Friday, September 6, 2013

What Rape Culture Looks Like: Steubenville, Billings, and the U.S. Naval Academy

Billings, Montana

Many people have heard about rape culture, but few know what it is. They are like fish, swimming in water but ignoring its existence.

Rape culture describes a society where violence, especially violence against women, is tolerated or even celebrated. To see what rape culture looks like, look around you.

Look at Billings, Montana, where District Judge G. Todd Baugh recently sentenced a teacher who raped a 14-year-old student to 30 days in jail. During the trial, the defense attorney argued that his client had "suffered enough" by losing his job, his marriage, and his self-esteem. Judge Baugh declared that the teenage victim (who subsequently committed suicide) was "probably as much in control of the situation" as her attacker and that she seemed older than her age.

Baugh knows that the law distinguishes between juveniles and adults. Juveniles, like this victim, are not considered responsible for their actions because they have not yet developed mature judgment. There is a separate judicial system for juveniles, where young people receive reduced sentences in less forbidding environments.

Baugh knows about the way the law treats juveniles. He also knows that the penalty for rape is severe, because he sentenced the rapist in this case to fifteen years in prison, before reducing the term to 30 days. This could only happen in a rape culture environment. Baugh's decision proves that he thinks it is acceptable, even harmless, for teachers to rape their students.  He is convinced that the victims somehow have more "control" that the rapists. Baugh's attitude rephrases an old and ridiculous cliche': the victim was "asking for it".

There are other elements to the Billings story. Baugh is a male caucasian; the defendant was also a male caucasian. The defendant was, like the judge, middle class, and college-educated. The victim, on the other hand, was a Latina girl. The judge found it easy to sympathize with the defendant and easy to accuse the dead child-victim of low morals. Easier, perhaps, because she wasn't alive anymore to defend herself. 

Baugh apparently forgot that the victim was not on trial. This inversion of roles is a strong element of rape culture. Society regards the victim as sullied by the act that was committed against her. Society believes that everything should turn out for the best for the "good" people, those with more wealth, more power, the educated, the men.

Steubenville, Ohio

Steubenville, Ohio, which celebrates its high school football team and worships its football heroes, also has a rape culture. Its student athletes experience adulation from an early age. Their character flaws are overlooked because they can catch a football.

A teenaged girl was recently gang-raped in Steubenville. She became too drunk to stand at a party, so she was carried to another location, where she was raped and sexually abused by at least 3 athletes while others looked on. No one reported the incident to the police. The girl did not tell her parents about the incident when she went home the next morning. Apparently the rape culture is so strong in Steubenville that no one bothers to report a rape.

The facts in Steubenville came to light because someone took a video of the rape victim being carried by two men and posted it on the web. The girl appears to be unconscious in the video, as she hangs limply between the two young men who are carrying her by her hands and feet. A naked picture of her also turned up. Both pictures were posted in social media sites and received thousands of hits.

Police in Steubenville seized the cell phones of the primary suspects and found that there were messages warning people to destroy any pictures they might have taken of the incident. Police eventually arrested three young men and charged them with rape. Two were convicted of rape and sentenced to terms of one and two years in juvenile detention.

Members of the community and the media were more concerned for the rapists than their victim. The young men were such fine athletes, good students, and had a great future ahead of them which would now be tragically ruined. I didn't notice any skepticism about the athletes being good students, although the fact was mentioned many times. Athletes frequently get undeserved grades. Some get tutors to do their assignments or take their tests.

The rape victim, on the other hand, was publicly humiliated. Her name became public knowledge. Two girls in Steubenville were convicted for threatening the victim with violence on social media. A video mocking her, posted on the web, got 2 million hits.

A number of people came to the victim's defense. Several of them identified themselves as Steubenville residents who had been raped as teens. None of them had come forward to accuse their attackers.

U.S. Naval Academy

When you put together football with military cohesion, you have a force that will stop at nothing to achieve its objectives. In the case of 3 midshipmen on the football team, the objective was the rape of a female midshipman, their classmate.

The military services have a horrendous record on rape. While the services are teaching recruits to win at any cost, they are also teaching them rape culture. The male is even more than usually dominant in this culture, the female merely the object of his lust. A survey released this year found that of an estimated 26,000 victims of sexual assault within the military services, only 3,374 reported the incident. About half who decided not to report the incident did so because they feared reprisal. And of those who did report sexual assault, over half experienced some form of reprisal.

The military commander has a difficult task. He has to lead his command, and he has to punish wrongdoers. Often, the command takes precedence over the punishment. In the case of the 3 football players, the trial was very hard on the rape victim. As is typical of rape culture, the victim was singled out for abuse. The victim was forced to testify for 14 hours about her wardrobe on the day of the rape, about how many lies she tells every day, and her sexual history, over and over again, in detail. This treatment was repeated for a second day, after the victim was given a day off to recover.

In the event that the football players are adjudged guilty, their punishment will be decided by the Superintendent of the Naval Academy. The victim's lawyers have filed suit to have the Superintendent removed from the case on the grounds that he has already shown his bias by permitting the victim to be abused by the court. Here again, the judge is a male, the accused are male, and the victim is a woman. Her treatment on the stand is appalling, and appallingly typical. It is rape culture at work.

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