Rape and Rape Culture: Beyond Steubenville

By Katharine

Yesterday, a judge found Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond guilty of the rape of a 16 year old girl in the highly publicized Steubenville case.  The case involved disturbing video evidence of the assault leaked by internet hackers as well as texts and publically-visible tweets documenting it as it happened.

Despite the horrifying evidence, the defense’s actual argument was that what happened to the victim is her fault (and isn’t actually rape) because

“Defense attorneys believe the girl, who lived across the river in Weirton, W.Va., made a decision to excessively drink and — against her friends’ wishes — to leave with the boys. They assert that she consented to sex,” reports the Cleveland Plain-Dealer‘s Rachel Dissell. Richmond’s attorney, Walter Madison, is getting specific, citing “an abundance of evidence here that she was making decisions, cognitive choices … She didn’t affirmatively say no.”

Let that sink in for a moment.  Not only was the defense of the perpetrators based upon the premise that consent to sexual activity is the default state of being, which one must “affirmatively” opt out of,  but that the entire incident was her responsibility to avoid rather than the responsibility of the perpetrators not to perpetrate it.  In addition, after the verdict, there have been no shortage of individuals who have also elected to blame the victim, rather than the perpetrators, for the incident.

This is unacceptable.

This is bigger than a reaction to an individual case.  This is an epidemic of “victim blaming” and “slut shaming” in our society which serves to perpetuate rape culture by further assaulting its victims.

“A rape culture is a complex of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm.

In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable as death or taxes. This violence, however, is neither biologically nor divinely ordained. Much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change.”

What the defense and the reactions of many to the Steubenville rape case are saying is that the violence perpetrated against the victim was an inevitability, which she alone was responsible to prevent, by “affirmatively saying no” (in an incapacitated state, in a confined space with physically dominant attackers) or removing herself from society by never going to any parties or being in any situations in which rape might occur.  Where are the rapists in this equation?

Their absence is the evidence of rape culture.

These are the facts:

Rape is always, 100% of the time, the fault of the rapist, and not the victim.  Victims do not deserve rape for the clothes they put on their bodies or the things that they put into their bodies.  They do not deserve rape because their bodies were in a certain place at a certain time.  They do not deserve rape for being visible.  They do not deserve rape for not carrying a deadly weapon, nor should their safety depend upon ownership of a deadly weapon.  Victims should not simply have to accept rape as an inevitability due to our flawed social dialogue.

1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime (14.8% completed rape; 2.8% attempted rape).


15% of sexual assault and rape victims are under age 12.3

  • 29% are age 12-17.
  • 44% are under age 18.3
  • 80% are under age 30.3
  • 12-34 are the highest risk years.
  • Girls ages 16-19 are 4 times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault.

7% of girls in grades 5-8 and 12% of girls in grades 9-12 said they had been sexually abused.4

  • 3% of boys grades 5-8 and 5% of boys in grades 9-12 said they had been sexually abused.

In 1995, local child protection service agencies identified 126,000 children who were victims of either substantiated or indicated sexual abuse.5

  • Of these, 75% were girls.
  • Nearly 30% of child victims were between the age of 4 and 7.

93% of juvenile sexual assault victims know their attacker.6

  • 34.2% of attackers were family members.
  • 58.7% were acquaintances.
  • Only 7% of the perpetrators were strangers to the victim.


Rape in our society should not be a blemish on the victims of it, but rather on those who perpetrate it.  Rape should not be made excusable by the actions of the victim.  Rape should not be used as a threat or as a means to put women in their place.  Rape should not be sexualized in and used as a selling point in entertainment.  Rape should not be a joke.  Rape should not ever be thought of as something that an individual deserves, even if they are a sex worker or if they have consumed alcohol – no matter how much.

Unfortunately, that is not our reality.

What happened in Steubenville can’t be limited to its borders.  The victim blaming and rape apologism, the threats against rape victims, the assertions of false rape accusations (despite their rarity and the damaging effects of the false rape accusation mythology) , the defamation of the victim’s character – These intimidate rape victims from ever reporting their rapes, from talking about rape culture, and maintains a status quo in which, as Freda Adler put it,

“Rape is the only crime in which the victim becomes the accused.”

This is a status quo that we cannot tolerate.  This is a status quo that ensures that there will be more Steubenvilles, because despite a guilty verdict for the perpetrators of that rape, rape itself is still running free.

We must aggressively work against rape culture if we wish to end rape.  We must place the blame where it belongs, upon the heads of the rapists.  We must change the way we talk about rape.

We must do these things to ensure that not only Jane Doe receives justice, but to ensure that there will be no more Jane Does.

About etsuwomenstudies

This blog is a collaborative effort from the students, faculty, and feminist souls in the East Tennessee State University Women's Studies Department. We simply want to share daily thoughts with the world and encourage not only feminist thought, but awareness, tolerance, diversity, equality, justice, and social progress. Women's Studies is an exciting, interdisciplinary area of study that celebrates women's lives. It examines how diverse women have contributed to history, social processes, culture, politics and economics, as well as how all of these have shaped women's experiences. Our program provides new ways of looking at common assumptions about femininity and masculinity and teaches students how to connect what they study with how they live and work. We also explore how gender intersects with ability, age, class, culture, ethnicity, nationality, race, religion, and sexuality. Our Leadership through Diversity focus promotes a creative struggle for justice and equality. We train graduates to be leaders in both civic engagement and the workforce. The Women's Studies Program at ETSU is comprised of dedicated faculty and staff and socially conscious students coming together from a wide range of disciplines.

Posted on March 18, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Ethan Nathaniel Blevins

    “that consent to sexual activity is the default state of being, which one must “affirmatively” opt out of”

    One of your many valid points. Well researched, well written!

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