Today is the third day of the much-publicized trial of Steubenville (Ohio) high school football stars Trent Mays, 17, and Ma’lik Richmond, 16. The young men are accused of raping a 16-year-old girl during a party in August 2012. Mays is also charged with “illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material” for pictures he took that night. The victim, who had passed out, didn’t even know she was assaulted until she found out on social media the next day.
Despite incriminating tweets, Instagram pictures (in which the victim was shown being carried by her arms and legs while seemingly unconscious) and a video of a partygoer describing the victim as “so raped” and “deader than Trayvon Martin,” defense attorneys are prepared to argue that the alleged rape was in fact consensual sex. Richmond’s attorney, Walter Madison, said, “The person who is the accuser here is silent just as she was that night, and that’s because there was consent,” and added that her consent was implied because “she didn’t affirmatively say no.” May’s attorney, Adam Nemann, said, “We’re denying that there was any non-consensual contact, period.”
Yesterday’s courtroom release of even more graphic cellphone photos from the night of the assault seems to have only further entrenched their arguments. The attorneys maintain that the victim was not too drunk to consent, despite witness testimony that she was “the drunkest person in the room.” Two witnesses also testified pre-trial, that at one point, the young girl was on the ground “naked, unmoving and silent” while Mays exposed himself and Richmond penetrated her with his fingers.
In a 20/20 interview, Richmond said that he “felt like” the victim was “coming on to [him]” because her arm was wrapped around him and one hand was on his chest. Richmond doesn’t seem to consider the fact that perhaps the young woman had her arm around him because she was unable to stand on her own two feet. Mays has not spoken to the press, but his lawyer’s opening statement maintained that the 17-year-old “did not rape the young lady in question.”
These arguments and attempts to shape public perception against the victim rely on slut-shaming, victim-blaming and the glorification of athletes. She was a football groupie. She didn’t even go to Steubenville High School. She got drunk. She wanted it. By claiming the victim was a consenting participant, the boys’ lawyers are perpetuating the idea that a drunk girl, who witnesses allege was carried from party to party to be sexually assaulted, is to blame for what happened to her. But silence is not consent, acquaintance rape is not a myth and contrary to Sean Hannity’s statements on Fox News, rape is not the sole domain of “evil people.”
Feminist author Jessica Valenti has highlighted the gross media coverage of the case, in which focus is centered around the “almost-certain demise” of the accused’s “dreams of playing football” and the fact that the “Big Red” Steubenville football team is what “keep[s] Steubenville on the map.” But we cannot forget what this trial is really about: the rape of a 16-year-old young woman. Rape culture is real: how else to explain why other party attendees did nothing to stop the sexual assault while it was occurring or why the victim has been ostracized and her family has been threatened? Unless we start addressing the fact that our society tells girls not to get raped rather than telling boys not to rape, cases like the one in Steubenville will continue to occur. Richmond and Mays deserve a fair trial, but “Jane Doe” deserves a society in which women are treated with humane dignity, not as objects who can be sexually assaulted with impunity.