The Steubenville rape case and the moral rot of society


The ABC show, 20/20 ran a special last week featuring the investigation of the rape case involving a teenage girl and two high school football players, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond from Steubenville, Ohio. My mother watched the show from our living room, visibly upset and appalled, as reporter Elizabeth Vargas relayed the details of the case, while my brother and I  sat on the couch opposite her, trying hard to comprehend why this particular case was receiving so much attention. Of course, Mays and Richmond's actions were unacceptable and the show was right to cover the story, but at the end of the special I still felt something lacking.

I found that I was more upset by the way adults (reporters, lawyers and parents) reacted to the case than the actual events, which involved teenage drinking, heavy partying and sexual exploitation. They did not seem aware that these things happen all the time. Special prosecutor, Marianne Hemmeter called the event a “wake-up call,” referring to the magnitude of teenage drinking, lack of parental supervision and widespread insensitivity to other humans.

My brother and I, sophomore and freshman college students respectively, could recall several similar stories from our time in high school: lunch gossip about weekend house parties where a so-and-so went for that extra shot and ended up hooking up with a couple guys on the [insert sport] team. My brother pointed out that he remembered hearing more than once about girls who had been taken advantage of while drunk beyond the point of discretion (or “substantially impaired”-- the specific phrasing used in  Ohio law, referenced multiple times throughout the 20/20 feature).

The detail that followed this recollection brought an incredulous look to my mother’s already upset face: “When the friends of these girls would tell them what happened to them the morning after the party, the girls weren’t generally bothered or really embarrassed. They would just go to another party the next weekend, expecting the same thing to happen,” my brother said.

Steubenville football players, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond were each sentenced to a at least a year in juvenile prison on the charge of a rape that occurred the night of a drunken high school party. Photo courtesy of NBC News.

Less than a week after the 20/20 special, CBS released an article with a statement from Royal Mayo, Steubenville’s former NAACP president, suggesting that the girl “may have consented the sex acts and intended to get drunk.” This information hardly changes the case at all--true or not, there are bigger factors surrounding this unfortunate event.

My brother and I attended a suburban Pennsylvania public school with practically non-existent crime statistics. The school does not hold the reputation of being a “party school”--many students graduate with academic scholarships and attend competitive state schools like Penn State, University of Pittsburgh, Drexel University and University of Pennsylvania. We were thus able to draw all-too-familiar parallels between the Steubenville story and our own high school years.

Though I felt convicted by my mother’s reactions to the case, I found myself sympathizing with the accused football players at Steubenville--I cannot imagine that these boys are much different from guys with whom I went to school. To me, this says a great deal about how desensitized American society as a whole has become to human degradation. When “rape” has to be clearly defined and girls have to be told that they have a right to feel embarrassed, upset and intolerant when it comes to involuntary sexual transgressions, the lines have been blurred past a point of comfort. We begin to ask ourselves: what is the moral standard for society? Does it exist? Is it in need of revision?

Should Mays and Richmond be held accountable? I believe so--that is the overwhelming consensus of the many articles one can find regarding the Steubenville case, not to mention the courts, who deemed the boys guilty of rape. As of now, Mays and Richmond will serve at least a year in juvenile prison.

But people need to recognize that this event is not a one-time atrocity. It happens far more than most adults would care to know. I was glad when 20/20 included a clip of Ohio Attorney General, Mike DeWine saying, “This is not a Steubenville problem. This is a nationwide problem.” This statement should have been the basis of the show's discussion. Instead, it seemed that the emphasis rested on the "shocking" details of a high school party gone wrong.

The main distinction in the Steubenville case has to do with the wide use of social media--YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. These mediums of communication were able to serve as proof of the events that took place the night of the party, but they also show how these suburban high school kids reacted to what happened. By assessing the commentary of these students--the most notorious example being a YouTube video uploaded by a student who didn’t even know the victim or attend the party--it is easy to see evidence of this moral rot and absence of conscience. Students took humiliating pictures of the victim without her clothes, and Twitter buzzed with gossip and judgment--none of which seemed to be directed at Mays or Richmond, the alleged rapists.

The student who made the YouTube video cruelly mocking the victim in her drunken state was rightly apprehended for his actions (losing a full academic scholarship), but that did little to settle my thoughts concerning what I found to be the most upsetting element of the story: the human capacity for evil and how easy it has become for us to dismiss this, if we are perceptive enough to recognize evil in the first place. One “like” or retweet can affirm the most heinous of views.

Vargas should have discussed how common incidences like the Steubenville rape are, and perhaps delved further into the moral degeneration of society as a whole. A couple days ago, the Huffington Post ran an article connecting the Steubenville rape with the influence of “rape culture” in modern society. The article included lyrics from a recent Rick Ross rap that details and seems to condone what can only be described as rape. When lyrics upholding degrading views of women and extreme moral relativism are categorized as “mainstream,” should we really be so shocked when something like Steubenville is brought to light?

Parents need to be having conversations with their kids, and media outlets need to do their part in integrating this case, along with the countless cases that go unrecognized, into a national discussion concerning moral virtue. Through this article, I am contributing to what I hope will develop into a larger discussion about values and accountability in teen and adult culture.

The phrase “rape is rape” becomes void when the reality is that people genuinely do not see the moral implications of their actions. When not even the law can provide a clear moral standard, people lose their ability to discern evil from ordinary.