< Rape Culture and the Steubenville Trial


Friday, March 22, 2013

BOB GARFIELD:  From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is away this week. I’m Bob Garfield.

FEMALE CORRESPONDENT:  We begin this hour with a verdict in the Steubenville sexual assault case. Just about an hour ago, a judge in the Ohio steel town delivered the verdict.

BOB GARFIELD:  Last Sunday saw a guilty verdict in the case of two high school football stars, Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays, who were accused of raping a 16-year-old girl in Steubenville, Ohio. For six hours the severely intoxicated victim was dragged from party to party by a number of her peers, a humiliating journey photographed and joked about by the accused and others on sites such as Instagram and Twitter. The case became a national media event when these posts on social media were later used against the accused in court. This is CNN’s Poppy Harlow:

POPPY HARLOW:  This tweet from a partygoer reads, “Song of the night is definitely ‘Rape Me’ by Nirvana.’” Other tweets called the girl sloppy and talk about a dead body, referring to the girl’s state of unconsciousness.

BOB GARFIELD:  But once the verdict came in, the media quickly became part of the story. First, there was outrage over the live on-the-scene coverage of the verdict, from CNN's Harlow again, for dwelling on the misfortune for the convicted rapists.

POPPY HARLOW:  As these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as, as they believe their life fell apart. One of, one of the young men, Ma’lik Richmond, when that sentence came down, he collapsed. He collapsed in the arms of his attorney, Walter Madison. He said to him, “My life is over, no one is going to want me now.”

BOB GARFIELD:  By the next day, MSNBC, FOX News and CNN had all inadvertently broadcast the name of the teenage victim, contrary to journalistic standards of anonymity for both children and rape victims. And social media quickly became part of the story again, after the verdict, when sympathy for the rapists echoed around the Twittersphere, including threats against the victim. Here’s Headline News Network’s Kyra Phillips:

KYRA PHILLIPS:  Listen to these tweets:  “You ripped my family apart, you made my cousin cry, so when I see you – bleep – it’s gonna be a homicide.” And here’s one more: “I’ll celebrate by beating the expletive out of Jane Doe.”

BOB GARFIELD:  For all the horror and emotion engendered by Steubenville, the episode created an opportunity for reflection about the culture of impunity for athletes, the culture of casual misogyny among youth and the overall society’s persistent ambivalence about sexual violence. Some commentators wondered this week whether Steubenville is a crossroads or a blip. Amanda Marcotte who writes for Slate’s XX Factor blog acknowledges the signals are mixed but sees a reason for hope.

AMANDA MARCOTTE:  Absolutely. I mean, I'm seeing more discussion than I ever have before in the mainstream media about the cultural context in which rape happens. A lot more people are talking about what happened, not as a few bad apples making bad choices, so much as talking about the culture of male entitlement, athletics, the sort of societal support for rapists over their victims and victim-blaming that allows rape to continue. And this is going on in a way that I’ve never quite seen before.

Also, I'm beginning to see a lot more people talking about rape as an act of humiliation and an act of dominance, and the traditional discussion where many people assume that rape is a matter of a man just having too much sexual desire and acting out that way - I'm not really seen that as much a part of this discussion as it usually is.

BOB GARFIELD:  How do you reconcile that with the reaction in Steubenville itself over the course of the investigation and the prosecution, where much of the community rallied around these young men who were accused of these crimes and a kind of virtual Steubenville online, which evinced similar sympathy for the boys and a lot of blame on the teenage victim of this prolonged night of rape and humiliation?

AMANDA MARCOTTE:  With Steubenville, it's not unsurprising. I think the closer people are to the crime, often the more tendency there is to blame the victim and exonerate the rapist. And the reason is pretty simple. We don't want to believe that our community creates rapists, our direct community. So when we discover, when we have evidence presented in front of us that it’s the way our culture is and, in this case, the way that Steubenville is, with the teenage entitlement, the football worship, the sort of giving these young men a blank check to do whatever they want, Steubenville’s been confronted with evidence that this kind of behavior creates rape and that is something that is very difficult to believe, that is very difficult to understand.

And so, the natural reaction for a lot of people is to just deny it and blame the victim for speaking out, instead of blame the rapists, and to blame themselves for letting this happen.

BOB GARFIELD:  Cognitive dissonance, in other words.


BOB GARFIELD:  Now, I want to bring up the CNN coverage. You've seen the tape in which Correspondent Poppy Harlow and Anchor Candy Crawley have a conversation which is astonishingly sympathetic of the young men who have been convicted and their plight and whether their lives have been ruined, and so on, just a jaw-dropping episode. Do you think this undermines your best hopes for where the culture is, or is just cable TV being cable, reporting on what it’s seeing at the moment in the moment?

AMANDA MARCOTTE:  You know, I honestly don’t think Candy Crowley and Poppy Harlow meant to do that. I think it was in large part just because that was exactly what was happening right now. And it is hard watching a couple of teenage boys cry like that, and they lost themselves for a moment. And I think the reason that they did is because that our culture has not really completely absorbed the message that rape is a horrific crime in every single instance, that it becomes easy to start sliding over into sympathizing with the rapists in this situation.

That said, what happened after the CNN report was there was this complete outpouring of anger at them for this and for not mentioning the victim. A number of media outlets criticized them for it. There's a change.org petition against them for it. So I think there was so much anger and overwhelming criticism of the CNN segment that I do kind of feel like people are really, truly beginning to get it.

BOB GARFIELD:  Amanda, thank you very much.

AMANDA MARCOTTE:  No, thank you.

BOB GARFIELD:  Amanda Marcotte writes for Slate’s XX Factor  blog.


Amanda Marcotte

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