Trigger Warning: This article contains descriptions of sexual assault.
Today a number of anti-rape and anti-harassment groups have called for an International Day Against Victim Blaming, marking the two-year anniversary of the first ever Slutwalk on April 3rd 2011 in Toronto, Canada. Slutwalk began as a protest against a remark made during a campus safety information session at Osgoode Hall Law School by Constable Michael Sanguinetti, a Toronto Police officer, that women could avoid sexual assault by not ‘dressing like sluts’. Clearly, this message places the onus on women to take measures not to be raped. This message is hardly new – we receive it all the time through from the media, from women-focused ‘rape prevention tips’, from MPs and celebrities. In fact, this victim blaming attitude is so pervasive that in a 2005 Amnesty International survey found that 26% of respondents thought that a woman was wholly or partially responsible for her rape if she was wearing ‘sexy or revealing’ clothing; and 30% of respondents thought she was wholly or partially responsible for her rape if she was drunk. Yet, the overt victim blaming from someone in a position of responsibility and authority caused such outrage that it provoked a march in protest, the first of many in a movement which spread globally. While there have been many valid criticisms of the Slutwalk movement (in particular, that ‘slut’ is so entrenched in misogyny that it cannot be reclaimed, and that Slutwalk ignored the different impact the term ‘slut’ and its ‘reclamation’ has on women of colour), the message that victims/survivors of rape should never be blamed is one that should be taken seriously. This message deserves recognition all year long, not just on this day.
However, given that today marks International Day Against Victim Blaming, we wanted to discuss an incident that has been receiving a lot of press coverage in the US, but which has been surprisingly underreported in the UK. This is the case of Jane Doe in Steubenville, Ohio, a shocking example of victim blaming if ever there was one.
This case started in August 2012 when Jane Doe, a 16 year old girl, was raped at a party by two high school football players, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond. Incapacitated through either alcohol or drugs (there is some dispute as to how she ended up unconscious), her limp body was carried by the teenage boys for six hours between parties, where they stripped her, raped her, attempted to make her perform oral sex on them, and took photos of her naked body. The two boys and their friends offered her body to other party-goers to urinate on, tweeted about what they were doing, took videos where they describe what they did to her, and dubbed themselves ‘rape crew’.
After finding out about the events the next day through social media, Jane Doe reported the incident to the police and Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond were arrested and charged with rape and kidnapping. Yet the evidence of the crime mysteriously disappeared as students deleted tweets and videos in order to cover up what had happened. Alexandra Goddard at Prinnified.com, however, had collated a number of the photos and tweets while it happened and published them to her blog, and Anonymous, a group of internet hacking activists, creating a local leaks page to release information as it was gathered.
So, in the light of this evidence, did the town rally around Jane Doe, asking for answers and investigations? It seems not. Instead, many rallied around the football players, stars of the town’s ‘Big Red’ team. The football team suspended two players who were cooperating with the investigation, while allowing the accused to continue playing. Many people refused to cooperate with authorities attempting to investigate the assault. A volunteer coach accused Jane Doe of lying to excuse her drunken behaviour, and Head Coach, Reno Saccoccia, even went as far as to threaten a reporter. It wasn’t just the team that didn’t support an investigation though; residents of the town were quick to cast blame on the girl in the situation, claiming she put herself in a situation to be violated, because she went to the party alone. Students at the school posted statuses on facebook, calling her a ‘train whore’, and Jane Doe and her family even received threats for daring to bring scrutiny and shame on the football team and community.
This case finally went to trial on 13th February 2013, with a guilty verdict handed down on 17th March 2013. Yet, unfortunately, the victim blaming did not stop there. News coverage focused almost entirely on the effects of the verdict on the lives of the ‘poor young men’ who had ‘such bright futures’, rather than addressing the effects it had on the survivor of this assault. It talked about how they were good students in school, rather than reporting the facts of the case.
The reporter on the scene said, “Incredibly difficult, even for an outsider like me, to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart…when that sentence came down, [Ma’lik] collapsed in the arms of his attorney…He said to him, ‘My life is over. No one is going to want me now.'”
The focus is on the the rapists and how this has destroyed their lives, but what about the victim? She wasn’t even mentioned in this report. What about the lasting consequences of being raped? What about the victim shaming that went on in the town? These are not things that should or can be ignored.
Other mainstream media news sources have also taken similar slants. ABC News created a profile workup of one the defendants (leading up to the trial), placing him in a good light, making excuses to his behavior (he was in a ‘celebratory mood’), and focusing on his promising football career. NBC also made a point of talking about their football promise, and about the case being a warning to a generation so involved with social networking, even though the crime was rape (see the video here). The Associated Press, USA Today, and Yahoo News also picked up narratives revolving around high emotions in the courtroom for the defendants and, like most other reports, consistently describing Jane Doe as a ‘drunken sixteen year old girl’. Yahoo News even goes as far as to suggest that the fact the boys might be punished is what was tearing the town apart, rather than the serious crime.
The harassment of Jane Doe has not ended with the trial either. Public Shaming has collated a number of tweets showing how the victim blaming culture, a couple of which we’ve reproduced here:
These reports and the response to the verdict are beyond shocking. It is not acceptable to never mention the victim when discussing such a case. Victim blaming adds to a culture that excuses rape. This is what rape culture looks like: when the rapists are put ahead of the victim, when men think it’s acceptable to violate a woman because she hasn’t explicitly said no, when helping an investigation into rape allegations is punished/frowned upon, and when the blame for the assault is placed on the victim. This case was simply one which gained a lot of media exposure, but every time a survivor is blamed, society makes it more difficult to stop and punish rape.
To leave on a positive note, here is a message from Melissa Harris Perry to the Steubenville survivor – we can all take note of what she says: