The Final Verdict in Steubenville: The rapists are the victims

One year. That’s the minimum sentence for these boys. Delivered with sympathy by your U.S. media, lamenting their bright futures as if this were a tragic mistake for them and not a trauma for the victim herself. How sad, the “lasting effect” on these boys, rather than the lasting effect on the young woman. How tragic, that Ohio law has “placed on them” the “label” of designated sex offender.

Others have articulated the issues with this better than I can, but I have to wonder how many tears that young woman has cried, off camera, while someone rubbed her back and said, “You know, this is why you shouldn’t drink.” Because that’s how it goes for the rest of us. That’s what happens when you speak up about something atrocious that happens to you. You, victim, are a life-destroyer; you, victim, should feel guilty about what you have done. It will not be easy to change this, but I do think it is worth signing the petition to hold CNN accountable.

Here’s your roundup, should your heart feel up to it today:

* Laurie Penny, at The New Statesman: “Steubenville: This is rape culture’s Abu Ghraib moment”

* Dave Zirin, at The Nation: “The Verdict: Steubenville shows the bond between rape culture and jock culture” [related: “The Trouble with Football”]

* And Michelle Dean, from two months ago at the New Yorker:

… these tweets and photos, as far as public discussion should be concerned, are proof of the flippancy and indifference with which some part of America greets the report of sexual assault. If you want to know why sexual assault is so difficult to prosecute, you needn’t look much further than that.

To which I quietly add one word: Amen.

Moral Crimes, Afghan Justice, and a Small Town in Ohio

I am sure that they will try to kill her again. If her brother did this and they did not put him in jail, why would he have changed? And maybe he will even feel more strongly.
– Hassina Nekzad of Women for Afghan Women

In December, I wrote about Gul Meena, an Afghan girl who ran away from home with a man who was not her husband and survived an attempted honor killing – thanks in large part to the support of villagers and medical personnel in conservative eastern Afghanistan. Finally, we have an update on her story – complete with an incredible photo of her head and face, scarred by ax blows but still held together. Her survival is inspiring. But her story is also a challenge to those of us who believe in putting public pressure on the justice system to do the right thing.

Gul Meena’s story broke at around the same time that the Steubenville, Ohio rape case hit the national media and the whole world learned the horrifying story of a rape in New Delhi. I had just written about a teenage girl who took to Twitter for revenge after the courts let off two boys who sexually assaulted her. In all three cases, thousands of people like me are concerned that the courts will not do their jobs. We contend that these cases are about more than just the individuals at stake; their outcomes will determine whether sexual assault is taken seriously by the courts and therefore by our society. We worry that not punishing these criminals does more than just let dangerous men go free – it endorses a culture that blames victims, not perpetrators, for assault. In other words, our worries are strikingly similar to those of the Pashtun villagers mentioned in the Times’ original article.

While Gul Meena has survived for now, she remains in danger of what an American would call vigilante justice and what many Afghans would call reality. Tribal law and the court of public opinion could yet decide that her “moral crime” merits the punishment her brother tried to inflict, and if she goes home, the justice system can do little to protect her. Her best hope would be a trial of both her and her brother for their separate crimes. While the entire category of “moral crimes” is about as acceptable to women’s rights advocates as blaming a female rape victim for getting drunk, it’s the reality of Afghan law and the reason I was furious over criticism of western Afghanistan’s chief prosecutor, Maria Bashir that was published in the Times last month.

After all, Bashir’s effectiveness as a woman is directly tied to her performance as prosecutor. A respected advocate for Afghan women and winner of the U.S. Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage award, Bashir has been a powerful force for fighting corruption and establishing rule of law in Herat Province. In a country where the formal justice system is often trumped by commonly held ideas about sharia and tribal law, Bashir’s prosecution record – including for adultery, which is a crime under Afghan law – is outstanding. In the article, she is quoted as saying, “I want to be an enforcer of the law rather than human rights.”

While it may pain Bashir to prosecute these women, she’s taking the long view. It’s the wise one. A functioning justice system that entitles any citizen to a fair trial under existing law is humanity’s best solution to the vexing problem of crime. While some Americans still yearn for the Wild West, I am willing to bet that most women recognize they are safer inside a justice system than outside of it.

That’s why today’s news out of Steubenville is actually heartening. One of the lawyers for the two small-town football players accused of rape has requested a delay, a change of venue, and a closed trial. When I think about this case, a moral crime if ever there was one, I feel angry. I worry that the courts will find some absurd reason to let these boys go, silencing present and future victims of sexual assault who may lose their faith in justice as a result. But the only way to ensure justice in the long run is to give the accused a fair trial.

Meanwhile, the rest of us can do as so many Afghans have done for Gul Meena: support victims, even when that means risking our reputations on their behalf; advocate for necessary changes in our laws and our cultures; and hold the justice system accountable – not to our personal consciences, but to the law.

I’m Over It, Too

If you’re following these issues at all, you probably already know three things about rape culture:

  1. Indian women are over it. Don’t even make me put all those hyperlinks in here. It’s not just New Delhi. If you really want a new definition of brutal sexual assault, use your Google machine and type in the words rape or gang rape and Haryana. If you’re not in a place where it will be okay to weep openly, try not to read the stories about prepubescent girls – and be warned, there are lots of them.
  2. The U.S. Congress doesn’t care. (Why are we not surprised?) America may be starting to, as fallout from the Steubenville, Ohio attack is finally hitting the news, or it could just be another case of the somebody-should-do-somethings.
  3. Eve Ensler is over it, and asking us all to be the somebody who does something.

Well, I won’t be reading any of her monologues anytime soon, but I will be joining Ms. Ensler to Occupy Rape on February 14, 2012. One way or another, I’ll be telling my own story.

Why? Because we have allowed shame to silence so many victims and empower so many perpetrators. Because we’ve accepted this culture for so long. Because yes, there is a link between sexual violence and women’s ability to succeed in the workplace.

A culture that passes off sexual harassment as mere “eve teasing” – sorry, in Western parlance, “boys will be boys” – is a culture that will never treat women as equals.

So why do we – nice, polite girls who try to cover up our cleavage and suck it up when the powerful old guys talk to us like we’re trash – let Slut Walk and Eve Ensler do our dirty work?

I joined Ms. Ensler’s campaign, but for me, standing up doesn’t mean reading one of her plays. It means speaking up in my own voice. It means pointing out that rape isn’t just something that happens in Appalachia or at frat parties or in far-off places. A culture that blames women’s bodies for tempting the men around them is reprehensible, whether it’s expressed by covering women in burqas or firing them for their curves or even shunning them from church because their God-given breasts are too big. (And I’m not just talking about Jessica Simpson, here.)

In this kind of culture, the only way to be taken seriously as a woman is to erase your body as much as possible. That can take the form of voluntary breast reduction, something many women I know have done. It can take the form of weight gain or loss. It can take the form of dressing as masculine as possible, as commentators like Ruth Marcus recommend, condemning young, single women to a joyless future with no room for sexuality.

That’s why I’m inspired by other women who refuse to play by those rules, and I don’t mean by wearing skintight dresses in the workplace. I mean by simply being women, their full selves, in whatever context, and refusing to accept any gender-based barriers to success.

Don’t just do it for the rest of us, do it for yourself. It’s a question of honor.