Your NPR news source

We need to talk about Steubenville

I shared in CNN’s paradoxical sorrow for Steubenville on Monday. I felt sorry. I feel sorry -- very, very, very sorry.

SHARE We need to talk about Steubenville
We need to talk about Steubenville

Michael D. McElwain/AP

(Michael D. McElwain/AP)

TRIGGER WARNING: This blog post and the article linked in it will contain graphic details of the Steubenville rape case and may be triggering to victims of sexual assault.

Six years ago, I was raped.

I’ve never been able to call it that or say the word out loud, not even once. I’ve used other words to describe it, like “molestation” and “sexual assault,” words that don’t invalidate the experience but make it easier for me to talk about.

I came out about it over a year ago in an article for In Our Words and never using the word rape. When I talked about the experience with a friend who hadn’t read the piece, I referred to it simply as “assault.” She misunderstood and thought I’d been the victim of street abuse, a mugging or other forcible attack. I didn’t know how to tell her that her assumption was incorrect. I didn’t know how to just say it.

Even after coming out as a survivor of sexual assault, I’ve struggled with how to deal with my abuse. I never confronted my assailant, despite the pain he caused me and the fact that if I type his name into Facebook, he comes up neatly in a friend search. I could be friends with this person. I could request him and we could have a nice chat about the weather, tea or Hillary Clinton, who everyone loves now.

“Isn’t it great that she came out as a supporter of marriage equality? Isn’t it great that spring is finally here? I can’t wait for the weather to turn. Oh, isn’t it not great that you raped me?”

I doubt he realizes what happened or thought about me afterward, because we live in a culture that only tells us that “No means No.” We aren’t told that “I have a boyfriend” means no or “I’m drunk” means no or “I’m not sure about this” means no or “Stop” means no or the sound of the other person crying means no. As he put his hands down my pants, asserting his power over the situation, I began to cry but instinctually covered by mouth, because I didn’t want his friends to hear me.

A part of me couldn’t out him as a rapist, and I felt sympathy when I looked at his body next to mine on the floor the following morning. I felt a strange compulsion to care for the person who had hurt me most in the world. When I talk to other survivors, I find out I’m not the only person who has felt this way. I’m not alone. I’m never alone.

I felt sorry for him, even at my darkest moments. When I thought about committing suicide, multiple times, I felt sorry for him. When I had to seek help and emotional support from my mother, who should never have had to think about her child that way, I felt sorry for him. I felt sorry for him when I had to tell my boyfriend that I was raped, and he accused me of cheating on him. I felt sorry for him because even though my heart was breaking, it could break openly. I shared my experiences with close friends and family who were supportive of my struggle. I rediscovered the power of community.

I felt sorry for him because he had to go back into the closet, one that he still lives in. He’s forced to hide who he is and committed unspeakable acts on someone who wanted to comfort him. That night, I thought that he might need a friend or someone to listen. I saw part of myself in him and recognized my own struggle to come out. In sharing my story publicly, having my experience affirmed, I felt sorry that he’d never gotten the experience of putting this complicated part of his past out there.

Because he couldn’t recognize his actions as vile and destructive he slept soundly after raping me, his legs sprawled out like a chalk outline at a crime scene. I felt sorry because he kissed me afterward for the first time, as if it were a stamp of approval for our “lovemaking,” like he was delicately kissing me goodnight.

I felt sorry not because he will live with this for the rest of his life, but because he’ll never think about me again and doesn’t know he should.

I think about him every day, when I want to and when I don’t. Some days I feel ugly and disgusting. Some days it’s because of what he made me feel. Some days it’s not. Every once in a while I still think about killing myself, not violently or actively but passively, as if it were one of many options in a refrigerator, hidden in the block of cheese next to the almond milk. Other days I just go on Facebook. Most days I just am.

In the past few days, I’ve thought about my abuser a lot. The man is still out there, tagging photos of his girlfriend on the Internet, eating at the Cheesecake Factory, unwrapping Christmas presents with his family and doing all the mundane things rapists do when they go back to their regularly scheduled lives.

After the Steubenville verdict came down, there’s been a great deal of outrage for the sympathy that CNN showed the perpetrators of this heinous act, sympathy that didn’t seem to be shared for the victim. We were outraged that CNN expressed sorrow toward the rapists’ loss of potential. I was outraged, so outraged I could barely see.

However, I shared in their paradoxical sorrow on Monday. I felt sorry. I feel sorry -- very, very, very sorry.

I’m sorry for the Steubenville football players who raped the Jane Doe not because their actions deserve my sympathy or their status as local sports heroes, good students, sons or brothers warrants my regard. I feel sorry for them because they photographed their victim and mocked her brutal rape as if it were a clever inside joke between friends. I feel sorry for them because they are so casually sociopathic that they couldn’t recognize dragging someone’s naked, unconscious corpse outside through the grass and dirt as anything but a funny prank. I feel sorry for them because it took a jury of their peers and the onslaught of the feminist media to recognize what they did as reprehensible, not just what boys do. I feel sorry that any person has such capacity to harm anyone else and then broadcast it for social media consumption as if she were a boxing match on Pay-Per-View. I feel sorry that we still don’t know what abuse is.

I’m sorry that they live in a community that doesn’t teach them to value female bodies and to think so little of human life that they could say that she looked “deader than O.J.’s wife,” as if domestic violence and murder were coyly de rigueur.

They are the most at fault in the situation and deserve to be punished for every single thing they did to that girl, but what about the bystanders who watched it happen and didn’t think they were witnessing a rape or the football coach who encouraged them to laugh off the situation? What about the Steubenville community who continues to hold them up as heroes? How do we punish that?

I’m sorry that they are raised to be men in a culture that upholds violence against women as a form of masculine camaraderie and that anyone should have to teach them not to rape -- that not torturing and victimizing their friend is a conversation that ever needs to happen. In this case, that conversation never happened at all, in a society that puts the burden on women not to get rape and then blames them for enticing men. We teach women that certain types of behavior provoke rape and that being modest and demure in dress helps women keep their virtue. I wasn’t wearing a short skirt. Did my blue jeans prevent my rape? Nothing can prevent rape, except not raping someone. Not being an entitled d*ck prevents rape, not your choice of clothing.

I’m sorry that many have rushed to defend them for being rapists and that many will continue to uphold their male privilege, as if their behavior were biological and natural, and those two boys, despite their public apologies and courtroom tears, will secretly believe she was asking for it. After the victim, whose name will not be printed here out of respect for her suffering, reported her rape, she has been harassed by a community that we are told exist to ensure her safety. If she were kidnapped, her face would be splashed all over the news, but she is in the public eye, again against her will, and people have so little compassion that they think she wanted this. No one asks to be bullied or criticized and forced out of their community by those who love them.

I’m sorry that I’ve heard continual apologies written about the football players who perpetrated this violence but almost nothing about the strike on her permanent public record. The Jane Doe attended a neighboring school, where she was an honors student and at the top of her class, but not a single account of the case I’ve read fawned over her academic achievements of lamented her “bright future.” A story on Yahoo! discussed how the Steubenville football team was the “pride of the community,” but what about this girl? Why can’t we have pride in her academia or her courage in coming forward with her story, in the face of insurmountable odds and a system that favors abusers? That’s the kind of strength I want to champion. This girl is a hero.

I’m sorry that these men will continue to see their victim as weak and helpless and will never be witness to the quiet courage that comes from living every day as a victim of abuse. They’ll never meet my mother, who was beaten in the face with a box fan by her ex-husband, a man she had to go into hiding to escape. They’ll never meet my high school best friend who was raped by her boyfriend, who didn’t know he could rape her. They’ll never meet the friend who put his hand in my underwear at a bar when he was drunk and I was not, the man who didn’t realize that he was sexually assaulting me -- because he wasn’t aware that was not my definition of fun. They’ll never meet the friends who made excuses for him or the boyfriend who asked me if I liked it. They’ll never understand that rape isn’t always the man on the street. Rape can be someone you trust with your life.

I’m sorry that the Steubenville rapists will be locked away by our criminal justice system, punished in a system that profits off of their recidivism and their repeated mistakes rather than helping them to grow, change or stop raping people. We live in a culture that confronts our problems by locking them away, looking at the criminal justice system as the ultimate form of closure. What about the women who continue to be abused every day, whose assaults are erased by a system that shames them into silence, or the men who are told they cannot be raped? When will we finally recognize rape as a culture we are all complicit in?

I’m sorry that it took the severity of these crimes, our “Abu Ghraib moment,” to make our nation finally recognize the ubiquity of rape culture and reflect on the negative consequences of male privilege or question “toxic masculinity.” Although Steubenville has been called sexual assault’s Abu Ghraib, I worry that we focus our need for blame only on the rapists and not on the system who feels their crimes are worth three years total, a fraction of the sentence Aaron Swartz would have served for non-violent cyber crime. We need to open our eyes to the ways that we are all bystanders in this event. We cannot stop rape from happening again, but we can make ourselves aware of the realities that people face and create a more just and equal society.

However, I’m most sorry for the Steubenville Jane Doe, more sorry than I will ever be for the men who couldn’t even call her abuse “rape.” I feel sorry that she needs to be seen as someone’s wife or daughter to understand that we should not rape her and that her self-worth isn’t tied to her intrinsic human rights. I feel sorry that even in defending her, we look at her as property, only worth her weight in male regard, and that her daughters will grow up with the same internalized shame. I feel sorry that when the news cycle dispenses of the Steubenville case, my children won’t know what the word Steubenville means. I feel sorry that we aren’t teaching our children better, but I know they deserve better. This Jane Doe deserved better. My mother deserved better. I deserved better. Everyone deserves better.

I’m not sorry for talking about my rape or that it took so long for me to say that word, and I’m not sorry that we have to talk about Steubenville until everyone is “sick” of hearing the term “rape culture,” until we understand that no one is asking for it, until we learn that “only Yes Means Yes,” until we start teaching people not to rape and until every person is safe. I’m bloody motherf*cking sorry that Ashley Judd has to remind us every day that being raped matters, that rape is a fact and that we will need to have to discuss it again and again and again, whether people get tired of it or not. I’m sorry that we couldn’t respect someone’s basic humanity enough to never have this conversation to begin with.

Nico Lang writes about LGBTQ life in Chicago. Follow Nico on Twitter @Nico_Lang or Facebook.

The Latest
Liesl Olson started as director at The Jane Addams Hull-House Museum earlier this month. She joins WBEZ to talk about her future plans for this landmark of Chicago history. Host: Melba Lara; Reporter: Lauren Frost
The city faces criticism for issuing red light camera tickets at intersections where yellow lights fall slightly short of the city’s 3-second policy. And many traffic engineers say the lights should be even longer.
There was a time Chicago gave New York a run for its money. How did we end up the Second City?
Union Gen. Gordon Granger set up his headquarters in Galveston, Texas, and famously signed an order June 19, 1865, “All slaves are free.” President Biden made Juneteenth a federal holiday last year.
As the U.S. celebrates the second federal holiday honoring Juneteenth, several myths persist about the origins and history about what happened when enslaved people were emancipated in Texas.