am I talking about this? Today, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond were found guilty of rape and sentenced to a minimum of one year in a youth correctional facility. Mays will serve an additional year for the transmission of nude photographs of a minor. Both Mays and Richmond will be registered sex offenders. Read the news story here. I don’t know about you but that feels like two rapists just practically got away with it. As someone who has been personally affected by sexual violence, I’ve got to say…this doesn’t feel like real justice. But as I’ve been ruminating on this today, a few things have come up for me. So here they are, the reasons I think the Steubenville Ruling is really important:
1. Rape almost never gets punished. I mean, like…almost ever. According to RAINN, only 3 out of 100 rapists will ever spend a day in prison for their crime. 3%. In fact, I am hard-pressed to think of an example of a recent rape conviction off the top of my head. So seeing two perpetrators legally convicted and sentenced for their crimes is a pretty cathartic experience for me.
2. This particular case contradicts some of our culture’s favorites lies about sexual violence: “It’s not rape if she’s drunk,” “It’s not rape if it wasn’t physically violent,” “It’s not rape if he didn’t penetrate her with his penis,” “It’s not rape if she has a reputation,” “It’s not rape if you know the person,” “It’s not rape if you were just joking around,” “It’s not rape if she didn’t say ‘no…” To have a situation like the one in Steubenville held up as an example of sexual assault is important because it loudly says that these above statements are false, false, false. The Steubenville ruling calls attention to all kinds of rape myths.
3. It holds young people accountable for their actions. The heartbreaking truth is that Mays and Richmond are kids. They’re not “hardened criminals” or serial killers. They’re children. As a (hopefully) future parent, I am seeing the ways in which kids are not being held responsible for their choices. I can’t imagine what these boys’ parents must be feeling right now but I am thankful for the Steubenville ruling because more young men and young women need to see actual consequences for sexual violence.
4. Because sexual violence is happening. It’s happening to people we know. It’s happening in our schools and churches and communities. And the reality is, something like 54% of those instances went unreported last year and probably 54% will go unreported this year. So the Steubenville ruling, the stupidly little bit of jail time Mays and Richmond will get, the conviction, the sentence – it matters. Especially if just one more woman, one more man, one more child, feels empowered enough to come forward and say, “This happened to me and it’s not okay and I don’t have to be quiet about it because rape is wrong and rapists get punished.”
5. Maybe one of the most powerful lessons to come out of the Steubenville trial is this pervasive image of the bystander. I was so struck by this paragraph in the news article I read today [emphases are mine]:
"It wasn't violent," explained teammate Evan Westlake when asked why he didn't stop the two defendants as they abused a non-moving girl that Westlake knew to be highly intoxicated. "I always pictured it as forcing yourself on someone." […]
At one point of the night of the incident, Westlake, who was sober, determined that his friend Mark Cole was too drunk to make a 10-minute drive home. At first, Cole refused to turn over his keys, claiming he could operate his Volkswagen Jetta just fine. Westlake was undeterred, though, eventually "tricking" Cole by waiting for him to relax and then forcibly seizing the keys.
Yet maybe a half-hour later, Westlake walked in on the girl, sprawled out naked in the middle of a basement floor. To her side was Mays, exposed and slapping his penis on the girl's hip. Behind her was Richmond, who, Westlake said, was violating her with two fingers.
Westlake said goodbye to the guys and kept walking. A good friend with his eye on the safety of others just minutes before was suddenly unaware or unsure of what to do – or simply uncaring enough to do anything at all.
If Steubenville can teach us anything, it’s that the bystander has power to change the course of events. I would like to believe that most teenagers, or just people, who witnessed this moment would know that it was wrong, that it shouldn’t have been happening. But how many of them would be able to act? How many would know what to say? How many of them would be brave enough? We are all responsible for our own choices and Evan Westlake made a choice to keep his mouth shut. He has to own that for the rest of his life. But what a picture we are left with! The bystander who could have made the difference for this girl. And did nothing. I don’t honestly know why Evan Westlake made that choice. And yet, I am filled with a sense of renewed purpose. If I could speak right now with my future children, if I could offer them something to make them braver, to guide them, I would say, If you see something happening that shouldn’t be happening, say something. You are powerful. Your voice matters. Everyone’s voice matters. And if someone has their voice taken away, HELP THEM GET IT BACK.