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The best defense of the sympathetic network news coverage of the Steubenville high school football team rapists whose conviction was announced yesterday is: weak. It’s very weak — and the coverage of the verdict is an absolute scandal. It’s also interesting that the two best defenses of the coverage — again, very weak ones — aren’t even being made explicitly.
First, I recognize that there may be some readers out there who aren’t even familiar with the case. (Not being a big evening news watcher, I wasn’t until recently.) Warning: this description may serve as what people addressing sexual abuse call a “trigger.” Use your discretion before deciding to read it.
CNN reported online that high school football players Trent Mays, 17, and Ma’lik Richmond, 16, were found guilty of raping a 16-year-old girl. Actually, the quote was “of raping a drunk 16-year-old girl” — my emphasis. This is misleading in two ways: (1) the girl claims (in my opinion credibly) that she believes that she was given a date-rape drug that quickly left her unconscious and without memory of the events, which she doesn’t associate with being drunk, and (2) they weren’t found guilty of “raping a drunk girl,” but of raping “a girl.” “Drunk” is no more an appropriate part of the description than (to make some things up about her) a “brunette girl,” “a Baptist girl,” or “a badminton-playing girl.” It may play into deciding whether what occurred was a rape, but if it was determined to be a rape, meaning the absence of consent, “drunk” exits the equation.
Do you have some doubts about the absence of consent? OK, here are some unpleasant details:
(1) Michael Nodianos, 18, a former Steubenville baseball player, is filmed ranting and joking about the rapes and frequently referring to the victim as “dead,” ABC’s Good Morning America reports. Text messages and tweets offered a similar view toward the crimes. “Yeah dude, she was like a dead body. I just needed some sexual attention,” was one of Mays’ text messages. Mays was also found guilty of disseminating a nude photo of a minor. The ruling brings an end to a trial that gained media attention for its lurid text messages, cell phone pictures and videos, and social media posts surrounding the sexual abuse of the girl.
The social media “coverage” included the boys holding up the girl and passing her around as if she were a mannequin.
(2) Mays and Richmond were accused of raping the girl during a series of end-of-summer parties in August 2012. According to prosecutors, each of them penetrated the victim’s vagina with his fingers, an act that constitutes rape under Ohio law if it is not consensual.
At the heart of the case was the question of whether the victim was too drunk on the night of August 11 and the early morning of August 12 to understand what was happening to her and to consent. [P]rosecutors told the judge there is no question the girl was “substantially impaired”: “The things that made her an imperfect witness — that she doesn’t remember a lot — made her in every sense of the word a perfect victim.”
The girl testified Saturday that she remembered drinking at the first big party of the night and then holding Mays’ hand as she left with him, Richmond and others. The next thing she remembers, she told the court, is waking up in the morning naked on a couch in an unfamiliar house. She covered herself with a blanket while she looked for her clothes. She testified she could not find her underwear, earrings or cell phone. She testified she was “too embarrassed to ask what happened that night because I didn’t remember.”
You can’t, by law, legally get a minor drunk into a stupor and sexually molest them. You can’t even do so with an adult if it prevents them from giving consent to the sexual activities. It doesn’t actually have to be a stupor.
(3) Attorneys for Mays and Richmond challenged the credibility of the victim, calling two of the 16-year-old girl’s former best friends to testify. One 17-year-old testified the victim told her she believed she had been drugged the night of the assault, an allegation the witness said she did not believe because the girl “lies about things.” A hospital test on the victim for drugging came back negative, testimony revealed. The teen witnesses, who described themselves as classmates and former best friends of the girl, told the court they saw the victim drinking. She drank at least four shots of vodka, two beers and some of a slushy mixed with vodka, a 16-year-old witness said.
The 17-year-old witness said she picked the victim up the next morning from someone’s home and asked her what happened. In the car, the victim said, “We didn’t have sex, I swear. I don’t know what happened. I don’t remember,” the teen testified. On Friday, three teens, all self-described friends of the co-defendants, testified that they saw Mays and Richmond engage in sexual contact with the girl. All three were granted immunity from prosecution. One 17-year-old Steubenville football player and wrestler testified that he used his cell phone to record Mays putting his fingers inside the girl’s vagina during a drive from one party to another. He said he deleted the video the next morning when he realized it was wrong. He also testified that Mays later attempted to have the girl perform a sex act on him in the basement of a home. “She didn’t really respond to it,” he said.
That home, as I understand it, belonged to one of the assistant coaches on the football team. They (and others) traveled between more than one party that night. At least two of them were at houses of assistant coaches, one who “let boys be boys” and another who objected to at least some of what he saw and told the kids to go elsewhere.
Now, with that out of the way, you may want to know something about the coverage. This is also CNN:
CNN’s Poppy Harlow: “[It is] 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.”
CNN’s Candy Crowley: “Sixteen-year-olds just sobbing in court, regardless of what big football players they are, they still sound like 16-year-olds … what’s the lasting effect, though, on two young men being found guilty in juvenile court of rape, essentially?”
CNN legal contributor Paul Callan: “The most severe thing with these young men is being labeled as registered sex offenders,” he said. “That will haunt them for the rest of their lives.”
As OJB readers may recall, I’ve come out here both for legalization of marijuana and for strictly limiting the scope of the category of sexual trafficking because of the prospect that essentially innocent people may otherwise be swept up into them, in a similar way that public urination can become the basis for requiring someone to register as a sex offender. So, I’m not opposed to empathy or even sympathy for those accused or convicted of some crimes. But these guys? Not only do they get a girl drunk (or worse, drug her) and manually penetrate her vagina while she has no idea what is going on, but they do so in front of witnesses for their entertainment too — and photograph and video it all for posterity.
Sympathy for the victims? I don’t care if they thought she did consent. No sympathy here. Promising futures? Yeah — of being able to do this at more such parties and build their portfolio of mementos. Ruined lives? Oh, I hope so.
At the same time, I’m put off by the statements of those like Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, who sniffed that the teens had shown “a casual attitude towards sex.” If only that were true! That would have meant that this was about sex, rather than about obtaining their own gratification without consent from a girl and getting jazzed over her public humiliation.
Mr. Attorney General: THAT’S NOT SEX.
I remember being a 16- and 17- and 18-year-old boy with an acute interest in sex. This included an acute interest in female bodies — lips, breasts, butts, and (when possible) vaginas. It was an intoxicating new world, one of endless fascination, and my sense is that usually it worked in the other direction as well. But despite my having a healthy (yes, I consider it that) interest in casual physical encounters with girls, usually stopping well short of coitus (I’m being coy here, I suppose), there was one thing that I was definitely not interested in: being a rapist. My theme song may have been “Ain’t to Proud to Beg” at some points, but I was never interested in stealing. The difference was consent. The problem is not that these boys wanted sexual contact, it was that they wanted it without consent and that they wanted it with a heavy helping of crowing about it while wielding humiliating documentary evidence. Wanting sex outside of the bonds of marriage was not the problem here; it was wanting gratification outside of the bounds of human decency.
It’s interesting to me that none of the establishment media commenters seem to be bringing up the one legal argument that I’d have expected: that it’s wrong that the law does not distinguish between what we might normally think of as rape — “penis rammed into vagina of unwilling girl or woman, risking pregnancy and spread of disease and fostering a lifetime association of the act with humiliation and victimization rather than pleasure and intimacy” — and sexual assault or molestation short of prototypical rape. Fingering a vagina without consent is different from coitus — although in some cases it can, just like “rape by instrumentation” (insertion of a foreign object), be even more physically destructive. That doesn’t make it anything less than reprehensible and criminal.
But I’ll tell you why I think that there is a difference: because if something like this (without physical injury) happened to one of the females in my life, I would want to harm the person severely, but not as badly as if there were a prototypical rape or an injury. I don’t think that we should accept that “boys will be boys”; in an “eye for an eye” world of justice this might be met with repeatedly smashing someone’s fingers in a car door. In such a world, rape would be met with a much greater punishment. But if people want to object that this wasn’t really rape — well, they do have a point, it’s just one about which I don’t particularly give a damn. It’s just interesting that no one in the “polite” media seems to make that point — although Crowley, with her adding the qualifier “rape — essentially,” comes close. I can’t tell if that’s social progress or just “delicacy” in commentary.
In fact, and this is somewhere where I have to defer to female readers, to me it’s the gleeful documentation of and humiliation in these acts that raise them to the point where “they might as well be rape.” This girl would have suffered even without that evidence (although fortunately not from her own memories of it.) The documentation compounds that suffering. (On the other hand, it likely made a conviction inevitable.)
The other defense of the media coverage (not of the act) is that pointing out “oh, look, they’re good kids with bright futures and now it’s all destroyed” might conceivably help to deter other boys and men who might consider getting themselves into the same situation. If CNN treats these young men as unfathomable monsters, it’s easier for people to consider them as something “other,” as being in a category in which the young man watching the news reports could not possibly belong. (Think of much of the coverage of Christopher Dorner.) If they are depicted, to football players across the country, as “kids very much like you” — well, that gets more personal, harder to ignore, and should have a stronger impact.
The problem is: what kind of impact?
One impact that might be expected is sorrow, regret, distancing, and pledging either to put aside all sexual impulses (which for most people doesn’t seem to be possible) or (better) to take deadly seriously the idea of consent as a prerequisite to sexual activity. This doesn’t necessarily mean asking formal permission before every advance, but it does mean not going so far beyond what one reasonably expects is acceptable that one can’t undo the damage if one is wrong. That would be great.
More likely, though, I’m afraid that the impact it has is this: stoking anger towards women and girls. And the more men react with that kind of anger, the more social support they feel in treating women like dirt, in humiliating them, in punishing them for arousing desire but not automatically being willing to satisfy it. And that’s bad — really bad. That’s why, even though this is a cogent argument, I think that it makes more sense for media to focus on the plight of the female victim rather than on the male victimizer.
How would you know if a media outlet were willing to stoke male anger against women? Hmmm, I don’t know — maybe if they named the victim on TV and set the stage for perhaps a lifetime of abuse from the most twisted miscreants in our society? But what are the odds of that happening in this case? At this point. 100% — Fox News named the underaged victim this morning.
One last shout-out before I go. This case would have completely sunk into oblivion if both bloggers and the secretive hacking association known as “Anonymous” had not forced it into public consciousness and challenged the integrity of the investigation and response to this report. So, as we try to figure out what we each think about that group, this should go firmly and powerfully into the “favorable” column.
Hey, I forget — when Julian Assange of Wikileaks was accused of rape, did Candy Crowley and her ilk cry tears over the prospect of ruining his life? I can’t seem to remember it.