Prisons Can’t Stop Rape Culture, Grassroots Intervention Can

Trigger warning: The following op-ed contains discussion of rape, including some graphic details.

When I heard that two rapists in the Steubenville, Ohio case were convicted and sentenced to jail, I’ll admit  part of me felt a sense of relief. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), only 3% of rapists ever spend a night in prison. It feels good to see rapists fall into that 3%. But the more I consider this case, the more I realize that no prosecution, verdict or sentence can solve the problem.

The men who were convicted raped a 16-year old girl — digitally penetrated her while she was drunk, vulnerable and unconscious. Photographs of the girl’s naked body were taken and shared without her consent. These acts are appalling violations of the right to control one’s own body, the most basic principle of liberty. Rape and sexual assault violate that right in the most personal, damaging and invasive way.

If only the bystanders who witnessed the assault had understood this. It happened at a party. Many peers of the victim and the perpetrators witnessed the assault as it happened and posted videos and tweets about it online. One boy spoke up in the victim’s defense, but was laughed at and did not successfully stop the assault.

Evan Westlake testified at  trial that he saw one of the perpetrators, Trent Mays, smacking the victim’s hip with his penis. He also saw Ma’lik Richmond, the other perpetrator, penetrating the victim’s vagina with two of his fingers. When asked why he didn’t intervene, he answered “it wasn’t violent. I didn’t know exactly what rape was. I always pictured it as forcing yourself on someone.”

What Westlake witnessed was violence. It entailed physically violating another person’s boundaries. But, as is often the case in real rapes, there was no struggle, no armed stranger in the bushes, no screaming victim. What Westlake witnessed was rape. But it wasn’t the comparatively rare stranger rape that haunts the popular imagination. So Westlake did not even recognize it.

We need to change that. In a culture that educated young people about respecting boundaries and treating other people’s bodily autonomy as sacrosanct, Westlake would have known exactly what rape was, and he would have intervened. Throughout the night, when boys assaulted the victim, joked about raping her, and carried her unconscious body between rooms, multiple people would have intervened. But evidently, we don’t live in that culture.

Special Judge Thomas Lipps did little to bring us closer to that culture. Even as he convicted and sentenced the rapists, he made several troubling statements. For example, he claimed that this case shows alcohol is “a particular danger to our teenage youth.” Alcohol was not the problem here; rape was. People can drink alcohol voluntarily and consensually.  Drunk people have the right to have their boundaries respected.

Focusing on underage drinking enables victim blaming. In the Steubenville case, a litany of sexists blamed the victim, one even suggesting that the state should prosecute her for underage drinking. Victim blaming has also played a role in threats the victim has received throughout this case.  By shifting the focus from boundaries and consent to consensual alcohol consumption, Lipps’s comments enable this attitude.

Lipps also advised teenagers “to have discussions about how you talk to your friends; how you record things on the social media so prevalent today; and how you conduct yourself when drinking is put upon you by your friends.” Social media was not the problem here. In fact it provided vital evidence. Rather than advising teenagers to not rape, Lipps advised them on how to avoid getting caught.

With such from the judge, one wonders whether the rapists will learn anything. By the age of 21, both will have been released from juvenile detention. I doubt that prison will teach them to respect others’ bodies and rights. As an institution, prison is built on coercion, on systematically violating people’s bodies. Sexual violence is rampant in juvenile detention centers, and is disproportionately directed against LGBT detainees and survivors of prior sexual assault. The Steubenville rapists might continue to rape captive victims in detention centers, and be released with even less respect for bodily autonomy than they started with.

If prosecutions and prisons won’t stop rape, what will? A good start is educating people, especially young boys, about what rape is, why it’s wrong, and the ethics and practice of bystander intervention. Future Steubenvilles can be prevented by creating a culture where people stand up for each other’s basic rights and take issues of consent seriously.

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