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A Different Way to Think About the Steubenville Rape

March 19, 2013
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This post is late because I couldn’t decide whether or not to write it.

I had originally planned to write about the fact that R and I are preparing to adopt a puppy. It was going to be a super funny piece on how two people agree on what the animal they intend to share the next 12-16 years with should look like (spoiler alert: they don’t), but I couldn’t stop reading and thinking about the Steubenville rape case. I didn’t want to write about it because I didn’t want to be just another non-lawyer, non-detective, non-psychologist, non rape victim weighing in on an issue that even those people are struggling to evaluate. Then I realized that not talking about the Steubenville rape case is the last thing anyone involved or uninvolved need. So, here I am with what may be a rather unorthodox way to understand what happened, and even more importantly, to understand how the nation reacted.

The very first thing that popped into my head when I heard about the divisive responses to the rape and boys now determined responsible was, “what if that girl had been a boy.” It’s a strange question to ask, I know, but it’s the same pattern of thought I go to when any instance remotely like this hits the news. What if we removed the gender from it? What if these were two sexless beings committing these acts against each other? Let’s remove age too. Imagine their age is totally unknown. How would everything change?

Let’s do it. Let’s pretend that Trent Mays (17) and Ma’lik Richmond (16) actually raped a drunk, straight boy of any age. This boy drank excessively at a series of parties. Many people witnessed this boy become visibly impaired by the alcohol to the point of being slouched over, eyes closed. There are pictures of it, in fact. People reported that he was non-responsive at several points during the night. Forget about whether or not Trent, Ma’lik or this boy are gay. Just remove that from the equation. Imagine that they penetrated him with their fingers, just as they did to the girl in the real version. Then try to picture the exact same story unfolding.

You can’t, right? And it’s not just because straight boys don’t rape each other (fyi, they do) or because Trent and Ma’lik are not gay. It’s because there would be NO question about whether or not it was rape because this boy would never consent to what Trent and Ma’lik were doing, and – and here’s the important part – those two boys would never assume that they had consent. I can’t understand why they assumed they had consent from the 16-year-old drunk girl, but I think it has everything to do with the fact that she was a 16-year-old drunk girl, and nothing to do with her actual rights as a human, woman, man or otherwise.

I know it’s impossible to remove the sexes from the sex. When these cases unfold our minds go to the fact that men uncontrollably desire sex (especially high school boys), and so it is “understandable” that they might be driven to do what they did (make no mistake, it is not) and be confused about whether or not they had consent (I believe they did not). Young people see sex acts happen before their eyes all the time, so many people wouldn’t assume something was wrong, or wouldn’t say anything even if they did. And teenagers drink so much that they’re often unable to discern what’s happening to their bodies. All of those facts are true, but they’re all about the sex act and not at all about state of the other person it’s happening with. They’re all about the motivation of the rapist and not the rights of the victim.

That’s why we have to pretend that the victim is anything but a 16-year-old drunk girl. Because “of course” a boy would want to take sex from a 16-year-old drunk girl, no matter what it takes.

So try again. You don’t even have to pretend it’s a straight male. Picture a 10-year-old girl, a 55-year-old woman, or a 75-year-old grandparent. Imagine questioning any one of those other people about whether or not they said “no” loudly and clearly enough? Imagine asking whether or not they were totally passed out or just sorta passed out. Now think about how that changes your view of this entire story.

I know this story involves thousands of details that my little mental experiment doesn’t take into account, but I don’t care. I’m not here to weigh in on the legality of it all. I’m only concerned with whether or not there is any version of this story that supports the fact that this specific 16-year-old girl wanted what she got from these two high school boys. And I find that the minute I think of her as a genderless, age-less human being – anything but a drunk 16-year-old girl – the answer is crystal clear.


  1. I’m glad you decided to write this Jessie! I’m so tired of hearing people (in this case and others) get caught up in “shades of rape” debates that result in partial or full blame being placed on the victim.

    Also, puppy pics or it didn’t happen.

  2. I’m glad you wrote this post. To me gender or age doesn’t come into play at all. I could imagine both the victim and offenders at a variety or ages and genders. I don’t understand how being someone that drinks suddenly qualifies you as being a certain type of person who gives consent by not being loud enough/obvious enough/direct enough etc. in your objection. In fact, intoxication to me actually makes people MORE vulnerable. The offenders in this case were taking advantage of someone who was vulnerable. There was a comment I read somewhere that summed it up very nicely by saying, “Consent is not the absence of no, but the presence of yes.”

  3. I agree 100% with the answer being “crystal clear.” Rape is rape. Sexual abuse is sexual abuse. You can’t get around it by trying to blame the victim. Another factor occurs to me. What if the date-rape drug was placed in the 16-year-old’s drink? Happens a lot.

  4. Thanks for writing about this! As a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) I love when anyone brings attention to these issues! When someone is intoxicated, they are unable to give consent. Period. Doesn’t matter her age, how “passed out” she was, or even if she was holding one of their hands at one point. Hand-holding does not equal consent for sex.

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