Rape, Steubenville, Social Media: How About Another Sort of Super Bowl Sunday?

Steubenville_OhioThis past Wednesday, the judge presiding over the “rape crew” trial in Steubenville ruled it would remain in town, open to the public and commence March 13. Rape, Steubenville and social media are already inextricably linked in both real life and cyberspace. A question remains: What ending will be etched digitally into history?

It began when a blogger catapulted to national news and television the story of the alleged August gang rape of a 16-year-old girl by her ex-boyfriend’s teammates on the storied football team in Steubenville, Ohio. Then evidence was found in kids’ texts, tweets, photos and videos shared via mobile phones, with some posted on social media websites (such as YouTube and Instagram) for an even wider network of friends, followers and observers to see. The links proliferated when news of the alleged rape spread further via both the mainstream and social media, opening up the small community to unprecedented worldwide scrutiny and catching by surprise adults there who don’t “do the Internet.”

I’ve followed the coverage of the Steubenville rape case closely, which started, a New Yorker article summarizes, when:

a young woman, who had been out partying with members of the Big Reds, a high-school football team, woke up alone and, reportedly, with little memory of the night before. It took a couple of days to piece it all together; gossip had to fill in the gaps. What emerged was terrifying: rumor had it that she’d been repeatedly sexually assaulted at several parties, publicly dragged from house to house, unconscious, as a “joke.” Her parents went to the police.

In another time, it might have ended there. Rape cases are difficult to prove. Steubenville is a small town; the Big Reds are very popular; the alleged perpetrators, the witnesses and the victim all seem to know each other well. No one wanted to talk. And the days that elapsed between the victim’s blackout and the police report meant physical evidence was largely unavailable. But teenage gossip is no longer passed around in whispers and paper notes; it’s fixed, in digital form, on someone’s Facebook wall or Twitter account. The parents of the alleged victim showed up at the police station with a flash drive full of social-media postings that suggested the young woman had indeed been assaulted. Police seized the cell phones of the accused and found more digital traces that corroborated her story. One particularly damning artifact that surfaced is a photograph of an unconscious girl, possibly the victim, being carried like a calf. Its caption: “sloppy.”

While tweets, photos and videos about the alleged crime no longer appear in the network of kids’ Twitter timelines, conversations that do remain make a parent’s jaw drop and blood pressure rise. Much chatter revolves around alcohol, sports and sex (remember, these teens are underage). It is foul-mouthed, vile banter that’s mind-numbingly trite. Posters speak of girls as animals, whores and less-than-human. Many tweets are composed apparently in a fog of sleep deprivation or some kind of intoxication. Football games—whether hometown, college, or pro—excite alongside slut-shaming: “Girls like her” go to parties, then get “more than they’re looking for” and, by some evolutionary quirk, seem to reside only on the West Virginia side of the Ohio River.

The tweets present an ethnographic collection of thoughts and feelings from the youth community in Steubenville and nearby—a depressing and sad archive. Kids are, after all, the future. A snapshot of youth culture, the tweets reveal a network of teens sharing provocative, explicit, sexual and misogynistic thoughts. Yes, some mention the future and going to college, but seemingly to do much of the same—sports and partying—rather than gaining knowledge or career credentials.

I’m no Margaret Mead, but having spent hours immersed in the tweets of some minor natives of Steubenville, I cannot let go of the thought that they are the grandchildren of “the greatest generation”—men of World War II who, like my father, boarded trains the day after graduating from Ohio Valley high schools to deploy for life-threatening Army or Navy service. Men who, if they were lucky enough to survive slaughter by German U-boats, returned to the community grateful to be alive and become fathers. Imagine how those grandfathers would feel to learn that their children (now adults) and grandkids participate in what’s being called a “rape culture”–even if “only” by hosting, attending or turning a blind eye to parties and their aftermath. Imagine them wondering if they risked their lives storming the shores of Normandy for the freedom to do that.

I googled “rape culture” when it kept surfacing in articles discussing the Steubenville case. Jaclyn Friedman, feminist activist and co-editor of Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power & a World Without Rape, writes that people often ask her what it means exactly. She points first to Wikipedia:

Rape culture is a concept used to describe a culture in which rape and sexual violence are common and in which prevalent attitudes, norms, practices, and media normalize, excuse, tolerate, or even condone rape. Examples of behaviors commonly associated with rape culture include victim blaming, sexual objectification and trivializing rape.

The phrase “rape culture” dates back to works of non-fiction and film from the 1970s’ women’s movement. It may descend from Susan Brownmiller’s phrase “rape-supportive culture” in her book Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. The 2011 “slutwalks” brought it into more common usage and pop culture prominence, when people marched to raise awareness that a woman’s clothing should not invite or justify violence against her. The idea is to “reappropriate” a cultural artifact (so-called slutty clothing) mistakenly named as the cause of rape in order to shed light on the true culprit: the person committing the assault. Dressing up served to accentuate false notions of cause and effect (clothing causes rape) that some use to justify the existence of violence against women.

Another example of reappropriating a cultural artifact to expose the ubiquity of rape culture is the new track by Angel Haze, who raps about the sexual violence she endured beginning when she was seven years old. The medium of hip hop music allows her to convey a subversive and powerful message, writes Michael P. Jeffries, because

The objectification of women and depictions of sexual violence are commonplace in hip-hop, as they are across the landscape of entertainment culture. The vast majority of artists with substantial commercial backing show little public concern for the cancer that is rape culture. But Angel Haze is proof that hip-hop can be both a war zone and a weapon in this fight, especially for young women of color. Despite the sexism they face, engaging rap music is one of the ways these young people come to know themselves and build political consciousness.

Many writing about Steubenville implicate the town’s football culture in the creation of a “rape crew” mentality. Yes, football can be a war zone in America’s rape culture; but like Angel Haze’s hip hop track, football could also become a weapon to expose and fight “the cancer that is rape culture.” There must be an “Angel Haze of football” who could step forward and build something positive from Steubenville and help continue the consciousness-raising this rape case began.

Ohio Valley leaders and parents could cancel the next football season. Fill Big Red Stadium on Super Bowl Sunday with football players, cheerleaders, students, parents, relatives and friends in support of all who have been affected by any act of sexual violence. Invite some speakers. Show some videos. Fill the stands to take a stand in the fight to end rape culture. Text, tweet, retweet, Instagram and Facebook that. Then the links between rape, Steubenville and social media etched digitally into history will make the greatest generation smile down—rather than weep tears—from heaven.

Photo of Steubenville, Oh., from Wikimedia Commons

Thumbnail photo from Flickr user Monica’s Dad under license from Creative Commons 2.0


  1. Sorry to say that all Steubenville has done is continue to protect their #RapeCrew, football team and other participants in thses gang rapes. Yes more victims have come forward. Local law enforcement and legal systems are also circling the wagons. The victims recieve help and support from outside the community from NOW, Ultraviolet, Anonymous, ACLU and other human rights organizations. I only wish this town would show some moral leadership, but it seems to be intimated by the powers that run this small town.

    • if u only knew says:

      Another big portion of this revolves around the fact that the police/politicians have bribed, extorted, blackmailed, and basically done whaterver they wanted for years without regard of the law. That is why the mistrust of the Steubnville “illegal” system

  2. Great post! I am sharing this across my network & beyond.

  3. karen wrote:
    “I only wish this town would show some moral leadership, but it seems to be intimated by the powers that run this small town.”
    Did you mean “intimidated”? Otherwise I’m not sure what you’re trying to say. I do think they’re afraid of their “upper class” there. After all this coach wasn’t afraid to make terroristic threat against a NYT reporter. I can imagine what the local regular Joes are facing.

  4. Nanette,
    Exceptional writing about this case. Now, at age 58, I realize that I am one of the lucky women as I have never experienced a physical or sexual assault. (My grandfather found it hilarious to open the bathroom door once as I perched on the toilet when I was about 8. I knew he was Neanderthal and made sure to be surrounded by family or behind a locked door from then on. He didn’t visit much so that was that. When I was in my early 20’s, my first husband grabbed me with unnecessary force once which just hastened my final departure.) So all in all, I’ve not been abused. I’m one of the lucky ones.

    This case has caught my attention and I salute you and other writers, bloggers and megaphone shouters for continuuing to shine the light.

    I wish all women were as lucky as me.

  5. Dream on ….. since the 60’s “sexual revolution”, the women and young girls that say “no” are not believed or taken seriously; and, certainly NOT important! After-all, it feels good, so the ones objecting must be charactured as this young woman in Steubenville, Ohio. Right?

    This is now a society of: If it feels good, do it. So, women, young girls, and now even children are going to be targets — anywhere.

    Shaming the selfish few? Nah ~~~ shaming is “out” now, too.

    So, society ~~~ dream on, as your young women are officially —- prey.

  6. I hope this goes well. I sincerely hope justice will be done. But things are being lost in the all too sudden translation from arrest to a guilty verdict. There have been many documented cases of the public’s opinion convicting people who got trail and are found acquitted. Now with the advent of social media, these people who used to be limited to talk around a proverbial water cooler or over a PBR at the bar at 930 on a Wednesday night, have access to spread their ideas across the world via the internet and other forms of media. What’s not to say maybe as little as fifty years ago, people east of Wheeling and west of Columbus would have no idea hwere Stuebenville is at. Now, everyone with a television provider with CNN or Fox News, or anyone with access to yahoo or any other news site, not only knows where Stuebenville is at, but has access to made idle threats and use scare tactics to intimidate people whose only connection with the city is that they have to pay taxes and might get the occassional parking ticket.
    There is no doubt a crime was committed on a warm night in August. Lives have been altered forever and the past cannot be undone. The number of perpetrators, conspirisicts, or anyone else involved may never be known fully. Each person, whether it was someone who knew what was going on, let it happen and refused to do anything, ala the Ostritch Effect (head in the sand I see nothing so I can say nothing), or those who took part should all be equally punished to the fullest extent of the law.
    However, my fear is that with all of the negative attention being focused on the city of Steubenville, and the State of Ohio, there will be collateral damage. I know this is kind of an off the wall reference, but the movie Super Troopers shows one thing that I believe might have happened. A completely corrupt police department did have one good officer who tried to help. But the voice of one is often drowned out by the silence of many. I thgink it is safe to say that the vast majority of Steubenville are decent and upstanding human beings. Additionally, the majority of the Football Team are decent nad handworking students who might not have known anything was going on. But yet, on more than one site, the entire football team, high school, city, police department, and county are being accused of this crime. It comes down to this. More than likely, we have all had a real (insert negative connontation for a horrible boss). But just because we work for this person, does this make us just as bad of a human being? Just because there are a sect of Klu Klux Klan members in a county that number twenty, does that make the other 25,000 people in the county racist?
    The perpetraitors of this crime deserve to be dealt with along with anyone who had a hand in the plight of this young woman on that particular night. However, it is unfair and unjust for the entire group of people who have worn Black and Red or live in the Stuebenville City limits to be persecuted as well. Similarly, it is also unfair for those who are against Anonymous to group them all as terrorists and privacy invading neophites. The old addage is wrong and in this case absurd. A few bad apples does not spoil the bunch.

  7. Ummmm I’m pretty sure rape culture existed in the “greatest generation” too. (For one thing, some of the football coaches and football heroes helping cover up insidious sexual abuse, like Sandusky and his buddies, are pretty old.) But more importantly, I think this drinking, fratty sportsy rape culture is in large part a backlash against the advances feminism has made since the forties and fifties, which decades were pretty awful and rape-filled in their own way. It used to be impossible to charge a man with raping his wife, for instance. It used to be much easier to harass and rape women in the workplace and make sure *they* were the ones who got fired if they reported it.
    I’d certainly characterize this type of digital-media, high-school-level misogyny as different and in some ways more disturbing than the “good ol’ boys” manly office culture, but I think it’s misleading to compare it with the soldiers of WWII. Or at least the writing in those paragraphs should be a little more thought-out.
    One last, somewhat obnoxious point, (no disrespect to the writer’s grandfather) but the famous picture of the V-J Day in Times Square sailor kiss photo, which for so long supposedly expressed the way the whole nation felt, is actually a picture of a sexual assault in progress. The drunk sailor just grabbed this woman he did not know, hard, and held her in that rough embrace while she clenched her fists and a third stranger snapped a photo. *That’s* a man of the “greatest generation”.

    • Right on! I was just writing a comment like this, and I saw yours above. Lauren, you totally captured the spirit of my thoughts, which I have posted below.

      I’m disappointed in the comments about what “grandfathers” fought for. The sexualization of women and rape culture is nothing new. It’s just out in the light now instead of in the dark crevasses of the home, dates, and other less public territory. Men who fought in the past, like many of the same men who fight today, engage in rape culture. It happens currently, it happened before, and if we keep promoting outdated thinking like “what would grandpa think?” it will continue to happen. There is centuries old idea that women are to be used for sexual gratification. Whether it’s clothing, marriage, or any other excuse used, the problem is not with the generation of men but the belief system that women are to be used at will.

      I would recommend looking back at history before you suggest to Steubenville how they should tackle the issue.

    • I was going to say the same exact thing. The rape culture has existed since the beginning of time; however, I took this well-written blog in the spirit of shaming these young men by comparing them to the idolized ‘greatest generation.’ Of course, we can’t forget that any man coming home from war (or finishing first at Nascar or with the guts to get into a boxing ring) is automatically rewarded with a scantily clad woman. I’m not for blaming the victim AT ALL ( I too have been groped by strangers, manhandled by male family members) but I do not like the feeling I get when watching the ‘ring girl’ shaking her butt around for no good reason and wish, if at all possible, all women would refuse such employment lest feeding themselves or their children depends upon it. If all women, at once, said no more… their wouldn’t be ring girls. I realize it’s easier said than implemented

    • They have a statue of that Sailor kiss where I live in Sarasota. It makes me sick every time I drive by it.

  8. Wow, what a well-written piece…provocative in the questions it asks…scary if the microcosm represents our youth…Thank you for raising this issue. I hope you know of the 1 Billion Rising movement and will participate in it on Feb 14.


  9. Marc Thompson says:

    Steubenville & Jefferson County has been the focal point of corruption for over eighty years. The city police department was under a federal decree for nearly a decade for corruption including raping women in their custody according to Steubenville civil rights attorney Peter S. Olivito.
    The sheriff was indicted on corruption charges while his brothers plead guilty in federal court on charges of criminal racketeering. The sheriff’s own brother is the Jefferson County Chairman for Jefferson County Democratic Party.

    High school football in Steubenville is the only thing to cheer about since the corruption has destroyed the local economy and businesses from outside the county are well aware of the shake down tactics from the political families. Another rape of a fourteen year old girl just months prior to this case wa swept under the rug by the powers that be to protect the mighty Big Red athletes.

    The county prosecutor who was a Steubenville School paid member, was appointed by the Jefferson County Democratic Committee and is the mother of the notoriously known ” Rape Crew ” and several prominent families had ties to those involved. The saddest part of all of this is the city of 18,000 is attacking the rape victim and praising the school system, cowardly foul mouthed coach, and viciously going after anyone who will stand up for Jane Doe.

  10. Nanette,
    This entire area is rivoted to this story, and the victim is order constant police protection due to threats against her life…”Threats against her?!!” I will never understand that. I will protest on her behalf, I served over 20 years in the military for this NOT to happen…Thank you for a wonderful article.

    Jeff Marple

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