Again and again I see reactions—on Facebook, on Twitter, on blog comments—where readers are shocked that Mays and Richmond would behave the way they did. Shocked that a whole town would act in their defense after their crime. How can those boys think this way? How can a town fail to deal with it the way it did? But in fact, Steubenville is not an anomaly. Cases like this one happen all the time in small and large scales, and the perps go to prison, or they don’t. (More often than not, they don’t.) The only difference is that this one is on the news.
In my sophomore year of high school, I read a book for class called Our Guys, a nonfiction work by Bernard Lefkowitz about a case very similar to Steubenville. A small suburb by the name of Glen Ridge, New Jersey. High school heroes with a history of lots of leeway from the administration, from their teachers, and from their parents. A town that excelled at football. Where football brought endless pride and a sense of identity, that any wound to the team was a wound to the town. And when several boys were convicted of gang raping a disabled girl with a toy baseball bat, the town rallied behind them, just as they did in Steubenville. What a shame, they said. Those boys had so much promise and they squandered it with a bad decision. Nothing was said about the girl who fell victim to their assault. Sound familiar?
Less than a year ago, my old high school emerged with its own minor scandal: It got out that the varsity football team had a “fantasy slut league,” where football players slept with young women from their school and kept tallies on who was the biggest slut. The assistant principal was quoted saying, “Participation often involved pressure/manipulation by older students that included alcohol to impair judgment/control and social demands to be popular, feel included and attractive to upperclassmen.”
When the news came out, there were similar reactions: How could those kids think that was okay? The response from fellow students asserted that it wasn’t a big deal. That it was all in good fun. Each varsity football player was somebody’s son, they were friends, brothers. They were good students, and they didn’t mean to hurt anyone. Meanwhile, on the outside, everyone’s heads were exploding. And while clearly not illegal, or as traumatic as what happened in Glen Ridge and Steubenville, the slut league had been going on for five or six years without anybody stopping to say, “Hey, maybe this is a little fucked up.” Moreover, it was created out of the same arrogance, sense of entitlement, and lack of empathy that the Steubenville and Glen Ridge boys had. Who knows how many were recruited knowingly or unknowingly.
On large scales, you see this kind of thing happen too. When Sandusky was convicted for child molestation, and when multiple accounts emerged, a great number of people at Penn State—ones who saw him as a hero—refused to believe he would do such a thing. Sandusky had so many good deeds to his name. Again, on the outside, everyone’s heads were exploding at the administrative cover-ups, at Penn State, at the team’s reaction, and at the reaction of Jerry Sandusky’s fans.
It’s easy to write the town’s behavior off as belonging to crazy football parents, sickos, or assholes. This is super dangerous, because that’s not what they are. They are people who have put too much stock into something good—believed too hard that the people, the school, or the team they stood beside would never fail them—and so when it did fail, they were afraid to see it. They saw Jane Doe as a wrench in a set of well oiled cogs.
I see this happen too on “my side” of the conversation. Just the other day there was outrage over Candy Crowley’s “boys full of promise” reporting on CNN. A friend of mine couldn’t believe she would choose that angle—the same angle the town had taken.
“There is no way in hell the majority of people takes the rapists’ side,” he said. “That CNN story was so incredibly one sided I almost think there’s some kind of conspiracy mandating this point of view in the news media. They have been downplaying and ignoring the military rape statistics that came out as well, though I can’t figure out why, but it seems more sinister and organized than the usual misogyny.”
When pressed to explain what he means, he responded by saying Candy Crowley should “fucking know better.”
However, the fact that my friend thinks Crowley is too good to let rape culture affect her (and the fact that he thinks there are people who “fucking know better” and people who don’t) is naïve to me. It’s just another example of “not our guys,” or of “Not Sandusky.” People had too much respect for these individuals that when faced with blatant evidence of their assholery, their first response was to shift the blame. On the outside perspective, there is evidence of us doing the same. Rather than asking questions about how rape culture infiltrated Crowley’s consciousness, we put too much stock in her goodness, feminism, and sense of enlightenment to let her have ownership of the words she said. Somehow CNN and their secret pro-rape agenda must have something do with it. But the fact that one theory is more comfortable to believe than the other fails to give credence to just how pervasive and persistent rape culture is.
And it reveals the truth: rape culture doesn’t just affect dummies and crazies and delusional people. It affects everyone. It’s important that we don’t distance ourselves from the Steubenville rape case and the town it came out of, or we fail to see how it can happen to everyone else.