Steubenville: An American phenomenon?

// 6 April 2013

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Hannah Hilali explores the meaning of “rape culture” in the context of the Steubenville rape case and her own experience of sexual assault here in the UK

 The Steubenville case has made many question what type of culture produces and permits such inhumane treatment of women. The answer is not located within the narrow confines of American sport culture as some may advocate. The answer is a broader one: it is ours. A culture where sexualisation, degradation of women, and discriminatory concepts of gender are so deeply ingrained, that at times it barely registers in our consciousness. It is this ingrained stereotyping that prohibits any further progression towards equality.

Until recently I was sceptical of the term ‘rape culture’. Yes, ‘as a society’ we joke about gender stereotypes, but does that mean we condone rape? What I have realised recently from the Steubenville case is that it is not the condoning of the ‘act’ of rape in its entirety. It is the normalisation of stereotypes so that it becomes conventional to make excuses when the act is committed by a person we identify with.

By ‘identify with’, I mean someone who reminds us of the people in our lives. The Steubenville boys, young with ‘bright futures’, could easily be one of our relatives, friends, children, or children’s friends. They could be anyone. To imagine that the people we know or socialise with, would perceive what they did as socially acceptable is a notion that most of us would not like to accept. However, often in a ‘boys will be boys’ way, it is.

The use of alcohol in this case as an indicator and reliever of blame, highlights the sexist stereotypes which surround drinking. The girl, practically unconscious, was blamed for drinking excessively, whilst the boys’ drinking, in ways, was seen to condone their actions. This occurred not only in the Steubenville case but is prevalent within our own society.

When I was at university I was once assaulted by a male acquaintance at a party. I and my friends had travelled to celebrate a friend’s birthday in another city, and at some time in the early hours, tired, I decided to go to bed. I slept in one of the empty rooms and whilst I was asleep, a boy from my university, and friendship group, decided I was an easy target.

Luckily for me, people walked into the room and stopped what was happening, all the while I was still asleep, having no idea the incident had taken place.

No one told me what had happened immediately. I found out a month later after one of my friends told me they were ‘so sorry for what had happened’. The incident was hushed up. I believe one of the reasons for this is because no one wanted to believe that someone they considered a friend, and identified with, could possibly commit sexual assault. I also believe that it was because our society uses alcohol and gender stereotypes to excuse the actions of some, whilst simultaneously using it to blame others.

I received comments from friends at that time implying that as a woman, drinking, and sleeping in someone else’s house, I deserved what happened. For a while I believed the comments ‘well you shouldn’t have been drunk’ and ‘that’s what you get if you fall asleep’. These comments were always said in a joking tone, as if by placing the situation and the comments in a comedic context, the message suddenly became acceptable. This is rape culture. The concept that the act of laughing at stereotypes does not banish them, rather it functions to normalise and perpetuate them.

What really struck me most about the incident was the indifference. The ‘brushing under the carpet’ and carrying on. The boy was not ostracised from the friendship group. His morals were not questioned. He was not commended for it either. He was not called a ‘lad’, his actions were not glorified. It was accepted in a ‘yeah, but you know that’s what he’s like when he’s drunk’ sort of way. Alcohol was the excuse placed upon both of us, albeit in two very different ways.

Being British, it is easy to look at Steubenville and condemn it as the ugly side of American sport culture, but this is not true. The excuses made and the gender stereotyping evident in the case are rampant within British society. For me, the Steubenville case opened my eyes to my own experience. I consider myself and my friends to be open minded, cosmopolitan, forward thinking people; it was a shock to realise the prevalence of sexism and stereotyping within our own perspectives. It is easy to look at other people and point the finger of blame for stereotyping and ‘rape culture’; what is harder is to look at our own communities and social circles with the same evaluation.

Photo of a Slutwalk London participant holding a placard that reads “Cleavage is not consent. Drunk is not consent. A miniskirt is not consent. Alone is not consent.” by Garry Knight, shared under a Creative Commons licence.

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