Transforming rape culture from Steubenville to anywhere, USA – The Feminist Wire

Transforming rape culture from Steubenville to anywhere, USA

By Lisa Factora-Borchers

I usually beam when Ohio makes news.  Usually.  In presidential election years, the inner grin shows its teeth when I hear the famous phrase, “As goes Ohio, so goes the nation.”  Over the past several months however, as a writer living in the Buckeye state, I have found this saying applicable as we continue to survey the damage in the aftermath of the Steubenville rape case.

Ohio, famous for being the mirror of the United States, reflects the healthy tension of the American populous.  We boast an almost even distribution among liberal, conservative, and swing opinion.  Our medium sized cities are connected by the rural roads lay flat for both the Amish buggy and eighteen wheel semi-trucks transporting goods in every direction.  There’s support for and against gay marriage, reproductive rights, and every social issue you can battle.  In other words: what makes us special is our perfect average-ness. We’re the middle.  Our breath is often staked as the wind in which the direction of the nation will go. We are the political battle state that rests with the burden of revealing the civic psyche of the most powerful nation in the free world.  Meaning, what happens within our state lines can be an indication of what the rest of the nation is doing.  So, what do the events of Steubenville, Ohio mean for our country? It means what happened in Steubenville not only could happen anywhere.  It already is happening everywhere.  It means rape culture is alive and well.

Photo credit: Michael D. McElwain, AP

Photo credit: Michael D. McElwain, AP

As the abhorrent details of how two male teenage football players were found guilty of raping and disseminating nude photos of a 16 year old girl made headlines, writers and bloggers have asserted advice and coverage based upon their own ad hoc subcultures of parenting, activism, sports, and politics.  From the cloying, maternal columns suggesting we teach our sons to “be kind” to fiery debates on how we need to “teach men not to rape” to victim blaming, to learning “enthusiastic consent” before engaging in sexual activity, to boycotting CNN for their rape apologist reporting, there is no shortage of opinion on rape culture.  But there isn’t much on how to transform it.  Perhaps what makes it so difficult to pinpoint is its powerful yet amorphous nature.

Rape culture is like smoke.  Insidious, it hangs in the air, getting into everything, staining and deteriorating whatever it touches.  It’s highly adaptive, cunning; clever in its ability to morph into whatever context it is placed.   Rape culture prices and prioritizes human dignity, as if it’s something to earn and not inherent.  Rape culture sets behavioral prescriptions and if one does not adhere to them, they deserve violence or, at the very least, are somehow responsible for it.  Rape has no age. It transcends language and time.  It has been a part of the human conversation since the beginning of recorded storytelling found in religious texts and even mythology. Its’ long standing presence in our history gives indication of one glaring social failure: we have yet to envision, let alone achieve, radical equality.

The Steubenville rape case, with its vile details possesses an eerie, almost scripted horror story that begs to be used for confronting teen issues:  acquaintance rape, sexuality, gender essentialism, alcohol, bullying, jock and sport pathology, hyper-masculinity, social media, judicial justice, consent, decision making, bystander mentality, moral codes, and accountability.

But for those of us many years removed from football practice and August end-of-summer-no-parents-home parties, it is time to identify what is our responsibility in transforming rape culture so we let this story become not fodder for the next generation of perpetrators and survivors, but rather an entry point for nuanced conversation?

Rape culture is not a separate, external entity corrupting a few in Steubenville, Ohio.  It is a deeply engrained and believable operating system in our collective conscience, whispering its influence into every aspect of life, at every stage of personal formation and development.  Rape culture is not a separate culture from the one you and I are living in.  They are one and the same.

The rape culture that formed Trent Mays’ and Ma’lik Richmond’s decisions to carry a girl from party to party, raping her at their leisure and entertainment is the same force that tells us which survivors deserve our empathy and which ones we ignore.  How interesting it is to read the harsh judgment pointed at the bystanders for not intervening on what they were witnessing.  One of the witnesses testified he didn’t know it was rape because “well, it wasn’t violent.” If we used the Steubenville bystanders as a mirror to our country, how many of us would see ourselves ignoring what is happening right in front of us because we didn’t see it as “violent?”

Rape is one of many violent forms of oppression – stalking, abuse, domestic violence, trafficking – but they come from the same culture.  Rape culture thrives in any society that assigns and thwarts power according to prescribed traits, identifiers, and behaviors. It is intensified through lenses of race, class, physical and cognitive ability, and occupation among an endless list of factors.  Some call this systematic assignment of privilege patriarchy.  I prefer kyriarchy. 

It even continues in the aftermath, in the determination of whose stories are deemed worthy and which ones are less significant. So before we throw stones at the ignorant teenager who claims he didn’t know what rape looks like, ask yourself if you know what it looks like.  Not just for Jane Doe, and not just in cases of heterosexual aggression, do you know what sexual violence looks like for a queer or gay survivor?  Or a trafficked person?  Or an undocumented survivor?  Or a transperson?  Or a sex worker?   What about what it looks like for an incarcerated survivor?  Are you pleading innocent because you weren’t aware and couldn’t identify what it looked like?

Feminists, activists, and bloggers alike are taken with this concept of “training men not to rape.”  In some ways, this plan can work.  It tackles the Steubenville situation, but does it address rape as social construct?  It may dismantle many of the problems, but it doesn’t transform it for everyone.

Photo credit: Thomas Ondrey

Photo credit: Thomas Ondrey

If we are to transform rape culture, for everyone, the salient thread is deepening our comprehension of how we view power, how we award and punish one another based on concepts of social-norming and acceptability. How we teach power – not how we give consent – is the core essence of rape culture.  This is the task of writing a new prevention plan that leaves “no means no and yes means yes” behind.  It is the most basic and daunting call because it requires we all, not just feminists and activists, become cultural workers in our everyday lives, examining the deep roots of our own agendas, dreams, and sense of safety.  This calls for us to ask uncomfortable questions around justice (how we conflate judicial sentencing and incarceration with accountability and justice), healing (how and if communities respond in the aftermath of crisis), and violence (trauma and its lasting impact on survivors and their families).

We each must acknowledge and accept that we will not and should not come to a unified “how to” agenda to wage a global war to end rape. This is not a call to abandon all the work that has been done to address rape, particularly acquaintance rape, through the lenses of heterosexual rape and consent.  These are important strategies to implement to prevent further crimes.  Neither is this a suggestion to ignore the fact that women represent the majority of rape survivors.  This is a call for expansion, not generalization. It is our responsibility to be mindful of the profundity of our goal to “overcome” rape culture. We’re not overcoming rape culture for some survivors, we are transforming it for everybody, and that includes not just survivors, but for perpetrators and bystanders as well.

To put my money where my mouth is, I looked at my own life as a mother to a young son, as a feminist writer residing in the “heart of it all,” as a woman of color cultural critic/worker, my responsibility lays in a multifaceted sphere. Steubenville serves as a dramatic guideline for how to shift from being a culture based on power to a culture based on relationship.  In building upon the work of so many who have voiced their expertise on their own cultures and subcultures, here are a few of my own organically grown strategies for not only combating but transforming rape culture in a region whose social nervous system is held as the microcosm for the United States.

Transforming Biology as Destiny to Exciting Possibility

My 3-year-old toddler boy received endless comments for his physical attributes especially his height.  Apparently his unusually high growth rate makes turns adults oracles, predicting futures that all include physical sport participation.  “Do you want to play basketball when you grow up?  You are so tall, but you gotta be fast, too!”  While there is nothing inherently wrong with asking a child if they want to play sports, a repeated question, identical in assumption, sends a strong message of performance, expectation, and preference, and what it might take to please others.

Using one arm, I open the space for him to think freely, opposing rape culture’s tendency to shrink masculinity to focus on physical coordination as a sign of worth by adding a tagline, “We definitely practice his free throw shots, but he really loves maps and he’s also dabbling in piano.  We make rhymes, too, so maybe a future poet.  Lots of fun options to explore.”  With the other arm, I tweak the expectations of family and strangers alike, “It’s so exciting to think of all the things kids can try, isn’t it?  Who knows who he will discover himself to be.”

Transforming Teenage Angst to Mentoring Opportunity

I wouldn’t be able to identify my 14 year old niece, a sprouting African-American young woman, if her phone was not attached to her right hand, oscillating between holding her phone arm’s length away to snap another picture of herself or finger scrolling her friends’ pictures of themselves on Twitter.  She shares details of 8th grade life, which include secret boyfriends and girlfriends, inside jokes, half-truths, and almost manic swings in friendship sagas.

It’s hard, but I put aside my temptation to place all my Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, and Gloria Anzaldua books in the most obvious parts of her room and ask about other parts of her life that don’t revolve around her social life.  Trying to put focus and energy on her gifts that don’t receive as much attention, I ask to see her pencil sketches, create reasons for road trips, volunteer to be her Wii partner for Just Dance, and accompany her on retreats.  With careful and appropriate disclosure, I share my own struggles as a woman of color remembering being a girl of color in the Midwest, providing a safe place to share her anger and confusion about racist and sexist encounters, and brainstorming self-care options.  Just as I wonder if anything that I’m doing makes a difference, she casually remarks, “The other day I was really thinking about what you said and I try not to do that at school.” I give her a quizzical look and wait for her to elaborate.  “You know, that thing you said about not dumbing yourself down for the sake of someone liking you.  I see that in a lot of my friends.  Yeah, I’m not going to do that.”

Transforming Buried Ignorance to Liberating Truthfulness

A few months ago, when delivering my phone to a technology service desk for a repair an employee asks me what I do for a living.  I falter, about to give a generic answer to avoid discussion about writing.  I go with honesty, “I write about feminisms, culture, and gender.  Human rights, too.  I try to anyway.”  Immediately his face lights up and he says he finds this fascinating.  We go back and forth in conversation.  Standing in the middle of a store, he shares his story about his experiences as a transsexual man.  He soon asks me questions, wanting to know my opinion about issues pertaining to the trans community. The pressure to nod and spit terms that I didn’t completely understand creeps up my face. I was embarrassed by my ignorance, but transparency wins.  “Truthfully, I don’t know enough about trans issues or lives. I know it’s not your job to teach me.  So, I need to know more before I try to answer.”

While he fidgeted with my gadget, the conversation grew from him sharing how he grew up knowing he was different from his peers, to sharing what it means to for him to be a transsexual graduate student in the engineering field.  After our legs begin to ache from standing in one place too long, he gives me his card and asks to connect over Facebook.  I leave, mystified and high off conversation.

For me, I don’t want to just end rape. I want to transform the mentalities that posit sexual violence as a sensible outcome of its logic. We must transform rape culture by wielding our own power in the spaces where we are most present: our workspaces, family, neighborhoods, businesses, relationships, religious or spiritual gathering places, and even our corners of the Internet.  Think personal and local.  Think relationship and specificity. Think human decency.  Begin there.  When we identify and name the spaces where we show up and are present, when we are charged with our own authority to claim and demand human dignity for ourselves, we begin to demand it for one another.  We must choose our battles, yes, but we must respond knowing that no situation is too big or small for that charge.  This is what it means to transform rape culture.

If we are to learn anything from Steubenville, it’s that Steubenville can easily be anywhere.  Anyone can be Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond. Anyone can be Jane Doe.  It is sobering to know that if this kind of tragedy happened on one random summer night in Ohio, similar tragedies are occurring a thousand fold across the country.  If it’s happening here, then it’s happening in your hometown as well.  And who is better equipped to transform your hometown than you?


pic for tfwLisa Factora-Borchers is a creative non-fiction writer currently living in Cleveland, Ohio. Lisa received her BA in English from Xavier University and a joint masters degree in Counseling Psychology and Pastoral Ministry from Boston College.   After a transformative experience working as an assistant editor at make/shift magazine where she learned about editing as an act of radical love, she is now the editor of the forthcoming anthology, “Dear Sister: Letters to Survivors of Sexual Violence” (January 2014, AK Press).   She is currently working on a memoir that will crack open new spaces within feminisms, spirituality, and the US Catholic Church.