Lessons learned from the Steubenville rape case

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Much of the media coverage of the guilty Steubenville verdict has focused on the dashed hopes and dreams of the now convicted rapists, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond.  The accuser’s identity has been protected because of rape shield laws but her actions and bravery have hopefully empowered girls and women across the country that justice can be served in a rape case.

Steubenville is just one in the 3 percent of rape cases that end in a conviction.  That statistic and our societal need to perpetuate rape culture and victim blaming, leads to only 46 percent of rape victims reporting the crime to the police.  The majority of victims are too afraid to come forward, either for fear of not being believed or because they don’t think they will be able to get justice for what was done.

After Steubenville, there is perhaps a glimmer of hope that this will change.  The young accuser testified that she didn’t want to press charges but that her parents insisted since she was still a minor.  Her reluctance to come forward is perfectly understandable, as many survivors want to simply put their attacks in the past and move on.  What the Steubenville accuser has done is illustrated that justice can be achieved and that strength in the face of overwhelming obstacles is absolutely possible.

A representative for the victim’s family told reporters after the verdict, “This has been very difficult. She is a really strong lady…It was a very difficult thing to get on the witness stand…that’s not an easy thing to talk about.”

“You saw her break down when she saw the first picture, the one that she had never seen before but it had been published,” referring to images of the naked victim shown to her on the witness stand.

This is only a small glimmer of hope, since, unfortunately, the culture with which the rest of us view the case remains largely unchanged.  Much of the mainstream reporting on the verdict, focused on the “tragedy” of the two young promising football stars, whose hopes for a football future are dashed.  The larger societal impulse to default to blaming the victim for coming forward and ruining the lives of Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, as opposed to their own actions ruining their lives, is cause for concern.  After Steubenville, the victim blaming machine lives on.

But maybe, just maybe, a young woman watching the trial is empowered to speak out and tell her story.  Much of the power and agency that a rapist steals away from their victim can be taken back by the victim coming forward, speaking out, and forcing the rapist to defend themselves publicly.  The wrong narrative that says that a large number of women make “false accusations” of rape may be curbed once more women come forward to tell their own stories in order to seek justice.

After Steubenville, America will hopefully get the message that acquaintance rape is a real thing.  Eighty percent of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows, a fact that the mainstream seems to routinely ignore.  Hopefully after Steubenville, the “stranger in the alley” falsehood will be understood as the minority of the rapes that happen, and women who come forward to report acquaintance rapes will face far less skepticism and blame.

Perhaps young women may now begin to analyze past sexual experiences that should have been classified as rape, but weren’t because the young woman blamed herself as society had conditioned her to do.

And perhaps after this verdict, a young victim will be empowered to come forward knowing that a young girl in Steubenville came forward, battled an entire town, and won.

Follow Zerlina Maxwell at @ZerlinaMaxwell