“Preventing another Steubenville” is on the minds of many as the case slowly passes from the news cycle. What most observers want, understandably, is to prevent not “just” the victimization experienced by the 16 year-old girl at the center of the case, but also the pain that was dealt to everyone- perpetrators included- by the system. Most well-intentioned people feel for the victim first. But she, thankfully, was not showcased in the investigation and trial. The lives, stories and choices of Trent Mays and Mal’ik Richmond were. Mostly for that reason, many national news outlets made them the story and received criticism (mine included) for an over-focus on their good grades, their “promising careers,” etc, rather than on her. Their choices, at least, are what condemned them. Their victim could make no choices, and lives with what happened to her anyway.
Regardless, seeing young men physically crumble in court and utter things like “My life is over. No one will want me now,” is heartrending. And it should be. I prosecuted child abuse and sexual violence cases for years. I prosecuted juveniles like Mays and Richmond for crimes like this. I prosecuted males who were technically adults but children in every meaningful way; I saw them convicted, sentenced and bound for a correctional system in Virginia that I knew however uncomfortably would likely tear them to shreds. That was the system. I was ethical, but I was dispassionate. I was a prosecutor, not a healer.
But like any decent person, I’d love to see a path toward preventing rape, not just responding to it. What doubts I have regarding the ability to proactively raise boys to be non-sexually violent (at least in the short run), I expressed last week here and here. What they boil down to is that I believe most men are not sexually violent, but that the minority who are, are malformed in early life for reasons we can’t yet grasp- and they are basically unreachable.
That said, since most men and almost all women are not sexually violent, I believe bystander intervention can be effective in preventing the kind of non-stranger rape that we see the vast majority of the time. Programs like Project Green Dot, already being implemented on college campuses (a good friend was instrumental in a Green Dot program at the University of Mississippi) have amazing potential to create an innovative environment of protection between students from every perspective. It’s simple and it’s genius. Everyone- male or female, gay or straight, greek or independent, protects each other from situations that probably won’t, but certainly could, end with a crime occurring. But in my mind, this doesn’t generally enlighten and ennoble offenders; it instead foils them by clearing the fog of alcohol, isolation, and toxic masculinity within which they hunt.
But is there educational purchase in grass-roots programs like Green Dot (or innovative productions like Sex Signals) that seek to challenge hyper-masculinity and rape culture? Are there “on the fence” guys who could learn to grow differently? Who would digest the broadcasted signals of decency and respect and be better for them?
How could I hope not?
Irin Carmon, a writer for Salon, last week published what might be the most balanced and informed opinion that embraces the same research I have, but allows for the hope that probably needs to be a part of the conversation as well. I stand beside the admonitions I’ve made in the past: “Forgiving” rape as a lapse in judgment by an otherwise “decent” guy is a pernicious mistake in most cases. But I’ll acknowledge that there is hope in social engineering and pushing forward a cultural change in how boys and men view sexuality.
I only ask (as I imagine Carmon would) that we continue to observe two core considerations: First, be realistic about prevention and don’t create rules for women to follow “or else,” i.e., or else it was her fault. Second, don’t assume rape is a mistake, particularly based on the appearance, reputation, and social status of the rapist. Victim blaming isn’t the answer, and neither is forgiving as “foolish” something usually far more sinister. With those things in mind, let’s move forward.