The Steubenville Apologists

KATIE ZINSER expresses sadness and disgust at certain responses to the Steubenville rape incident.

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Warning: this article contains an image that some may find distressing.


The Steubenville rape has provoked controversy across America and across the world. The widespread outrage is more than understandable. At the end of August 2012 in a town in Ohio, two teenage boys dragged a girl’s limp, drunken body from party to party, during which time she was raped and repeatedly sexually assaulted. Photos and videos were taken, during which the boys were laughing, cheered on by onlookers, and sharing drunken banter about how ‘dead’ the girl looked. Horrified? I certainly was.

Apparently, a lot of people do not share this disgust. Comments on social networking sites following the event have been appalling: “That’s not rape you’re just a loose drunk slut,” read one tweet. Perhaps even more worrying are the responses of the mainstream American press, particularly the disgraceful report by CNN in which Poppy Harlow focuses only on the damage inflicted on the futures of these poor, young rapists.

Poppy Harlow, if not necessarily a rape apologist, was clearly taken in by the emotional drama of the courtroom. A few tears here and there, a “heartfelt” apology to the victim’s family and some demonstrations of remorse are apparently enough to lead a supposedly intelligent female journalist to preoccupy herself with the fate of these “promising” young men. If Poppy Harlow took the time to think, she would have realised that any man who commits such acts of evil aggression against a completely helpless young girl is not a “promising” human being. Heck, they may be half-decent at chucking a football around, but this does not detract even minutely from their appalling actions. Ultimately, these men were sorry because they were punished. Posting photos online of the victim’s naked body being dragged around hardly smacks of remorse.

Nor is their youth an adequate excuse. Richmond’s lawyer, Walter Madison, argued against their sentence based on the fact that their brains weren’t fully developed. These rapists are indeed young; let us not forget, however, that they are adult enough to drink alcohol. They are adult enough to rape. They are adult enough to face adult consequences for their sickening actions.

A chilling image of the victim’s body being manhandled

The CNN written report contains the same sexist undertones, if perhaps subtler. If you were to look at the quotes offered from each parent – the mother of the victim and the father of the rapist – you’d be forgiven for thinking that CNN had got them the wrong way round. “I think she’s really happy that this is over and, remember, she is a 16-year-old girl still and she’s a high school student”, the victim’s mother was quoted saying. Meanwhile, Ma’lik Richmond’s father gushingly informed the press that his son was doing OK (as if we were concerned), and that he “told Ma’lik to put all his trust in God. God will see him through this. I told him that I love him, basically. And to be strong”. CNN also reiterate the girl’s drunkenness and her inability to remember anything, as if calling into question her own accountability.

On that note, I want to take this opportunity to dispel this culture of pinning the blame on a woman for being too drunk. Being drunk does not turn girls into ‘sluts’. Being drunk does not maximise a girl’s desire to have sex with random men. Being drunk reduces a girl’s ability to say no, to think coherently, and to defend herself. Why are we not holding these men accountable for what they did whilst drunk? After all, that was part of their defence. It is outrageous that in this century I even have to point out that maybe we ought to focus on educating men on how to stop being rapists, as opposed to educating women on how to stop being victims.

This problem is not far from home. I have heard from a girl in Nottingham who was the victim of attempted sexual abuse by a taxi driver, who decided that she was drunk enough to merit being aggressively fingered against her will. Even closer to home: last term in Life, after I told a boy I was not interested and had a boyfriend, he proceeded to shove his hand up my skirt. A close friend has had a similar experience. Nor is the Steubenville case an isolated one: these kind of events happen all the time, except that in this case, the two rapists happened to be caught because they thought they were invincible enough to post photos of the incident on the internet. It is sickening to hear first-hand stories from women I care about about their experiences of non-consensual sex, usually with boys and men who have sought to take advantage of the vulnerability that youth and drunkenness entail. This cannot go on.

Until people begin to understand the severity of sexual assault and rape, this will continue. Of course, many of us realise perfectly well, and are horrified by both the Steubenville incident and CNN’s response to it. As women, we do need to be realistic and try to protect ourselves from the sad reality of the world, but this does not mean that we should be defeatist. The apologist attitude of mainstream media outlets, with its sympathy towards these two rapists, is harming our cause in a serious way. Perhaps human instinct is to feel sympathy for two young men pathetically sobbing and proclaiming their remorse in court. However, when this sympathy causes people to lose sight of the severity of their actions and the effects these actions have on the victim, then we have a very serious problem at hand.