Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richardson were found delinquent Sunday, and sentenced to juvenile detention for raping a drunk and incapacitated 16-year-old girl at a series of parties in August of 2012. While the verdict is a victory for the defendant and for a number of groups that brought attention to the case of high school football players who were out of control, the damage to the victim will not be so easily repaired.
The case gained international attention after a series of prurient videos and images from the night were circulated among people in the east Ohio town of Steubenville, where the two played football at the local high school. The images showed a number of eyewitnesses to the ongoing sexual assault, none of whom were able to prevent it.
While the conviction of Mays and Richardson is a victory for the unnamed victim, the assault and its fallout have had a tremendous negative impact on her life. While the court and most media, including Care2 Causes, did not and will not name the victim, her name has been released into general circulation by a number of anti-feminist websites. Even had it not been released, her identity was still well-known to people in Steubenville and in her hometown in West Virginia.
It would be nice to think that the victim would be supported by her community, but sadly, that has not been the case. Two friends of the victim, who were with her at the start of the night of the assault, turned on her, testifying in court that she was a liar. The defense in the case took to victim-blaming, claiming the girl had not been all that drunk, and besides, the fact that she left with the boys in the first place was proof that she probably consented. Many in the town sided with the football players, defending a team which has been a source of local pride.
For the victim, Sunday’s verdict does not erase these attacks, nor the whispers that she had “a history,” as if any history justifies rape. Mays and Richardson have to live with being convicted rapists, but she has her own indelible mark — as a sixteen-year-old who dared to drink too much and go off with some boys. That may not seem like a horrible crime to most of us, but for many rape apologists, including the defense attorneys and her former friends, it’s proof that in the end, she deserved her attack. That she obviously did not is beside the point; even if her friends were lousy, being told you deserved your assault by people you once considered friends is beyond horrific, and something few of us can imagine.
The victim is not the only one left picking up the pieces. Steubenville itself faces unresolved issues, including the fate of their head football coach. Text messages read in court indicated that the boys had spoken with Steubenville football coach Reno Saccoccia in the hours following the assault, and that they believed the coach “would take care of it.” Saccoccia has denied wrong-doing, but has not explained why the players contacted him, or what they thought he intended to do.
Steubenville also has not yet come to grips with a culture that viewed wandering from house to house, drinking and hooking up, as reasonable behavior for 16-year-old boys. It’s pretty clear that several others who witnessed the abuse that August night saw nothing wrong with what was going on — or at the very least, saw it as somewhat discomfiting, rather than abhorrent.
Indeed, that culture that poisons Steubenville is not limited to a corner of Ohio. It’s pervasive in American society, where people could actually reasonably entertain the notion that a girl who goes out drinking with boys is asking for trouble, but boys who fondle an unresponsive girl are just having a bit of fun. The victim-shaming that was thrown at the victim in this case is not unique to Steubenville; ask any woman who’s dared to press charges against her attacker. Calling out the woman’s sexual history, insinuating that she deserved her rape because she was drunk/not carrying a weapon/dressed provocatively/with the wrong friend/with no friends/sent mixed signals/didn’t send enough signals/sent clear signals that were nevertheless misinterpreted…this is what we do to victims of sexual assault. It’s no wonder that so many cases of rape go unreported, and so many more fail to end in conviction. As long as we keep hammering victims for daring to report a crime, we do a disservice to every victim of sexual assault.
The victim in the Steubenville case deserves tremendous respect for speaking out, for pressing charges against her attackers, and for being willing to testify to her own abuse. She deserves the support and gratitude, not just of her community, but of everyone who believes rape to be a heinous crime. She now faces a long road of recovery; I hope for her that she is able to find, in time, that she has supporters throughout this country. Indeed, that is my hope for every victim of sexual assault, no matter where they may be.