Last week, three high school seniors in Gilmer County, Georgia were charged with aggravated sexual battery (and underage drinking, but that kind of feels like the lesser of evils here) after news broke that they had allegedly gang-raped a classmate at a prom after-party. Detectives had been working for weeks before they made the arrests, a far cry from how rape allegations are typically handled. I would like to applaud the Gilmer County authorities for their due diligence, but I would just be applauding them for, y’know, doing their job. It seems really cynical to say, but it almost begets the following notion: congratulations for carrying out the duties which you were hired and compensated with taxpayer money to do. Here’s a cookie.
But you still have to admit that finally, this might actually be a step in the right direction in the world of rape culture.
The allegations hold all of the classic tenets of a rape-at-a-high-school-party: alcohol, someone to barricade the room or otherwise stand watch while the actual rapists put themselves upon the victim’s (very drunk) body, and a number of other people in another area of the house (in this case, a cabin rented out for the after-prom party) who did nothing to stop it. These people were each probably drunk as well, and it’s safe to say that a number had no idea what was going on, though it’s possible that a few did.
What’s equally as disheartening is the fact that Gilmer County sheriff Stacy Nicholson admits that they could not charge these young men, all star high school athletes, with rape instead of sexual battery:
Nicholson said Wednesday during a press conference on the town square that his agency did not have evidence to charge the men with rape because a foreign object was allegedly used to assault the victim. He declined to elaborate. “At this point we cannot say a true rape, as described in the Code section — intercourse — occurred,” Nicholson said.
Legal jargon binds the authority’s hands sometimes — I get that. But to suggest there is a difference between a true rape — which I suppose is something like Representative Todd Akin’s now infamous legitimate rape — and a lesser rape where the victim was still penetrated with a foreign object and therefore has less severity because a penis was not involved is infuriating.
This young woman sustained major injuries from whatever she was assaulted with. And, if we’re going by Attorney General Eric Holder’s revised revisions to the Uniform Crime Report’s Definition of Rape (because yes, we as a society have been going through several iterations of the definition of something that has plagued our society for literally thousands of centuries), these young men truly raped her:
“The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object [emphasis added], or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”
That means, she was raped. It was true rape. And, for the record, the DoR also states that it “includes instances in which the victim is incapable of giving consent because of temporary or permanent mental or physical incapacity, including due to the influence of drugs or alcohol or because of age,” so drinking while underage was illegal, but it does not make her any more complicit in her own assault.
Another young woman was raped in this country, and she spoke out about it, and for once, the authorities did something. So maybe, finally, after years of victim shaming and the taboo on such a fraught topic, we are finally getting somewhere.
The thing is, I wouldn’t have even heard of this event were it not for Jezebel (where Erin Gloria Ryan wrote about it on Tuesday, nearly a full week after the news was posted on the original news site), which I then only saw because a friend posted about it on Facebook. Are we getting tired from the grapevine yet? I know, it’s long and twisty, and the fact that there was no huge headline in the Post or Daily News on my daily commute to work speaks to the ennui I think we’ve reached as a society in the past few weeks. (After all, they seemed plenty eager to hash out the nuances of a girl who had nothing to do with Elliot Rodger’s rampage.)
Ryan’s piece is good, and covers a lot of salient points about the issue. Really, I urge you to read it, especially for the rather mindboggling Facebook status from the lawyer representing one of the other high school students at the party where the victim was raped. It’s also striking to note that a #standforHER hashtag took to the internet, and the Calhoun High graduating class gave an audible vouch of support to their peer when her name was called to receive her diploma. But though this was on a much smaller scale than the now global #YesAllWomen hashtag, it’s heartening to see that people are no longer siding with the athletes, the golden boys, the ones whose “lives are now ruined” for something they chose to do.
Because that was not the case in the recent Maryville rape case that almost wasn’t. In 2012, a 14 year old girl by the name of Daisy Coleman (her identity was made known even though she is a minor because she spoke out) did what lots of teenagers do: she drank, and hung out with people she knew from high school. One of her classmates, then-17 year-old Matthew Barnett, took her and her 13 year-old friend to his house, where Daisy drank. A lot. Her mother found her on their porch the next morning, half-frozen in the 30 degree weather, still intoxicated, and showing signs that she’d been sexually penetrated.
The case only made headlines last October, when the Kansas City Star published a piece seven months in the making that detailed the nuances as to why the felony charge of sexual assault against Barnett might have been dropped. There was evidence. There were recorded confessions. And still, the Nodaway County courthouse decided to dismiss the case.
Instead, Daisy and her family were the ones tormented by her community, a small town in which everyone knows everyone else, and Barnett’s grandfather had a significant amount of clout. (The senior Barnett has said he stayed out of the case.) Kids at school began bullying Coleman, calling her a slut and saying she got what she deserved. The Colemans eventually had to move, but the new house in their new town burned to the ground. Daisy tried to commit suicide a total of three times. Daisy’s family pursued the only remaining allegation on the case, that of misdemeanor child endangerment. Barnett has pled guilty, and for that he’ll serve two years’ probation, four months’ suspended jail, and cannot drink or have any contact with the Colemans.
Things don’t happen on a small-town scale anymore. Because of the internet, things happen globally, and as such, we have to handle a great deal of information at all times. It seems like a juggling act, and it’s very easy to miss a few key things when we’re hung up on other (sometimes equally as important) matters. And if we were shocked every time there was another story about rape in the news, we would be, quite frankly, exhausted from all of that shock. So instead, we shrug — another girl was raped? Sad, but what can you do? Life goes on. (And if we do wonder what we can do, our society often spirals into wondering if it was her fault — which it wasn’t – and what she could have done to protect herself, rather than wonder what we could have done to prevent the rape.) We wouldn’t have it in us to be so scandalized all the time, although we know we should. It’s a scandalizing, horrible tragedy, and it’s going to affect this poor girl, no matter what the courts decide.
The fact that we have become desensitized to these tragedies is a flag in and of itself. It’s a self-preservation tool, to be sure. If we were going around knowing that such atrocities happen all the time, we would be raw and tired from pretending. And there are so many things that demand we remain knowing at all times, anyway. (It seems like a weird moment to bring up catcalling, because it is so small on the scale of aggressions, but speaking as someone who was catcalled abusively even just this morning because I decided to wear shorts it’s not something I can ignore easily.)
Yet no matter how used we seem to be about these cases, we still watched when a case in Steubenville, Ohio came to trial, partially, I venture, because we as a country were so appalled that teenagers dared to taint our stainless social media with tasteless jokes and images of the naked, clearly inebriated victim. But most of the coverage on the case shifted quickly to how CNN seemed to be sympathizing with the victim’s attackers after they had been given their sentence. They were both high school athletes with “promising futures,” and yet they only seemed to realize that they’d done something wrong after they were convicted.
(One of the boys was recently released from his one-year detention sentence, and a Steubenville, Ohio principal was found to have not cooperated in providing evidence in the investigation of ANOTHER rape that came to light after the previous Steubenville case had been made public. I know, we’re up to four and counting. I told you it was a lot.)
Because news of this assault is coming so soon after the horrific shooting spree that occurred in Isla Vista not even two weeks ago (although the Calhoun High prom was held on May 10) it seems so very much like a discussion we have had before. And it seems like a discussion we’re going to have to happen over and over again, on an endless loop, until it hammers in.
I mean, the fact that I could pull this passage from a piece I wrote then that could still be 100% in line with this instance is equal parts sad and eerie.
And yet we constantly go to war in the media and in society in general over this topic. Even though rape is an issue, we seem to get hung up on why it is an issue. Slate columnist Emily Yoffe suggested that women make an effort to not binge drink, and though no one should binge drink, that doesn’t mean that a sober person still doesn’t stand the chance of being raped. Toronto Constable Michael Sanguinetti told law school students to “avoid dressing like sluts” if they wanted to lessen their chances of sexual assault, sparking Slutwalk protests in response. Women are told to not walk alone at night, to carry pepper spray in their purses, to hold their keys in their hands and to pretend as if they’re talking to someone on their cell phone. Women are also told that it’s on us when we give what men perceive to be mixed signals.
And in all of this chatter and all of this advice — which I know means well, but meaning well and doing good are sometimes two very different beasts — we seem to forget one simple thing: what one person wants, and how that does or doesn’t correlate with what the other person wants. We become mired up in the ‘he said, she said’ of it all. If one person doesn’t want it, that is where the conversation should end.
Coleman told police she had said no repeatedly during the act; Barnett maintains that it was consensual. But still, she said no.
It almost feels like I have to focus on the other cases with more information because little is known about what is going to happen in Gilmer County. After all, the case has yet to go to trial and we can’t predict the future; these young men were just charged (and none of them actually spent a night in jail, it should be noted.) Lots of other sites are drawing the parallels between Gilmer County and Stubenville as well. But the fact that one case is so reminiscent of another and another is disconcerting. Haven’t we learned our lesson yet? Are we doomed to just repeat the same mistakes over and over again?
It’d also be idealistic and naive to think that change could happen so soon after #YesAllWomen (and equally as obtuse to ignore the fact that the Calhoun rape happened before Rodger posted that video about his retribution.) But the fact that the stretch from rape and murder seems like such a small one is unnerving, and you have to wonder if one act of violence would lead to another, if the step down is truly that small.
And I would like to give you a neat ending here, a “so what?”, a prescription, something tied up nicely with a bow. But this is a messy case, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out, especially since it does seem like the first case in a long while where the right steps were taken from the beginning. But there is no neat ending, not for the girl who was raped — that night will live with her forever. I know. I am one of the haunted ones, too. And though it’s things like this and #YesAllWomen that begin to make it feel like the world isn’t out to silence the people who survived atrocities and tragedies as much as it once was, the fact that these instances keep happening is a sobering reality. That we as a society still have a very, very long way to go.
Because these things are never neat. And I don’t know where to go from here myself. But if we can continue to speak out, and if we can continue to talk about it, and see what happens, and where it goes, and where we go from here — how we can challenge ourselves to be better human beings and try to prevent these thing from happening, maybe humanity isn’t so deep in the hole after all. Maybe we really are turning a corner. One can only hope, and put in the work towards changing the paradigm.
It’s going to be a difficult journey. But at least we now know that we don’t have to go it alone.