“The thing I found most disturbing about this is that there were other people around when this was going on,” William McCafferty, the Steubenville police chief, said of the events that unfolded. “Nobody had the morals to say, ‘Hey, stop it, that isn’t right.’
“If you could charge people for not being decent human beings, a lot of people could have been charged that night.”
In a sense Mr. McCafferty is correct: disturbing as the sexual assaults that were perpetrated that night are, it’s just as disturbing how many people did not do anything to stop them.
I would offer that, the inquiry into why so many people did nothing at Steubenville must (at least) be framed in terms of gender, sexuality, and community.
Taken in reverse order, it is not negligible that the young woman who was sexually assaulted was not from Steubenville. While a strong sense of community does not preclude sexual assault, it may factor into bystanders’ unwillingness to intervene. Leaving aside the possibility that the status of the alleged perpetrators as athletes may amount both to their occupying a position of privilege within the Steubenville community as a whole, and to their constituting a micro-community in its own right, the difficulty of overcoming all the psychological factors which make it easier to keep quiet and do nothing is only amplified if the person on whose behalf one must speak up and act is a stranger in a room full of otherwise familiar faces. I myself recall being a teenager at parties and being overwhelmed by the task of attempting to look out for the friends I’d known for most of my life. It was not that I didn’t care about any of the others I didn’t know, but because I didn’t know them they felt like ‘others’, and if it was between them and my friends, I always chose my friends.
And this is not to say that it was this young woman’s fault for going to a party in a community that she didn’t belong to. Rather, when something like this happens in a community it behooves that community to ask itself why it isn’t doing a better job of taking care of other people.
Further, it ought not be underestimated how normalized sexual assault has become. In my experience, young men of the millennial generation are first introduced to sex through pornography (at least if they have reliable internet access). Most will not have an interpersonal sexual experience for years after that introduction, and they will not spend that interval abstaining from porn. Intoxicated sex is fetishized in the discourse of mainstream pornography: the women being assaulted are not depicted as being hurt by the assaults – indeed, if they come to their senses they are usually made to regard the assault as a pleasant surprise. The terrifying result of this is that evil takes on a banal aspect – watching an unknown, intoxicated young woman be sexually assaulted is not entirely novel. It may not feel right, it may not be erotic, but it’s also not wholly unfamiliar.
The answer is not to censor pornography, or blame any young woman that finds herself in that scenario. The answer, or at least an answer, is to openly and critically interrogate pornography and its discourses. Moreover, and not unrelated, we must talk frequently and honestly and openly about sex and figure out when and how sex can be healthy and fun, and what to do when it looks like it’s not.
Lastly, consider the culture of masculinity, in particular young masculinity. It is a peculiar and dangerous mix of entitlement, aggression, and insecurity – and that’s leaving aside any consideration of the manner in which these conditions are, at least in my experience, configured and exacerbated when you belong to an athletic team. I think a lot of young men feel a peculiar sort of rage when these ingredients are mixed together: they feel they deserve what they want (entitlement), they feel they should be able to get what they want by taking it (aggression), they fear that if they don’t get what they want it’s either because they don’t deserve it or because they are too weak to take it (insecurity), they hate themselves both for being afraid and because they either don’t deserve what they want or don’t live up to the definition of strength they buy into, and they take that hate and use it to turn their fear into rage directed at others, the people who must be keeping them from getting what they deserve. I don’t offer this account because it suffices to explain the choices of some young men to sexually assault that young woman on that night, though certainly it was involved in that. Rather, I offer it because, as something that may be common to a lot of young men, it is conducive to a culture of silence and inaction. If one young man sees another pursuing something he wants, if he sees him taking what he wants, it makes a modicum of sense to the young man standing by, at least on an intuitive level. He does nothing both because he can empathize with the perpetrator and perhaps because, on a similar level, he would expect another young man to enable him through his silence and inaction.
None of this will change until we start offering young men different models for masculinity, and start having some hard conversations about who we are, what we want, what we need and what we deserve.
In closing I wish to state that these considerations are not meant to exhaust or derail the conversation surrounding the Steubenville case, they are merely offered as a contribution to it. If we as a culture can manage to keep talking about these issues, maybe there will come to pass a time when we don’t need something terrible to happen to remind us that such talk is so very necessary
Blog post by
Bill Arnold, OUSAP Violence Prevention Educator