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Steubenville, De-carceration, and Rape Culture

September 9th, 2013     by Whitney Wager     Comments

*Trigger warning for discussion of sexual assault and rape culture.

On March 17, 2013, Judge Thomas Lipps handed out guilty verdicts to the now-infamous rapists in the Steubenville, Ohio case. On a literal level, justice was done. But on an emotional level, witnesses are left wanting more.

The victim, referred to as Jane Doe, was repeatedly subjected to sexual assault from two young men, at several locations, in full sight of over 50 onlookers. She woke with a blank memory, but to a town full of people who were more than willing to remind her of what happened with dozens of photos, Tweets and Facebook posts. A family member saw the photos and showed them to her parents, who then reported the rape to the police. About a week later, two of the town’s biggest football stars and promising young students were rounded up and charged with rape and kidnapping. (The latter charge has since been dropped). One of the rapists even claimed “nothing even happened” on Twitter.

Rape culture minimizes or denies incidents of sexual assault in order to maintain a status quo that is systemically oppressive. In addition, rape culture relies on victim-blaming and perpetrates the belief that victims are at fault or deserved it because they weren’t “alert” or calls into question the morality of past actions, real or invented. What happened in Steubenville is the definition of rape culture, and until it blew up on an international scale thanks to some tenacious bloggers , certain citizens were quite content to diminish or deny the assaults against Jane Doe. Now in a town of less than 11,000 people that had previously been best known for being the birthplace of the Rat Pack’s Dean Martin, two star football players have made national headlines after they were charged, found guilty and sentenced for rape.

In spite of these charges and the violence of Jane Doe’s experiences and subsequent responses, attempts were made to cover-up the incident by the adult coaches (all of whom still have jobs somehow). Further, the mainstream media coverage of the trial and the tone of the reporting did not focus on the ways in which rape culture is maintained, nor did the victim remain the focus of the narrative. While reporting the verdict, CNN’s Poppy Harlow said it was incredibly difficult for her to watch “these two men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students… as their lives fell apart,” highlighted the tragedy the rapists suffered. This makes me think that justice is not done.

In her article, “This is what rape culture looks like,” activist and author Jaclyn Friedman, in her analysis of the Ben Roethlisberger rape case, provides a succinct summary of rape culture that is absolutely applicable to Steubenville, and myriad other incidents of rape. She writes, “That’s rape culture. When authorities use their power to deliberately silence rape victims instead of helping them find justice, it not only leaves rapists free but intimidates other victims from coming forward.”

Coupled with this complicity from authority is a media that refuses to actually seriously engage with rape culture and society’s participation in its practice. “When our media won’t talk about rape, people think it doesn’t happen and the rapists face no consequences. That emboldens rapists,” Friedman says. “As this woman’s case proceeds, her body, her actions, her mental state, motives and her history will be put on public trial in a way that would never happen if she were accusing someone of kidnapping or attempted murder. That’s rape culture.” She adds, “When women are too afraid of being re-victimized by the courts and the media to come forward, and when the public gets the message that women who accuse men of rape are lying of did something to deserve it, the cycle continues.”

In short, rape culture relies on silences, erasures, and fear. Rape culture relies on sentences that start with, “It’s not really rape if…” Victims’ experiences and traumas are trivialized in a society that ignores, tolerates, and condones rape through various mediums, whether it’s advertising or stand-up comedy or comments in a school hallway. Rape culture is allowed to continue by a widespread refusal to acknowledge how pervasive it truly is and that ultimately, rape is rape.

Are Prisons Obsolete? Angela Davis, Decarceration, and the Racialization of Crime

Though the Steubenville rapists have been punished under the extent of the law, it’s important to realize that incarceration is only one piece of the puzzle. It’s fairly clear that incarceration is not an effective deterrent to crime overall; in Canada 42 percent of offenders will reconvict after serving time in federal prison. However, it’s worth noting that the reconviction rate for sexual offenders is much lower, at less than two percent. For a case like this, it often seems like society wants to send the guilty part(ies) to prison, slam the cell door, and never give them another thought. But that only serves us until it happens again. And again. Does putting people in jail truly hold them accountable for their crimes? Does punishing someone today make another potential criminal reconsider their actions in the future? We need to ask ourselves how incarceration helps communities, families, and of course, Jane Doe.

Angela Davis is a radical political activist, feminist and member of the Communist Party USA. By forging dialogue on the system of mass incarceration in the United States, its racist history and contemporary practices, as well as its efficacy at preventing crime, Davis effectively calls into question the often-unchallenged view that imprisonment equals justice, which equals rehabilitation. She says, “Prison relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.” Davis goes on to assert that prisons may not be the solution to many of the problems we experience in our society: they don’t help unemployment, they don’t decrease the number of people on social assistance, nor do they improve mental health treatment, homelessness, drug addiction or illiteracy.

As outlined in Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete?, the links between the prison system and colonialism are illuminating; both systems force authority on their subjects in a physical, mental and systematic ways. Both demand dependency on the authority(ies) that be. Both systems seek to isolate their subjects, and both compel their subjects to work for less than minimum wage in unsafe or substandard conditions, with little access to justice. While jail can be an effective strategy for suppressing and segregating a large population, incarceration doesn’t do much to heal the prisoners, victims of crimes or communities, or to address the ongoing effects of ongoing traumas like colonialism.

Consider that in Canada in 2010/2011, 27 percent of those in sentenced custody provincially, and 20 percent federally, identified as Aboriginal, yet Indigenous persons only represent three percent of Canada’s population. There are various reasons for this, but big ones are racialization of crime and white supremacy. In other words, colonialism, racism, and incarceration are linked; being able to avoid jail is part of how racial privilege works.

This is where Davis’ holistic approach* to crime prevention through positive community building is especially useful. She asserts that if we challenge and break the prison industrial complex with a combination of infusing and bulking up the public education system, a comprehensive free healthcare system, and develop a justice system that uses reparation and reconciliation over incarceration, provides the groundwork for dealing with crime in a prison-free world. Demilitarizing schools is especially important, because it takes the focus from a reactionary punishment model – “if something bad happens, we’re ready” – and shifts towards a proactive prevention model. Funding could instead be diverted to mental health research and services, career counselling for at-risk individuals, sustainable in-school meal programs, funding for after-school activities, and countless other initiatives shown to decrease criminality.

* One response to crime, criminality, and punishment is restorative justice (RJ). Originally put into practice by Indigenous nations, this community-driven model of justice and healing is featured at length in Shameless’ current Justice Issue. (Pick yours up today or click here to subscribe!) RJ varies from community to community, and looks at each situation individually It may incorporate apologies, community service, counselling, or repayment for damaged/stolen goods. RJ, through a meeting or talking circle often guided by a facilitator, encourages the offender and those affected by the crime to talk to one another and truly be heard in a safe space. Significantly, this alternative approach encourages all involved to take on active roles when it comes to restitution, healing processes and acknowledging the impacts of their actions. For more on alternatives to incarceration that work to heal and decolonize our communities, like restorative justice, check out Shameless’ Justice Issue, on newsstands now.

And in the event that a person does commit a crime, Davis’ approach questions the effectiveness of the penal justice system overall: does it decrease recidivism, or the rates people re-offend? Does it help the offender make amends to the victim? Does it offer closure to those affected by the crime and the offender? Does it rehabilitate the offender so that they may be a productive member of society? Does it punish them for what they’ve done? Largely, the answers to most of these questions (save the last one) are no.

Educating youth before they potentially make bad decisions is more effective when it comes to decreasing crime rates and allows at-risk individuals additional opportunities to change their course. Returning to Steubenville, difficult questions need to be asked, specifically, what good will come from putting the perpetrators behind bars? This is not an argument against the need for punishment here; rather, it’s an exploration surrounding the current system’s efficacy when it comes to combating rape culture. What if we took the money we will spend on incarcerating these two, and spent it on educating youth about sexual health focused on active, mutual consent and reciprocal consent?


It’s not too hard to agree with the argument for de-carceration on a macro level. But when we are looking at crimes like Steubenville, it’s a difficult path to navigate. While I agree with Davis’ theories overall, part of me just doesn’t care about the perpetrators’ futures and whether they will be productive citizens. But to collectively incite actual change we need to engage everyone, specifically young people, on an intrinsic level. We can’t follow the law just for the sake of it; we need to want to do what’s right.

One way or another, we need to end the stubborn rape culture that thrives in our society. But we also need acknowledge the inadequacies and structural violence of our current justice systems, both in reducing crime, healing communities, and actually addressing the root of the problem.

Even though these boys were found guilty and punished, I still find myself having to explain to people that rape is rape. And if we are going to foster a future generation of people who experience their sexualities in healthy ways, we need to address some of these issues – like gender equality and consent– in a more holistic and grass roots fashion, from a much younger age. My utopian ideal is a world where sexuality equality is the norm regardless of where you self-identify along the gender spectrum; where the power structures between partners are only the ones desired by consenting parties; and where we can collectively take responsibility for issues of criminality.

In her article, “Why I can’t celebrate the arrests in the Rehtaeh Parsons case,” youth worker and prison abolitionist Ardath Wynach writes, “Let us not turn to the easy solution of making a few troubled young men the scapegoat for a rape culture that is deep, thick and pervasive. Let us all become leaders for our children and ask questions with answers that may be difficult to hear.” And this issue of community-driven engagement is essential to both decolonizing the criminal justice systems in Canada and the United States, and to ending rape culture. Paraphrasing Angela Davis, to be radical is to grasp an issue at its root. Grasping the problems with incarceration and rape culture need to happen at this radical level, but the solutions need to emerge from communities.


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