By now, most of us have heard of what happened in Steubenville last August. We have heard about the party, about the culture of football-players-as-gods, we’ve heard about the attempts at covering it up. And while it has always been hard to read about what was happening without an enormous feeling of frustration over how the issue was being spun by those in control, there was some comfort in knowing that a few of Jane Doe’s attackers were seeing court and possible sentencing. While it is clear that her safety and peace of mind will be in serious jeopardy for some time, we could still hold onto the idea that some kind of justice was being served.
But it has become clear — from the fact that only two of her many attackers ever saw a courtroom, and from how light their sentences have proven to be (it is likely that they will only serve one year) — that the culture of excusing serious sexual crimes as a “boys will be boys” side effect of hard partying extends all the way up to the judge’s bench. Even when the attackers were taken out of their safe haven of a town which would do any and everything to protect their honor, they don’t receive anything close to appropriate justice for having violated another human being in such a humiliating, harmful way.
Of course, when the verdict came down, they still cried. They are teenage boys and, like the child who apologizes not for having stolen the cookie but for being caught with his hand in the cookie jar, aren’t particularly happy about seeing the aftermath of their crimes. They were raised in a community which taught them, in no uncertain terms, that they did not abide by the same rules as everyone else. Whether they wanted to do a little underage drinking, or get in a fight, or touch a young girl who was unable to give her consent — it was all supposed to be okay. And even though the sentence was, by many standards, ludicrously light, they were facing the consequences of their actions.
To add insult to injury, though, CNN did a small Sunday report on the state of the courtroom when the judge handed down the verdict and decided that the only angle to take was repulsive levels of sympathy for the attackers. They talked about the “promising” lives that were now ruined, how moving the tears of the two defendants were, how they were good students with bright futures in football and academics. They painted a portrait of two innocent boys who had made a simple mistake, one which is now unfairly costing them the future they had constructed for themselves with their otherwise-stellar record of good behavior.
As many have noted, it is particularly unusual to see a typically-progressive channel such as CNN reporting in such a way about an issue as serious as rape. When your reporting is more victim-blaming and morally tone-deaf than, say, Fox News’, it’s a serious faux pas to say the least. But the problem is so much deeper than simply showing that you have a few rape-apologists on your roster of field reporters. You are telling the victim in this case, every time she turns on her television, that she has done something horrible and cruel to these two poor boys by speaking out against her assault. You are talking about the tears of her assailants and their devastation over facing a small amount of jail time as though they were the ones truly hurt in this case, and not the people who actively chose to assault another person.
When they refer to her as being “allegedly drunk,” they are putting in an unnecessary modifier which — even if it’s true, though many speculate that she may have been drugged as well — serves to cast a shadow of doubt on the victim even when there is video and photo evidence of her rape. It paints a negative picture of her even when her attackers have been found guilty beyond reasonable doubt. It reminds us that, yes, she may have been raped — but she must bear some guilt as well when it comes to her safety.
And why do we say these things? Why do we use cases like these as an opportunity to renew the conversations with our daughters about needing to protect themselves when they go out, about not wanting to end up like that poor, poor drunk girl? When we point out that she was drunk, when we point out that the boys’ promising future is “ruined,” we are reminding women and girls everywhere that their own safety lies entirely in their hands, and not in the hands of those who make the choice to attack them. We are telling them that making the difficult decision to speak out against your attacker is in some way going to fall back on them, and that, yes, they did a bad thing — but did you have to go so far as to get them in actual trouble over it?
We insist that the boys’ lives were ruined, and that it was completely out of their hands. We don’t talk about how ruined the life of the victim — the victim who is still receiving death threats, no less — may be from this whole ordeal. We like to imagine that they magically found themselves in a courtroom getting sent to jail by a mean old judge, when all they had ever done in their lives was get good grades and smile for yearbook photos and play some really good football. But the road to not finding yourself sent to prison starts at the moment when you choose not to commit sexual assault, something that CNN seems perfectly happy to gloss over.
It has been noted that the boys who stood by and either filmed or said nothing were “unaware” that what they were witnessing was rape, even as she was being dragged around, half-naked and unconscious. And that ignorance — that failure to understand that sexual assault is not some mythical crime which only exists when a stranger in a ski mask pops out of bushes — is a direct result of rhetoric along the lines of CNN’s. When we frame rape and sexual assault in such a narrow way, and when we pour our sympathy on those teenage boys who just went a little too far on a fun night of drinking, we tell the vast majority of victims that their pain doesn’t actually count. If you do not fit the narrative, and if you are not the ideal victim who is unequivocally above criticism, your violation counts just slightly less.
CNN should be ashamed of themselves, and we should all be taking to their social media to tell them how we feel about their decision to frame the verdict in such a way. Because as long as we continue to pretend as though sexual assault is some big, scary monster and date rapes or acquaintance rape are its harmless little cousin which shouldn’t be taken too seriously, that is exactly how our men will continue seeing them. They will rape their classmates or friends or date and never feel they were doing anything wrong. And we will tell our daughters not to drink too much at this party, even though we all know it will never really keep her safe.