Rape Culture from Steubenville to the Supreme Court

All photos are from the documentary Roll Red Roll, which explores the Steubenville rape case and the activism surrounding it.

In 2012, a rape case rattled the small town of Steubenville, Ohio—and forced the entire country to confront our culture of violence against women. As the confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh move forward in the wake of mounting sexual assault allegations against him, we want to connect the dots between what we learned then—and what it compels us to do differently now.

In Bethesda, Maryland, a stumbling drunk 17-year-old football player and his friend are said to have pushed a 15-year-old girl into a bedroom. The football player allegedly pinned her down to the bed and groped her while grinding his body into hers. She remembers that he tried to forcibly remove her clothes and her bathing suit. She remembers that she was screaming, so he put his hand over her mouth to muffle her; she says she was afraid he might suffocate her. His friend allegedly stood by, laughing maniacally and sometimes egging him on. When the friend jumped on top to join in, he knocked over the football player—and that’s when she says she escaped.

In Steubenville, Ohio, two 16 year old football players were drinking at a party at a friends house. They dragged and carried a 15 year old girl out of the party and drove her to another friends house.  On the way, they took off her shirt and fondled her. When they arrived at the house, they took off her clothes, fondled and raped her. There were eyewitnesses in the room. She was passed out the whole time.

Long-time friends of the football player who the girl says were at the party “have no memory of the alleged incident.” Her account is “absolutely nuts.” They note that he’s “a great friend” and they “have never witnessed any improper conduct by [him] towards women.”

Fellow football players relate: “I’ve been in that type of situation, and 9 times out of 10 the woman engaged in it.” “She has to take responsibility for going to those parties.” “These are good kids, they’re good football players.”

Community leaders remark that “he is an outstanding man.” She must be “messed-up,” and her coming forward “reeks of opportunism.” This is a “con job,” says the most powerful man in the country. In her community, others dismiss it all as “horseplay;” in their eyes, it was just “a couple of teenagers playing seven minutes in heaven.”

In town, people say that “it’s easier to tell your parents ‘you were raped’ then to admit you got drunk and let some guys have their way with you.” And besides, “I’ve heard unflattering things about this girl.”  Community leaders say “it was just a party that got out of hand.”

Dozens of tweets and social media posts from the boys in Steubenville told a different story, as did the many witnesses once they were asked to testify under oath. After a thorough investigation, a sickening reality emerged.

Now, it’s once again time for an investigation into the actions of high school boys—and a thorough examination of the ways in which our own culture silences survivors, justifies rape and normalizes violence. Brett Kavanaugh and his friend, Mark Judge, who is implicated in allegations against the Supreme Court nominee, should testify under oath. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, Deborah Ramirez, Julie Swetnick and any other survivors who come forward should be given the chance to be heard—and believed.

This is not a new story, but it’s one that should never have to be written and told again. If our leaders do the right thing now, 17-year-old boys and 15-year-old girls might just have a chance at living out a different narrative in the years to come.

Anurima Bhargava headed the educational opportunities section of the civil rights division at the Justice Department.

Nancy Schwartzman is the Director of the award-winning documentary Roll Red Roll about the Steubenville, Ohio rape case. The film will be released widely in 2019.

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