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

This 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 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.


Nanette Fondas is co-author of The Custom-Fit Workplace and former professor of business. Nanette writes, blogs, and curates issues on work-life fit and parenting in a globalized economy. Her award-winning research on the economics and sociology of work, organizations, and management appears in scholarly journals and newspapers, magazines, and blogs including The Atlantic, Psychology Today, Huffington Post, and MomsRising. Follow her @NanetteFondas on Twitter.