Steubenville rape debate is only asking the easy questions

Two high school footballers in Steubenville, Ohio were recently convicted for the rape a sixteen-year-old girl. You can read more about that here. The main thing you need to know for the purpose of this post is that much of the incident was captured on smartphones and shared online, and that the boys were not charged as adults (meaning that their sentence is much more lenient).

Some media coverage of the event has drawn criticism for being sympathy towards the perpetrators and for a lack of visibility of the victim. The case itself has drawn criticism since some consider the boys got off lightly (they can only be incarcerated up until they are twenty-one), although an Ohio attorney will convene a grand jury next month to look into further charges.

Of all the words spent on this issue, perhaps the most eye-opening have been from Henry Rollins, social commentator, musician, and spoken word artist. By zooming out and taking a look at the problem beyond the media circus, he had this to say about the case on his blog:

“…this is a failure on many levels. Parents, teachers, coaches, peers all come into play here. I am not trying to diffuse blame or lessen the awfulness of what happened but I want to address the complexity of the cause in an effort to assess the effect so it can be prevented.

[I] don’t know if adding a decade onto their sentences would be of any benefit. To me, the problem that needs to be addressed is where in the information chain were the two offenders made to understand that what they did was not wrong on every possible level? You can execute them both tomorrow but still, there is a problem that needs to be dealt with.”

In other words, we should recognise that focusing exclusively on these individual perpetrators can have the harmful, unintended consequence of masking much bigger problems that needs our attention. This isn’t to excuse them or their actions, but the media’s sympathy for them is damaging not only because it has painted these boys as victims themselves, but because it has distracted everyone – even those criticising them – from the main issue.

Locking these boys away – as either punishment, rehabilitation, or simply for society’s protection – are all justified to some extent. But regardless of the sentence (or its reasoning), it still only addresses the problem after an incident has occurred.

These boys didn’t just make a mistake. They made a whole series of mistakes, each one serious enough that it should have been a circuit-breaker.

Other victims may be spared similar fates from these particular individual perpetrators as a result of their incarceration; however, it has come at the cost of one girl who, as Rollins points, is “serving a life sentence.” It also does little to protect the next girl who’ll fall victim to other perpetrators produced by the same system.

One could argue that punishment is a deterrence and so it’s a worthwhile argument. But in order for these boys or the next boys to think about punishment, they need to first consider that their actions are wrong. That these boys committed these crimes almost publicly and then posted evidence online suggests that there was at the very least a lack of perception of how serious their actions were.

The punishment should fit the crime, but as a deterrent, it only works as a deterrent if you recognise your actions as a crime. So by all means have the conversation about how long they should be locked up for, as long as you also have the conversation about the lack of circuit-breakers.

We like problems to be solved, so blaming everything on a pair of delinquent teenagers who can be locked away is an attractive proposition. Much harder is to identify the complex cultural roots of the problem and affect change there. But that’s where we need to go.

Not only is it hard, but it’s also less compelling – there are no faces, and no stories; just potential victims, potential perpetrators, and the implicit notion that we are all, to different degrees, responsible for their decisions. It won’t be a popular move for any media outlet or task force to make, but it’s what’s needed to break the cycle.

Scape-goating these two only leaves us waiting for the next individuals to scape-goat. It does nothing to solve the problem long-term and it does nothing for future victims.

As All About Women, we ask Is Rape Culture Everywhere? No doubt this case will be brought up on the day. If you have any thoughts about it then bring them along with you, or if you can’t make it then share them below in the comments.

What can we do to prevent this behaviour from occurring in the first place? What systems and education would we need?