men, masculinities and gender politics

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We all live in Steubenville.

 

[Trigger warning: stories of sexual assault.]

This year the name Steubenville has become synonymous with rape.  
 
The small city in eastern Ohio just saw the conclusion of a trial in which two high school football players were found guilty of raping a teenage girl from a nearby township. 
 
A lot of the media coverage of the incident was about the importance of high school football in an economically-depressed rust belt town.  There were examinations of how the football players there get treated like gods, of how the young men thought that they would be protected by their coach, of how the police trying to investigate the crime met with a cover-up and a wall of silence,  and about how we still treat (and judge) victims of rape while protecting perpetrators. 
 
Finally, there was pointed criticism aimed at CNN and at other media for how they covered the guilty verdicts: about the fact that the reporters talked mainly about how terrible it was that the futures of two promising young men were now in jeopardy – how devastating it all was for those boys – with hardly any attention at all being paid to the young woman they victimized, or to the viciousness of their actions.
 
This whole incident has received a lot of coverage, and has been subject to a lot of excellent, progressive, feminist-informed analysis.  In a case like this, where so much has been written already, I ask myself what can I possibly add to the conversation?  And it seems that there is one point that has not been made quite as strongly as it might be – and as it must be.  And that point is simply this: 
 
Steubenville lives in all of us, and we in it. 
 
I am from Steubenville. 
 
And you are, too.

 
Not just a rustbelt issue.  Okay, so I am not literally from Steubenville.   (And you probably aren’t, either.)  I’m not from some small, economically-depressed Ohio valley rustbelt burg that has probably already seen its best days and now only finds glory through the exploits of its teenage football players.  A lot has been written about the state of the local economy, about the region’s faded blue collar culture, about the presumed lack of sophistication of people who can’t see much further than the next set of hills, and even about the role of football. 
 
But the issue here is not what part of North America these people live in.  The issue is not the income of their daddies and/or their mommies.  The issue is not some masculine identity crisis brought on by an economy that is moving from one based in heavy industry and natural resource extraction to one that is based in.... in....  in...  well, no one really knows what comes next.
 
No, the issue here is not money.  Not the supposed backwardness.  Not class background.  Not even football.  The issue here is the rape culture.  And that’s pretty much a global phenomenon.  It transcends region.  It transcends race.  It transcends class. 
 
(As we discuss this issue, it is critical to keep in mind that there are areas of the globe where rape does not exist.  I have written about that reality previously elsewhere.  See: http://billsprofeministblog.blogspot.ca/2010/09/achieving-rape-free-world-its-not-that.html.   The existence of those rape-free societies helps to remind us that rape is not some inevitable human phenomenon that is somehow hardwired into the brain and penis of the human male.  That rape is a choice.  But this post is not about those cultures that do not know rape.  No, this post is about a culture that knows rape only too well.  Where rape not only exists, but is endemic.  This post is about us, and about the fact that we are all from the exact same culture of rape and male entitlement that engendered the brutal behavior of those two Steubenville football players on that warm summer night.)
 
Little in common.  Except where it counts.  I grew up having little in common with those young Steubenville men -- at least on the surface.  I grew up urban.  Cosmopolitan.  In a large, east coast megalopolis.  My classmates and I were nearly all from white collar families.  Our parents were for the most part professionals.  We were worldly.  Many of us had travelled.  Many of us took fancy vacations.  And while there were a few good athletes among us, we did not have what could really be called a jock culture.  It was more of an intellectual culture.  We had athletes, but we also had “mathletes.”  It was a place where playing sports was more of a feather in one’s cap rather than a ticket to college.  We were (most of us, anyway) already headed to college, whether we played on the team or watched from the stands.  It was hardly a culture of privation.  And for the most part, our grand dreams did not include playing football at the local state university.
 
So on the surface, it might seem like we didn’t have all that much in common with the young men of Steubenville, Ohio.  But when it comes to rape behaviors, we actually did.  We too were raised in the rape culture.  A place where women are playthings.  And where drunk women are considered prey for the predators among us.  And some of us behaved exactly the same way that those two young men in Steubenville did.
 
Were we all predatory back then?  My kneejerk reaction is to say “No!”  But a more honest answer is that it probably depends a little bit on just where one draws that line.  Most of us did not rape girls.  But most of us weren’t entirely up to speed on the issue of consent, either.  When it came to sex, a lot of us just pursued and pursued and pursued until the girl gave in.  And if she didn’t give in, well, most of us gave up.  But some guys didn’t.  Some guys wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. 
 
Our party scene.  The young woman who was assaulted in Steubenville had attended a number of gatherings that night.  As had the boys who ultimately assaulted her.  It was kind of a mobile event.  And as I read about the happenings of that night, about the alcohol-infused roving party, I found myself reflecting on my own high school days.  And I thought:  Wow! That could have been us!  Moving from place to place, looking for somewhere to continue the party...  
 
And then I got to thinking about it a lot more, and realized that it was us!
 
Our parties – no doubt like the ones in Steubenville – ranged from relatively tame to totally out of control.  But one thing I do recall from those days was that sometimes at parties, sexual assaults did in fact happen.  Some nights, we would have been absolutely indistinguishable from the young people of Steubenville. 
 
As I dust off those memories of long ago, three specific incidents come to mind…     
 
Only good for one thing. I was at one party in high school where I ran into a male acquaintance.  He looked a little shaken.  He said that he had just been “making out” in a bedroom with some girl when she suddenly started to weep.  She was drunk, he said.  But her words were coherent enough.  Through her sobs she talked about her past experiences, and about how she felt about her life.  About how all the boys thought that she was only good for just one thing – sex.  According to the guy, at that point he stopped messing around with her, got up, and walked away.  Probably because he didn’t want to hear her troubles.  Probably because he too was only interested in sex.  I never found out how that girl got home that night.  But I do know that a number of the guys in our circle were behaving in ways that made her feel like crap about herself.  Like they really did only want her for one thing.  And that’s no way to treat a human being.
 
Eric the Rapist.  Another party, another weekend.  A boy named Eric who had been at the party raped a girl in a car parked down the block.  She immediately told people what had happened.  The police were called right away, and the boy was arrested.  I believe that the rape was prosecuted, but I’m not entirely sure.  I only knew the boy by sight.  He went to another school.  And people at my school began to refer to him as “Eric the Rapist.” 
 
People actually believed the girl.  People actually believed that Eric had done what he had been accused of.  But I think our willingness to accept what he had done was probably greatly facilitated by the fact that Eric wasn’t one of ours.  We owed him no allegiance.  No loyalty.  So there was no incentive for us to deny what he had done -- to deny what we all knew was probably the truth.  But it did happen.  And it happened at one of our parties.
 
A predator... with an audience.  Another time I was at a party but had to leave to get my girlfriend home in time for her curfew.  Then I went back to the party to collect my best friend in order to give him a ride home.  “You won’t believe what happened upstairs!” he said when I finally located him in the back yard.  “It was pretty sick!”  And he told me that there had been a young woman lying on a bed.  That a guy had been doing things to her sexually...  with the bedroom door left wide open.  And that other people were standing there watching through the doorway.  And the guy kept looking up at them and smiling. 
 
I remember thinking to myself at the time that what the guy had been doing was pretty uncool.  And I thought at the time that the girl must not have been aware that other people could see what was going on.  But it didn’t occur to me until much later that the young woman was probably really drunk.  That she was probably pretty close to being passed out.  That she would not have been able to defend herself against the guy.  And that in addition to being a total slime, the guy was acting like a total predator. 
 
The only difference between what happened that night at that party and what happened in Steubenville last summer is that in my high school days we didn’t yet have cel phones that could take pictures or record video.  So there was no enduring evidence of the assault.  Otherwise, there would have been pictures...  no doubt tweeted all around.
 
And the boy might have wound up going to jail. 
 
How bad is bad?  Some folks reading this post will recall the very same party scene I am talking about.  And perhaps their recollections will be different.  Maybe they will think that things weren’t so bad.  And in general maybe they weren’t.  I don’t mean to imply that all of the parties at my school were always open season on young women.  But I am writing of what I know.  Of what I saw and what I heard.  So, to anyone who would assert that “it wasn’t that bad,” I would say:  just how many bad incidents does it take before we can actually label something as “bad”?  How many acts of violence need to occur before they are no longer seen to be the exception?  Just how many sexual assaults are acceptable in one school year’s worth of parties? 
 
We know that one in four university women will be the target of rape or attempted rape.  One in four.  And what I am saying here is that the raping doesn’t just start in college.  It starts in high school, if not sooner.  And it was in fact happening at some of our high school parties. 
 
Looking back, with regret.  As I recall these stories and incidents, I find myself thinking: Where the hell was I?  Why wasn’t I doing anything about the situation?  Why wasn’t I intervening when things went bad?
 
It is true that I had my own struggles that distracted me.  Negotiating growing up in my father’s house was at times like walking through a minefield.  You were never sure when something might blow up.  So my head wasn’t always in the game.  Things got by me. 
 
But I also like to think that had I been there actually witnessing the bad stuff going down, that I would have stepped in.  I have certainly spent a lot of time stepping in since then.  Going face to face with very large, drunk men who are fully intent on treating women very badly.  Helping to make sure that people get home okay without falling prey to predators.
 
But high school is also a very confusing time for boys and girls alike.  And we guys had almost no guidance in these areas from our assigned adult role models.  In fact, the only ongoing lessons about sex that I can recall learning during high school were delivered by a soccer coach -- Tony -- who always told us: “No girls in your bed on the night before a game!  If you need a hole, you use the little hole in your soccer ball!  That’s the only hole you should have the night before a game!”
 
In retrospect, that’s so inappropriate.  It’s so offensive.  And it hardly amounts to any kind of useful guidance for young men!
 
And the last time my schoolwork had actually included anything about wise decision making around issues of sex, drugs, and/or alcohol was way back in the 8th grade!  And even then our teacher just didn’t seem that into it.  Like he thought the subject matter was just a lot of horseshit.  And an attitude like that gives a pretty powerful message to young boys.  That leading an ethical life is... whatever.    
 
But looking back, I do feel bad.  Were there times that I could have stepped in?  That had I only put together what as going on, maybe I could have predicted that some guy was going to hurt some girl, and maybe I could have stopped it?  I can’t change the past, but it pains me to know that there were things going on at some of those parties that some of those women will likely never forget.  Things that probably haunt them still.  Things that didn’t have to happen.     
 
So why am I relating this stuff?  Why am I sifting through these memories, and writing of them here?  Because we are all Steubenville, dammit!  Even as privileged boys in a cosmopolitan environment that was not especially jock-filled, a lot of us were still doing bad stuff to girls.  A lot of girls were getting treated like playthings.  Like they were just bodies for us to act out our sexual urges upon.  And in.
 
They were simply prey for the predators amongst us.
 
It wasn’t about jobs.
 
It wasn’t about poverty.
 
It wasn’t about backward people.
 
It wasn’t even about football.
 
It was about being boys and girls who were trying to negotiate their way in a rape culture.  And some of the boys did things to girls that were very, very bad.
 
Because they wanted to.
 
Because they could get away with it.
 
And because no one -- not their coaches, not their teachers, not their friends, not even their parents -- told them not to.
 
If anything good can conceivably come out of the rapes that young woman was subjected to in Steubenville, Ohio, it is that a good portion of society is now taking the concept of “rape culture” seriously.   
 
And now that we finally recognize our rape culture for what it is, it’s time that we work to end it.