This Is How We Shatter Rape Culture

What happened in Steubenville can’t keep happening.

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Today, a local scandal goes national for the second time when the trial of alleged rapists Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays is opened up – with media in the front row. Without relying on the testimony of the victim – who found out she was raped, assaulted, and sodomized via social media and remembers almost nothing of a night of partying with the Big Red football team – we will watch the defense launch an all-out war on women’s agency, claiming date rape doesn’t exist, consent is possible when you’re being dragged around by your limbs from party to party, and even worse: that a 16-year-old girl could possibly “ask” for it when the “it” in question involves Twitter, Facebook, and personal text messages graphically depicting her unconscious and being handled like a corpse by smiling teenage boys.

The defense in this case, comprised of different lawyers hired by each boy’s family, are attempting to shut it down. They asked that the trial be dismissed and spoke out against the victim, claiming her “silence” on the matter proved her lack of innocence. They also pulled up provocative and suggestive social media updates from her in order to, essentially, call her a slut and justify the actions of the alleged rapists and their friends. (All the more reason to be proud of Anonymous for eventually leaking the photos and videos, and even setting up a leaks archive for testimonies and screenshots as evidence of what truly happened that night.)

But we don’t need a trial to know this was wrong. A judge does not need to weigh testimony against photographic evidence of a limp body being violated, a drunk girl being molested, and someone topless laying on the sidewalk potentially covered in urine in order to decipher that someone was violated. To see 16 and 18-year-old dudes laughing in leaked 13-minute videos about how “she’s so dead” and see images of them livetweeting the rape, assault, and sodomy they’re watching their friends commit is disturbing. Rape is what happens when someone is not in control and lacks agency, such as someone who is unconscious, needs help walking and is being carried from party to party, and lies limp while being penetrated by various boys in front of an audience. No matter the verdict of this trial, we know that Mays and Richmond acted in a way that signified a lack of respect for women and girls and a sexualization of women’s bodies that limited their compassion and cut short their humanity. We know they failed to feel guilty for violating and humiliating a teenage girl and using her body as a punch line. We know that that is unacceptable.

Students from Steubenville brave enough to speak out – even anonymously – were few and far between. The ones who have come forward have expressed shock and disgust, as well as guilt for reporting against their friends. One boy who photographed Richmond and Mays violating the girl expressed that they did so “because they were making bad decisions,” and they were trying to embarrass them.

But the problem here doesn’t even begin and end with the teens of this small Ohio town. The problem is, largely, finding adults willing to speak out and stand up for the Jane Doe in this case; finding adults who work in law enforcement and won’t sweep it under the rug. And perhaps the most culpable adults of all are the coaches for the Steubenville High football team.

Steubenville, clinging to its football legacy which “keeps it on the map,” has altogether brushed the “incident” off as “locker room” behavior, using an extreme version of the boys-will-be-boys mentality to protect a group of football players and their friends known now as the “Steubenville Rape Crew.” Mays’ and Richmond’s parents each maintain that their sons are good people, with Mays’ father even protesting in public with a sign saying “Set My People Free.” But with the team’s coaches, the defense runs even deeper.

The first point of involvement in this case for Steubenville’s football coaches lies in the parties this girl was attending with Richmond and Mays – one of which was at the Assistant Coach’s home. He “didn’t like what he saw,” and asked them to leave. But when word finally reached coach Reno Saccoccia of the attacks his boys were allegedly involved in, his reaction was clinging to an angry unwillingness to do any due justice for anyone besides his team, whom he regards as “his sons.” The team, which defines the legacy of an entire town and has thus given Saccoccia much clout as a living legend, denied that they had done anything wrong when he confronted them, although he admittedly “doesn’t do the Internet” and therefore apparently had no idea what they had actually done on it.

Tweets and Facebook posts, as well as Instagram photos and personal messages sent via text, incriminate the boys to a certain degree: various photos surfaced that night, as well as offensive updates on various media that graphically depicted and told the story of what had happened that night. To claim these boys did not think they had raped someone is pretty ludicrous.

Saccoccia, however, doesn’t care about the evidence. He continued to allow Mays and Richmond to play, and refused to bench them until they were arrested and began attending a new school… at prison. When approached by the media, he’s been rude, angry and threatening, telling the New York Times, “You’re going to get yours. And if you don’t get yours, somebody close to you will.”

Nate Hubbard, a Big Red volunteer coach, didn’t have anything more to say either. And when he commented publicly on the situation overall, he basically concluded that the entire thing was made up to sink him and his team by a bunch of anti-athletic monsters:

“The rape was just an excuse, I think,” said the 27-year-old Hubbard, who is No. 2 on the Big Red’s career rushing list.

“What else are you going to tell your parents when you come home drunk like that and after a night like that?” said Hubbard, who is one of the team’s 19 coaches. “She had to make up something. Now people are trying to blow up our football program because of it.”

And that was quite possibly the point where the opportunity for this community to grow out of the consequences of this tragedy was ruined.

Coaches have a unique place in the lives of athletes; not a parent but also a powerful authority figure, they’re often mentors to young boys during their formative years as adolescents and young adults. In high schools, and especially a high school with as much athletic fame as Steubenville’s, coaches are even better positioned than teachers to impart skills, knowledge, and behaviors on their boys. And the coaches of Steubenville High failed.

When athletes are accused of rape – and this is not the first or, unfortunately, the last time – often their teammates and coaches will scramble to defend them. That’s wrong. Athletes receiving preferential treatment is not uncommon and is undeniable at schools across this country, and in the case of Steubenville the safe haven of a team ready to go up to bat to defend two rapists has effectively squashed discussion around the central problem of the case: it doesn’t matter who rapes, or who is raped. It matters that a rape has occurred  and that it occurred on camera and on the Internet and with great pride and joy from those allegedly involved. It matters that when these boys were publicly scrutinized for this behavior, which is undeniably tasteless and violent behavior stemming from probably equally tasteless and violent attitudes toward women, their teammates and coaches defended them publicly and privately. It matters because the only way people learn is by being told the truth – and the truth is that Coach Saccoccia and all of the Steubenville Big Red team should have stood in solidarity with what is right, and not who they know.

On Monday, I launched a public Change.Org petition with Connor Clancy, a student athlete from Colby College. We do a lot of work along the same lines – I’ve been engaged in sexual assault prevention and education for five years, and he’s involved with Colby’s Mules Against Violence, a group for athletes who want to put a stop to violence against women – and overlap based on my affiliation with SPARK, a girls’ empowerment organization founded by Dr. Lyn Mikel Brown of Colby. We came together because Steubenville can’t happen again, and we wanted to put forth a solution: educating coaches about sexual assault prevention.

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Steubenville may not be the last time. And it may take years and years of work for us to achieve a rape-free society, or even a society in which the details of this case horrify and astound across the board instead of being up for debate in a small town or the nation. But the first step toward ending violence, and ensuring situations like these not only stop happening, but also are handled with better care and supervision once they do, is to engage community leaders and to engage men in the fight against rape.

As mentors to young men, coaches help raise entire generations of this country. The National Federation of High School Associations, which oversees 18,500 schools and 11 million high school athletes, offers courses each year to coaches that they must take in order to return to their positions. Connor and I have a simple goal: for the NFHSA to create and offer one program each cycle dedicated to preventing sexual violence by equipping coaches with the necessary tools to talk to their athletes about the issues competently and in sound mind. From what we’ve seen in Steubenville, a course like this could have changed everything: the boys could have felt responsible and accountable and experienced firsthand the shame and disgust of their peers and their hero, and Coach Saccoccia himself maybe could have sat in a classroom and learned exactly what was wrong about what happened that August night in Ohio.

Men need to be engaged in the fight to end violence. We can debate that endlessly, and attempt to disrupt that claim, but it will always stand true. We all need to be engaged, and we all need to take sexual assault seriously. Only when we come together to honor and protect victims and survivors of assault as well as the populations often targeted for sexual violence will we create and foster a world where it no longer happens.

If we take this step toward educating and informing a new generation of men about that world, it’s quite possible they’ll want to live in it.


 

Help eliminate rape in sports culture! You can sign the petition at Change.Org and share it with the hashtag #EducateCoaches.


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Carmen is the Feminism and Straddleverse Editor at Autostraddle, meaning she helps expand your mind and your queer girl clique. She's mother to the most adorable dog on Earth and hates paying more than one dollar for a good slice of pizza. At times, she self-identifies as "the baddest bitch." You should follow her on Twitter and Tumblr because it makes her feel good about herself when people do.

Carmen has written 598 articles for us.

31 Comments

  1. Thumb up 15

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    i grew up in a town dominated by football worship and this entire horrible event felt way too familiar. putting the onus on coaches to better humans and set better examples is such a brilliant approach.

    i hope the program they put in place is created by womennnn.

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      Same here. Football and wrestling.

      I recall one incident vividly. The captain of the wrestling team grabbed my friend’s breast in the hallway between classes in a busy hallway. I shoved him and we commenced fighting. The result? Two days out of school suspension.

      Hey, high school athletics fans, can we stop perpetuating rape culture now? Thanks.

  2. Thumb up 5

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    Carmen, thank you so much for your continued coverage of rape culture lately! This article in particular said everything I want to say when people around me make ignorant comments about situations like this one. Thank you for reminding me how important it is to speak up and point out the gigantic blind spot society has around our own perpetuation of a world where a girl is always at fault for what happens to her.

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    This ties in with what Zerlina Maxwell was saying, we need to teach men not to rape. For young athletes, one of the best people to do that is their coaches because of the outsized importance coaches often have.

    Also, it’s awesome that only a couple days in the petition is already near amount of signatures needed.

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      i thought about zerlina maxwell the entire time i read this piece! the ideas are so obvious and rational and sound and i was just floored all over again to realize that so many people in the world tried to make a mockery over her saying this exact shit. it scares me, to be honest.

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      i feel these feelings.

      carm, you’re a fucking inspiration — seriously, so many people burn out trying to make change and keep the movement alive, and you’re still trucking, and it feels like you will never stop — and the changes you are pushing are going to make real differences in people’s lives, and you are going to make the world a better place for all of us.

      so yes, this is both really fucking depressing but also really fucking important and powerful.

  4. Thumb up 3

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    Right on! I go to Colby, work with MAV through the Bridge (Colby’s queer and ally community) and am an avid Autostraddle reader- I’m definitely going to go meet Connor. Thanks Carmen for working on this, it a real positive step forward for education, health, and safety.

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    Carmen, I feel like you perfectly summed up all the thoughts I’ve been so frustrated trying to make sense of! Having attended a rural Midwestern public school with little enthusiasm or resources directed toward education, I know athletics were deemed the pinnacle of status and achievement. If coaches and administrators were thoroughly and consistently educated on sexual assault they could do SO MUCH to change the high school culture, especially when it’s dominated by male athletes who are directly and deeply influenced by their direction. That’s so important.

    Ah. Thank you.

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    Thank you for this, Carmen. I had shared your petition already, but now I’m going to add this to our internal newsletter at Bay Area Women Against Rape. Your words echo our frustrations in such an eloquent way. Thank you.

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    The same feeling comes up as with Michael Vic and the dogs. A screaming aimless rage knowing something helpless was abused over and over again. Abused and humiliated and laughed at.

    This petition is everything. <3

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    I love such concrete ideas, this really is how we are going to make a difference. I was a high school athlete and know that I really took what my coaches said to me seriously so I definitely think this is a wonderful petition. Thank you Carmen, this is amazing.

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    I can’t believe that this whole thing is still up for debate. How much more proof can they possibly need?

    On another note, I like the idea of teaching these things, but I do have to wonder how much it will work. Maybe I’m wrong (I’m no expert on this), but I feel like at least some of the people doing this aren’t doing it out of ignorance, but because they have some serious problems.

    I mean, you can talk to serial killers about how wrong it is to kill people, but I doubt they’ll listen. I just wonder if the same rule applies here. I’m sure for some people it could help, but I don’t think educating people will, by itself, solve everything.

    I really hope these current people do end up in jail for quite some time. I can’t imagine how horrible this must be for the girl. First, to have all of it happen in the first place, then to have all these pictures and everything online, and finally to have adults actually excusing it. That is one of the many things that makes me question the state of humanity.

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      While it’s true that rapists seem to be mentally ill because of their horrifying actions, perpetrators of sexual assault are just as likely to have mental illnesses as the rest of the population. In fact, they are exceedingly normal people who tend to hold strong beliefs about gender and the roles that accompany it. I think that the argument about “bad apples” is dangerous because it is easy to otherize them and not critically think about one’s own behavior or make change.

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