Trigger Warning: This post is about the result of the recent Steubenville trial and mentions rape/sexual assault. Please exercise self care and skip this post if you need to.
On Sunday Trent Mays and Mal’ik Richmond were convicted of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl in Steubenville, Ohio. In the wake of the verdict, CNN anchor Candy Crowley and correspondent Poppy Harlow had the following exchange:
Crowley and Harlow’s outpouring of sympathy for the convicted youth prompted a barrage of criticsm from all corners of the Internet. I count myself as a member of that angry online crowd but now a few days have passed and so has the worst of my vitriol.
Now that I’ve cooled off, I can sort of understand Crowley and Harlow’s emotional reaction. These are very young men. I don’t doubt that the verdict brought the reality of a terrifying future into focus for [Trent] and [Mal’ik]. I imagine their grief and terror were sincere. And I actually agree with those who worry about out the significant likelyhood that these boys will come out on the other side of this sentence angrier and more violent than they are now.
So I don’t fault Crowley or Harlow for their feelings. I generally regard compassion as a virtue. Even I wouldn’t say I’m happy about the verdict. The guilty verdict was the only outcome that wouldn’t have been a total fucking travesty. But still, I can’t feel glad. From my perspective nothing good has happened here. A young woman’s body and privacy were brutally violated by two boys, operating under the warped belief that they had a right invade another person’s body. It’s humanity fail on a spectacular level. There need to be consequences, serious ones at that but I find this whole suitation tremendously sad.
Crowley’s assertion that this situation is tragic? Yes, it is. I just don’t think it’s tragic for the same reasons she does. She and Harlow continually characterized the verdict as though it was something that just happened to two nice boys who could have never seen this coming. That isn’t true. But more than that it isn’t helpful. We can watch these boys and feel pity for wasted youth and opportunity. But ignoring Mays and Richmond’s responsibility doesn’t help them now, nor will it help the young people who are watching, listening and learning about their own obligations as reponsible human beings.
This rape didn’t just happen. Mays and Richmond chose to do it. We can feel compassionate; but when lawyers, CNN correspondents and the rest of us ignore the fact that these young men are responsible for what’s happened, we’re letting our sympathy trump our responsibility.
We need to stop talking about sexual assault as though it’s an act of nature, like snow in winter. Because it is exactly that attitude that contributes to youth like Hays and Richmond thinking that molesting an unconscious woman is no big deal, because hey, that’s just what happens when someone is drunk and vulnerable in a room. Furthermore, when anchors like Crowley and Harlow all but ignore the survivor in their post-mortem of these events, it reinforces the idea that this sixteen-year-old woman was a non-person. Instead of saying, “Mays and Richmond did something terrible to this girl,” she becomes the mere catalyst for two football players’ tragic fall from grace.
Crowley says, “Regardless of what big football players they are, they still sound like sixteen-year-olds.” That’s true. I am also saddened by how young these men are. They are barely more than children. Children learn from adults, especially adults who hold positions of authority and credibility. Which is why I believe it’s so important that parents, coaches, teachers and people who speak on behalf of major media outlets consider the messages that we give to young people when we talk about rape as though it happens indenpendently of the rapist’s free will. We need to watch our words. We need to be aware of the way we speak about survivors. We need to think about the message we’re sending to youth when we say, “He was a good student,” “She was drinking,” “He played football.”
This young woman’s decision to drink did NOT cause Mays and Richmond to assault her. Their academic and athletic abilities are NOT absolution from responsibility. Doing well in school DOES NOT put one on a higher plane of humanity that entitles them to treat drunk, unconscious woman as objects of amusement.
I hate that two 16-year-olds are going to prison. I hate the thought that they may grow into hardened, damaged men. I have a son. When I imagine what those boys’ parents must be feeling today I want lie down and cry all the tears. So no, I don’t think Crowley’s compassion was misplaced. But she had a job to do and in this case, I feel she failed. What she needed to say, what Harlow needed to say , what we all need to say is that these boys made a choice. This isn’t random happenstance. Their tragic circumstance came as a direct consequence of their decision to assault another human being. Don’t imply to the world this sentence is sad because Mays was a gifted footballer or Richmond got good grades. It’s sad because those two boys deliberately harmed another person.
I don’t want to see dismayed boys sobbing in court and carted off to prison, wondering how this could have possibly happened to them. If those young men don’t understand, if other young men don’t understand then we need to help them. Not by making excuses for them, but by explaining in no uncertain terms that sexual assault is a choice that -regardless of the circumstances – is wrong.