Changing the way we talk about rape

In the wake of the Steubenville rape trail, Anna Burzlaff looks at how society constructs rape and how this is in need of serious changeTrent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond are two of Steubenville High School’s Big Red football players. In August of 2012, after having attended a number of parties, Mays and Richmond (aged 16 and 17 respectively) raped a drunken sixteen year old girl. Both were found guilty at an Ohio court earlier this week. Richmond will serve four years, while Mays will serve five; an extra year being added on a charge of distributing child pornography, for taking and sending around a picture of the victim, naked, held by her hands and feet.While the facts alone of the Steubenville rape case are distressing, much controversy has surrounded the manner in which this trial has been carried out and covered. CNN’s first report on the incident focused almost solely on how tragic this event was for the two young men. Poppy Harlow’s exchange with Candy Crowley on the network discussed how difficult it was “to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart.” Little, if any, mention was given to the young girl.The defence, on the other hand, shone the light firmly in the victim’s direction; questioning her level of intoxication, her promiscuity and general virtue. The whole case seemed to have resulted in some jarring form of role reversal, in which the victim becomes the accused, and the perpetrators find themselves in the lap of public sympathy.While the trail and its coverage have, justifiably, caused outrage, what has taken place in Steubenville is far from an anomaly; rather it is part of a much larger and pervasive dialogue that surrounds rape. Victims of rape, should they attempt to report their attack, often find themselves enduring a second rape, this time one of their reputation and character. In fact, much of the debate on rape begins and ends with women. Women are repeatedly told how they should dress, how many drinks they can have, and how they should act around men in order to avoid sexual assault.Adding to list of sensible attire and sobriety, a section of American public opinion is now arguing for young women to be armed to prevent rape. Aside from ignoring the statistic that most perpetrators of rape are people known to the victim, the gun lobby once again centres the debate on women. Zerlina Maxwell, a political analyst, raised this point during an episode of Fox’s Hannity, in which she said what should really drive rape prevention is teaching young men not to rape.How we define consent should be straightforward enough. But it seems as if that definition has become blurred, particularly when alcohol enters the equation. Ambiguity over whether sex with an intoxicated girl is rape or not seems to have entered cultural consciousness; Richmond and Mays are but two actors in broader trend that deems all as fair in sex and alcohol.The fact is, just because a girl can’t say no, does not mean she is saying yes. Nor does a girl dressing scantily imply she’s looking for sex. If a girl gets into the same bed as a man it is not, as George Galloway in defence of Julian Assange claimed, that she’s "already in the sex game with them." Women should be permitted to act as they want to act without the threat of rape being dangled over them. Women should also never feel that their experience of sexual assault is any less valid or unjust due to their level of inebriation. Rape is rape, and no TV network or politician can attempt to define or validate that trauma.For many, “valid” rape is something which can only occur to sober women attacked by faceless figures lurking in alleyways. Perhaps it’s time society acknowledges that in nine out of ten cases perpetrators of rape were known to their victims (according to the 2011 National Rape Crisis and Statics Annual Report published in November of last year). The debate on rape should not centre on mythical, faceless characters, but rather teach young people how to understand consensual sex. Because men can stop rape. Canada, after launching their "Don't be that guy" consent awareness campaign (also started by UCD Student’s Union this year), saw the national sexual assault rate drop by 10% for the first time in years.Maybe it’s easier to think of rapists as faceless figures, and maybe it’s easier to frame the debate around short skirts and cocktails, rather than acknowledging the facts of the matter and targeting the issues in society that are driving rape. The Steubenville case may be shocking, but it is certainly not the only one of its kind, and sadly, if history is anything to go by, nor will it be. The outcome of the case provides some form of vindication, particular when seen in relation to the numerous numbers of similar cases which never see perpetrators justly charged. Yet one can’t help but feel that the coverage and manner in which the Steubenville tragedy was formed is a symptom of the way society thinks about rape: with the focus laid firmly on the woman, and with a refusal to see rapists as anything other than faceless and nameless figures lurking in dark alleyways.