OP-ED: Victim Blaming and the Reality of Sexual Violence

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John LashSexual violence against girls (and women) is an accepted part of American culture, particularly when carried out by privileged males. This is the starkest aspect of something called rape culture, defined by the Women’s Center of Marshall University as “an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture.” It may be shocking to consider that this is one of our cultural norms, but we don’t have to look far for evidence.

This week news broke that Ma’lik Richmond, convicted at 16 of raping an unconscious girl the same age, was released after serving nine months in juvenile detention. Richmond and another boy, Trent Mays, who is still serving his sentence, were members of their high school football team in Steubenville, Ohio. The story has resurrected the conversation about rape and sexual violence in general, but it will soon predictably fade away again.

Along with the boys, several adults, including a coach and the superintendent, were indicted on charges of tampering with evidence, covering up the incident and failing to report a crime. Dave Zirin, in his excellent analysis of the link between “jock culture” and rape culture, pointed out that Mays, the quarterback, had texted a friend that he wasn’t worried about rape charges since his coach, “took care of it,” and “...was joking about it so I’m not worried.”

The case garnered national attention, in part because of media reports from ABC, CNN, Yahoo and others that focussed on the tragedy of two promising athletes losing a chance to go further in their careers. Not only was the victim slighted in the media, she was excoriated by many of her fellow students and townspeople supportive of the football team.

A strikingly familiar case occurred in Missouri, where Daisy Coleman, aged 14 and a  13-year-old girl friend were allegedly drugged, raped and left outside the Coleman home in freezing temperatures. The attacker, Richard Barrett, aged 17, was also an athlete, and in addition belonged to a politically connected family that some suspect influenced his sentence. He recently pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and will serve two years on probation.

Daisy is currently in the hospital following her latest suicide attempt, reportedly after being bullied at a recent party in retaliation for reporting her rape. In both the Missouri case and the Ohio case other students were aware that the sexual assaults were taking place but did nothing. In fact, in both instances the assaults were recorded and posted to social media sites.

These and similar cases continue to happen across the country. In Texas, Rachel Bradshaw Bean was removed from her school after reporting her rape, accused of “public lewdness” and placed in a disciplinary school along with her rapist.

Sandra Park, an attorney with the ACLU, rightly points out in relation to Rachel’s case that, “It’s vitally important that school administrators and police really understand their obligations to respond to violence and not turn around and penalize the victim…”

Let’s add to that. It is vitally important that all members of the community understand their obligations. We as a society need to recognize two facets of our responsibility. First, stop blaming the victim. It doesn’t matter if girls have been drinking, if they went into a room they “shouldn’t” have entered or how they were dressed. Second, stop making excuses for young men, even if they are good athletes in towns where football is god. Athletic prowess should never lead to decreased moral accountability. When it does we need to shake off the stupor of hero worship and stop making excuses for crimes. It’s time to put the “boys will be boys” mentality to rest.

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