Steubenville Rape Case Provides Rare Case Study

I was once invited to speak on sexual violence prevention by a college in the Northeast that provided an uncommon request that I not bring up race during the conversation. I suppose that this request was understandable enough. Conveying an understanding of consent to an audience already has numerous complexities without the consideration of race. I get it; but I was still somewhat unsettled by the request because I could not help but think that I was there only to discuss sexual violence involving White people. I say this because I have yet to follow a public accusation of sexual assault that featured either an alleged perpetrator of color or an alleged victim of color in which the race of the participants did not factor heavily into society’s processing of that event. Sexual violence involving persons of color is racialized by nature.

Thus, I followed what the media has dubbed the “Steubenville rape case” with some interest. The alleged rape of an intoxicated teenager by two high school football teammates found its way on the radar of some of my colleagues when the alleged perpetrators were first indicted in 2012 but it has really drawn a lot of national attention since the associated trial recently got underway. Similar incidents unfortunately occur all of the time but this incident piqued the media’s interest due to the role social media played in its aftermath and its connection to a popular football program. It was of interest to me because trials that provoke national discussion expose America’s understanding of sexual violence. I admit to being curious as to how race would factor into this trial as it featured both a White defendant and a Black defendant. I cannot recall another national trial with similar racial dynamics so it was a case study into how perpetrators of varied race would impact people’s processing of the alleged sexual assault.

I took to the comment sections of articles covering the trial to see what they had to say about how America viewed the racial dynamics of the trial. Yes, I know that scouring comment sections is not exactly sound empirical research but I also don’t believe that these comments reveal nothing either. Overall, I found the racial commentary on this case involving an alleged White victim and an alleged Black perpetrator to be extremely muted. One can certainly find racist comments about the violent nature of Black men or arguments that the Black defendant was railroaded by a racist criminal justice system but they are far less than I am used to observing with trials of such notoriety. It took the presence of a second alleged perpetrator that was White to provide a glimpse into what the national climate towards sexual violence committed by Black men might look like without all of the racial baggage.

The trial has just recently concluded and the alleged perpetrators were indeed convicted of raping an intoxicated sixteen-year-old. The emotion surrounding these findings reminds me that what was a case study to me was a profoundly life-altering event for all parties involved (including the alleged victim which some seemed to forget).

Deeply personal affairs unfortunately become discussion topics for outside commentators when these mega-trials grab the media’s attention, so I hope that America at least learns something from this rare conversation about sexual violence that was relatively free of race-based tensions. The biggest takeaway for me was just how much work there is to be done. Throughout the trial, the defendants and their friends came off to me as utterly (but genuinely) clueless about the definition of rape and about appropriate respect for the bodily integrity of others. The testimony released to the public suggests that these boys were steeped in a peer culture that normalized casual sexual access to women’s bodies and that possessed few moral cues in the absence of overt physical violence. I imagine that the lives of these boys featured little to no conversation about these things. No less than three teenagers are now working through life-changing events partially because the community around them didn’t have the strength or desire to have important conversations with a group of teenage boys. This is why we must continue to fight to have our voices heard.

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