Why the Steubenville rape case should be a wake-up call for young black men

Opinion

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Ma'lik Richmond, 16, top, hugs his mother Daphne Birden, after closing arguments were made on the fourth day of the juvenile trial he and co-defendant Trent Mays, 17, on rape charges in juvenile court on Saturday, March 16, 2013 in Steubenville, Ohio. Mays and Richmond are accused of raping a 16-year-old West Virginia girl in August, 2012. Judge Thomas Lipps said he would render a decision on Sunday morning, March 17. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, Pool)

Ma'lik Richmond, 16, top, hugs his mother Daphne Birden, after closing arguments were made on the fourth day of the juvenile trial he and co-defendant Trent Mays, 17, on rape charges in juvenile court on Saturday, March 16, 2013 in Steubenville, Ohio. Mays and Richmond are accused of raping a 16-year-old West Virginia girl in August, 2012. Judge Thomas Lipps said he would render a decision on Sunday morning, March 17. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, Pool)

There was video evidence of the assault that took place in Steubenville, Ohio last August, yet observers of the case from near and far were still surprised yesterday when Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond were found guilty of rape by a judge in the rape a 16-year-old girl.

The two high school football players sobbed uncontrollably as Judge Thomas Lipps told them his verdicts, and while they’ll always have their defenders, a great many people were relieved that the courts ruled the way they did. Still, that there was ever any doubt speaks to the sad of state of affairs when it comes to handling rape in this society.

The details of the assault are disturbing to anyone with a half a conscience. The heavily-intoxicated girl was carried from home to home, party to party, presumably passed out when she wasn’t vomiting, while Richmond and Mays, seeing no cause for concern, penetrated her with their fingers and a teammate captured the assault on a camera phone. She was taken to a basement, where the assault continued and more pictures were taken, while other party goers and bystanders did nothing.

The 16-year-old victim was unaware of what happened to her the next day, and it wasn’t until the pictures and video made the rounds on social media that she realized she had been raped that night.

It would seem a clear-cut case, as she was at no point in a position to consent to any activity, let alone sexual activity, and Mays and Richmond clearly violated her. Yet the defense attorneys still argued that because she made the decision to drink heavily and never “affirmatively” said no, she consented to sex. Also consider that high school football is king in the economically-depressed town of Steubenville and the players are generally treated as royalty. In a text message, Mays says head coach Reno Saccoccia was joking about the incident and that the coach “took care of it for us.”

What’s most disturbing about this whole case is just how ordinary it is. This wasn’t an aberration, the result of some particularly vile and demented boys deciding to rape a young girl. Rape like this is far more common than we care to admit. This is what a culture of toxic masculinity, as Jaclyn Friedman described it in The American Prospect, produces. From an early age, we teach young boys that girls/women are prizes, trophies to be obtained as the result of some kind of heroism or achievement. They learn they’re owed the sexual attention of girls by virtue of their being born male.

They are taught “no means no,” except that sometimes girls say “no” when they really mean “yes” because they’re afraid to come across as “easy,” so all they need is some persuasion. They’re taught to be aggressive in pursuing a potential conquest because that’s what women really want. And when they take that messaging to its logical, immoral and illegal conclusion, someone tries to “take care of it” for them. The girl/woman in question has her behavior dissected, as she’s blamed for the violation of her body. The boys are told they’re wrong for taking pictures.

As punishment, Mays and Richmond will go away to a juvenile detention center for at least a year. When they’re released, they may have to register as sex offenders. The lives they previously envisioned for themselves no longer exist. In a perfect world, this would send a message to other boys that rape is unacceptable, that only yes means yes, and women’s bodies are their own.

But what’s the punishment for a society that, even after this guilty verdict, will likely continue to enable rapists? What of those who stood by and allowed this to happen? Who punishes the photographers? Who teaches the kids that weren’t sure what they were witnessing was rape? Who chastises those who watched the video of a sexual assault and laughed?

Because it’s easy to write this off as an isolated incident, the result of the actions of a few savage adolescents. But to do so is to deny that these boys are products of a culture that in myriad ways has told them this was not only acceptable but expected of them. While Mays and Richmond are locked away trying to learn their lesson, the rest of us would be prudent to do the same.

Follow Mychal Denzel Smith on Twitter at @mychalsmith