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Katie Steen: Rape culture is real

By Katie Steen, Columnist
Published October 17, 2013

It’s almost impossible not to think of Steubenville, Ohio when hearing about the recent case in Maryville, Missouri. For those who haven’t yet heard of the Maryville case — or the Steubenville case, for that matter — both involve the alleged rape of an intoxicated teenaged girl by hot-shot football players, and both involve the community rising to the defense of the alleged rapists.

The Maryville story is a long, horrifying ordeal that’s been, for the most part, buried from the eyes of the public until recently. To summarize: In January 2012, 14-year-old cheerleader Daisy Coleman sneaked out with a friend to meet up with 17-year-old football player Matthew Barnett. She was encouraged to drink excessively out of the “bitch cup,” and was allegedly raped by Barnett while his buddy filmed it with an iPhone. Her friend, Paige Parkhurst, just 13 at the time — under the age of consent in Missouri, by the way — was also allegedly sexually assaulted by another football player. After all of this, Coleman was left on a front lawn in below freezing weather for her mother to find in the morning. This was more than a year ago, and most people are just hearing about it now. I encourage you to read more on it if you’re interested in educating yourself further and ruining your day.

But today, those football buddies are off at college, free from all charges of sexual assault — or anything, for that matter. Even with all of the evidence against the alleged rapists — even after Sheriff Darren White reportedly stated that this would “absolutely” result in a conviction — the boys still were able to walk free. Sheriff White’s advice to the Colemans? “I guess they’re just going to have to get over it.”

Rape cases are already hugely underreported, so when something as heinous as the Maryville case gets utterly brushed to the side, what kind of message does that send?

It sends a message that says Maryville supports its football players, supports masculinity and “boys will be boys” — but ladies who get mixed up with these boys are “skanks” and “crazy bitches.” In short, Maryville supports rape culture.

So who were the victims of the Maryville incident? Well, there were of course the boys, whose reputations and football careers were at stake. A parent of one of the teens at Barnett’s house is actually reported as saying, “Our boys deserve an apology, and they haven’t gotten it yet.” There were the poor coworkers at Mrs. Coleman’s old workplace, who had to deal with her “stress.” There was even Barnett’s daddy, a GOP politician in Missouri who decided to stay out of the case because it “would have been bad for me.” As far as the girls who were allegedly raped? “F--- yea. That’s what you get for bein a skank : ),” reads one tweet in response to the dismissed charges.

Victim-blaming is nothing new; we’ve heard it all before. She drank too much; she was asking for it; she should have known better; she shouldn’t have worn that outfit; she shouldn’t have been hanging around boys that age; she was out too late at night; why didn’t she take a cab? Why did she take a cab? She should have called the police sooner — it goes on and on and on.

There’s the flip side of victim-blaming, and that’s rape apology, but I’m thinking even more specifically of a bizarre form of rape sympathy that I’ve been noticing. The focus, in the case of rape sympathy, is taken off the victim, and placed on the repercussions that the rapist will or would have to potentially face.

I’m thinking of those photographs in The New York Times — of those poor Steubenville boys who could have had it all, dressed in neat button-downs, rendered weeping into their palms in the courtroom because of some stupid girl who ruined everything for them. I’m thinking of CNN anchor Candy Crowley’s response to the Steubenville rapists’ sentencing — “I cannot imagine how emotional the sentencing must have been.” I’m thinking of endless hateful tweets aimed at “sluts” and “skanks” of all ages all over the world. I’m thinking of the incident in Torrington, Connecticut — another rape case involving football players.

This case involved two 18-year-old football players, Edgar Gonzalez and Joan Toribio, who were convicted of rape after they had sex with two 13-year-old girls, with the age of consent in Connecticut being 16. What happened next was a slew of online harassment targeted toward, of course, these girls — these girls who were still in middle school. “What was a 13 year old girl doing hanging around with 18 year old guys…” one girl posted on Twitter. I’d ask the question in response, what were 18-year-old boys doing have sex with girls who weren’t even out of middle school? “You destroyed two people’s lives” another tweet reads, referring, of course, to the boys’ lives. This is past the point of rape apology — it’s sympathy.

One of the football players, Gonzalez, won the title of MVP for his team, and in response to the charges, Torrington High School’s Athletic Director Mike McKenna stated, “If you think there’s some wild band of athletes that are wandering around then I think you’re mistaken … These things happen everywhere and we’re not any different than any other community.” And he’s right.

I think it’s worth stopping and considering how this all-American, sports-centric model that exists in so many high schools — and colleges — affects how people view masculinity and sexual assault. I’m not saying football is to blame for rape, just like too many shots at a party, a short skirt, not having a boyfriend, letting him pay for you at the bar … is not to blame for rape. Rapists are to blame for rape. It’s been said so many times and yet it still hasn’t quite seem to have gotten through to everyone.

So what happens when the University has its very own sexual assault scandal involving a football player? We sweep it under the rug, pretend it never happened, and head to the game to lose our voices cheering on our beloved Wolverines. In 2009, current University senior and placekicker on the University football team Brendan Gibbons was arrested for allegedly raping an 18-year-old woman at a fraternity party. Washtenaw Watchdogs has a detailed synopsis of the allegations, and Daily blogger Emma Maniere wrote about Gibbons fairly recently, but for the most part, it’s been willfully ignored by the University. Many University students and Wolverine fans still don’t know about the allegations, and even after they do find out about them — well, the thought of there being a potential rapist on the field while we sing the fight song is kind of uncomfortable, so we dismiss those thoughts.

In the Gibbons police reports, it’s written, “(Gibbons) stated his whole life will probably get ruined, and that the girl always wins.” Let’s make one thing clear: The girl does not always win. According to RAINN, as many as 97 percent of rapists are not charged. The girl very rarely “wins.” And anyway, sex should not have a “winner.” A woman you want to take to bed is not your opponent. Sex is not just another sport — another way to reaffirm your masculinity and machismo.

Rape culture is real, and it’s important to be mindful of how we’re participating, even if it’s just as spectators.

Katie Steen can be reached at katheliz@umich.edu.


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