The night of August 11, 2012, was inconsequential for most in Steubenville, Ohio. It was a warm, balmy Saturday night. With the beginning of the school year and a new football season quickly approaching, it was to be a night of celebration for high school students in Steubenville. And for many involved in the events that transpired, it was a celebratory time. But for one 16-year-old girl from Weirton, a neighboring town in West Virginia, it would be life-shattering.
This young girl was raped by two high school football players from Steubenville that night. She was intoxicated at the time of the assaults, transported unconsciously and carried by the perpetrators from party to party. She was first assaulted in the backseat of a car on the way to a witness’ home. One of the assailants, Trent Mays, vaginally penetrated the girl with his fingers after taking her shirt off and exposing her breasts, all the while his friends photographed and videotaped the incident. When they arrived at the witness’ house, Mays attempted to orally rape the girl by forcing his penis into her mouth. A second assailant Ma’lik Richmond, also penetrated the girl’s naked, unconscious body with his fingers. The girl testified that she remembered only a brief moment of the night in question, in which she was vomiting in the street. She awoke naked, confused and unaware of the violations that occurred the preceding night, but deeply worried that something horrible had happened.
Almost as disgusting as the acts themselves were the comments made via text and social networking sites such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. “I shoulda raped her now that everybody thinks I did,” Mays texted friends. Michael Nodianos, a former Steubenville baseball player, tweeted, “Some girls just deserve to be peed on,” in reference to the victim. This statement was retweeted by none other than Mays himself, along with several other peers. “I have no sympathy for whores,” another friend tweeted. A short video was later posted on YouTube, in which Nodianos and his friends discuss the incident in a lighthearted, jovial tone. “They raped her quicker than Mike Tyson raped that one girl,” Nondianos joked. “They peed on her. That’s how you know she’s dead, because someone pissed on her.” In another text, Mays described the 16-year-old girl as “deader than Caylee Anthony.” A photograph posted on Instagram showed the victim, seemingly unconscious, being carried by her wrists and ankles by two teenage boys.
While social media served to humiliate the victim, it also played an integral role in exposing the crimes of these men and the subsequent cover-up. It’s also clear that a large amount of national outrage has been fostered, in part due to the efforts of Anonymous, particularly KnightSec, an offshoot of the hacker collective. In December 2012, KnightSec hacked into an unaffiliated website and posted a message, demanding that the school officials and local authorities involved in the cover-up come forward and apologize for their actions. Anonymous released a subsequent video on the web, threatening to leak the names of alleged participants if these demands were not met. Deric Lostutter, one of the Anonymous hackers involved in the incident was later raided by the FBI.
Both Mays and Richmond were convicted as minors on March 17, 2013. Both were given the minimum sentences for their crimes. Richmond was released in early January due to good behavior, having served less than a year. Mays was given two years in juvenile detention on the count of his possession and dissemination of illicit pictures of the underage girl, constituting child pornography. If these sentences seem astonishingly light considering the circumstances, it’s because they are. The seriousness of the rape charges in this case is further undermined by the fact that Lostutter, the very activist who leaked evidence that led to the rapists’ conviction, now faces more prison time than the rapists he helped to expose.
The alleged cover-up is still being investigated. A special grand jury was convened to determine if the coach and other school officials were involved. A series of indictments followed. Thus far, several officials have been indicted with crimes such as obstruction of justice, evidence tampering and perjury. Astonishingly, Steubenville City Schools’ superintendent Michael McVey was indicted with several chargesrelated to an entirely different rape case.
Rape is not an easy topic to write about. For the victim, it is a complete loss of control. It is a sick, horrendous violation of personhood. For the attacker, it’s a thoughtless fulfillment of the basest of sexual urges. It is a blatant lack of human recognition, a proverbial spitting in the face of everything upon which society is founded. It is indefensible. But of course, it’s more than that. Beyond the conceptual notion of rape is the actuality, an unspoken truth that one simply cannot express the horror and despair that comes along with such a traumatic, shattering event, all the more so when the victim is forced to relive the horror via social networking gossip. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it.
Philosopher Immanuel Kant formulated the following maxim: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means”. And what is rape but the ultimate betrayal of this very idea? Rape is treating a person as a means to an end — in this instance, sexual gratification — rather than an end in and of his or herself. It sounds abstract, but it really isn’t. It is a practical, almost intuitive sense of morality that dictates we must treat one another as people, not as objects, play things for mere amusement. So why is it that I had never heard of this maxim until my sophomore year in college? Why is it that boys are not routinely instilled with this value? Instead, they are taught that might makes right, that physical prowess is the key to life. They are instilled with the idea that a woman’s place is on the sidelines, that women are secondary to men, essentially.
In the clash between privacy and justice, where is the line? To what ends can one justify breaking the law, when it is indeed the law itself that is failing our society — or perhaps the human application of law. It is, after all, a human world in which we live, full of imperfect beings with their own biases and preconceptions. That is why we have a justice system with a clear set of standards in which the accused are innocent until proven guilty. But in a town where football players are routinely held up as the masculine standard, is it any wonder that something like this occurred? When culture gives such gravitas to a mere game, heralding boys as heroes, cherishing physicality over intellect, it is a sure thing that monsters will be created. That is what’s occurring all over the country. When a town rallies behind rapists, indeed defending their beloved football players despite an overwhelming heap of evidence, it is clear that the game is rigged.
The morally relevant distinction between child and adult here is not the number of years these men have lived on this earth, but perhaps a quality of innocence distinctly lacking in them, as evidenced by their crimes. These high school football players committed heinous, adult-natured crimes and should have been tried as such. Their remorse is irrelevant. Their future football careers are completely beside the point. The damage they caused this girl cannot be undone. They should be in prison for a good portion of their lives and they should be labeled as sex offenders wherever they go for the entirety of their small existence. This is what ought to happen to rapists. Instead, one is free and the other will be incarcerated for merely another year, while a Good Samaritan faces potentially 10 years in prison for helping to shed light on their despicable acts.
A culture that condones rape is simply not worth preserving. A society that defends rapists and blames victims is one that ought to be admonished. That is a wrong that Anonymous attempted to make right in Steubenville. When the justice system fails, it creates a need for vigilantism. And let’s be clear: The justice system in Steubenville has failed tremendously. This is precisely what compelled KnightSec to act. But considering the circumstances, this ought not be considered a victory for Anonymous, but rather a small outflanking of sorts. When a convicted rapist goes free after less than a year, something is terribly wrong. But the paradigm is changing. We are taking part in an age that has the potential for moral evolution beyond rape culture, beyond the victim blaming, beyond the rape apologists. Unfortunately for the victim, it isn’t changing quickly enough. She will go about life knowing that an entire town valued athletics over her welfare. There are no words for that kind of anguish.
David Stockdale is a writer from the south suburbs of Chicago. His op-ed essays have been featured in AND Magazine, and his short stories have appeared in Bartleby Snopes, Electric Rather, The Commonline Journal and Behind Closed Doors literary blog. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and his URL is http://davidstockdale.tumblr.com/.