Trent Mays and Ma'lik Richmond in court.
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Laurie Penny on Steubenville: this is rape culture's Abu Ghraib moment

The pictures from Steubenville don’t just show a girl being raped. They show that rape being condoned, encouraged, celebrated. What type of culture could possibly produce such pictures?

Trigger warning: graphic descriptions of rape, and pixellated images from the night in question.

It lasted for hours. The pictures circulated online show the unconscious teenage girl hung like a shot steer between two laughing young men, Trent Mays and Ma'lik Richmond, who were convicted this week of driving her from party to party, raping her, assaulting her, and filming themselves doing so. Videos from the night include an extended tape of a friend of the attackers in drunken spasms of joy about just how ‘dead’ the girl looked as she was handed around. “She’s deader than OJ’s wife!” he giggles to himself as his mates film him. It was sadistic young men like this with whom the mainstream media expressed immediate sympathy following the guilty verdict

Here, there was no question that Mays and Richmond are guilty: there is enough film, photographic and text message evidence to make the case clear. The arguments in their defence, instead, revolve around the notion that these boys, beloved athletes in a town where football is everything, did nothing wrong when they assaulted their helpless victim. They are tragic heroes who were just having fun, like young men do, and the pictures prove it. Everyone looks so happy. High-profile rape cases have happened in American football towns many times before - remember the cheerleader who was forced to cheer for her rapist? - but Steubenville is different. The pictures make it different. What the Steubenville footage recalls most chillingly is the torture photographs from Abu Ghraib prison almost a decade earlier, showing American soldiers in Iraq smiling chummily around the prone bodies of political prisoners. 

Steubenville is rape culture's Abu Ghraib moment. It’s the moment when America and the world are being forced, despite ourselves, to confront the real human horror of the rapes and sexual assaults that take place in their thousands every day in our communities.

Susan Sontag observed of the Abu Ghraib atrocities that "the horror of what is shown in the photographs cannot be separated from the horror that the photographs were taken - with the perpetrators posing, gloating, over their helpless captives. If there is something comparable to what these pictures show it would be some of the photographs of black victims of lynching taken between the 1880's and 1930's, which show Americans grinning beneath the naked mutilated body of a black man or woman hanging behind them from a tree. The lynching photographs were souvenirs of a collective action whose participants felt perfectly justified in what they had done. So are the pictures from Abu Ghraib."

The pictures from Steubenville don’t just show a girl being raped. They show that rape being condoned, encouraged, celebrated. What type of culture could possibly produce such pictures? Only one in which women's autonomy and right to safety counts for so little that these rapists, and those who held the cameras, felt themselves 'perfectly justified'. Only one in which rape and sexual humiliation of women and girls is so normalised that it does not register as a crime in the minds of the assailants. Only one in which victims are powerless, silenced, dismissed. It is impossible to imagine that in such a culture, assault and humiliation of this kind would not be routine - and indeed, the most conservative estimates suggest that ninety thousand women and ten thousand men are raped in the United States alone every year. That’s what makes the Steubenville case so very uncomfortable - and so important.

Here we have incontrovertible evidence of happy young people not only hurting and humiliating others, but taking pleasure in it, posing with their victims. The Abu Ghraib torture pictures were trophies. The Steubenville rape photos are trophies. They're mementoes of what must have felt, at the time, like everyone was having the sort of fun they'd want to remember, the sort of fun they'd want to prove to themselves and others later. The Steubenville rapists had fun, and they broadcast that fun to the world. They were confident that nothing could touch them, so baffled by the idea of punishment that they wept like children in court.

Pictures don't just record reality. They change it. They change us as we take them and consume them. It matters not just that we have photographic evidence of a girl being raped, but that someone took pictures of the assault happening to send to their friends as memories of a jolly night gone a bit hairy. The Ohio teenager who is now receiving death threats for reporting her rape is far from the only young woman to have her assault recorded for posterity. In the past five years, rapes and sexual assaults involving one or more attacker or involved bystander stepping back to pull out a smartphone have proliferated. What makes these men so sure of their inviolable right to stick their fingers and cocks into any part of any female they can hold down that they actually make and distribute images of each other doing so? Rape culture. That’s what rape culture is. The cultural acceptance of rape.

This image of "Jane Doe" was shared over social media. 

The Steubenville rapists claim that, when they drove a passed-out girl from party to party, slinging her into and out-of cars like a deflated sex-dolly and sticking their fingers inside her, they didn't know they were doing anything wrong. That's plausible, although it's no defence. It's a plausible if, and only if, you have internalised the assumption that women are not real human beings, just bodies to be manipulated with or without consent, pieces of wet and willing meat there for you to use for your pleasure. There's a word for what happens when one group of people sees another as less than human and insists on its right to hurt and humiliate them for fun. It’s an everyday word that is often misused to refer to something outside of ourselves. The word is ‘evil’.

This particular evil has been rotting at the fractious heart of Western culture for so long that it barely registers as abnormal, and the initial emotion when it is challenged is rage. Rage that anyone dare question the notion that men's 'bright futures' matter more than women's right not to be attacked and degraded. It's an evil that believes that men work and play sports and make an impact on the world and women are there to get fucked. America has been raised on that belief, and like any dogma it can turn ugly when challenged. Jane Doe, whose real name was revealed on Fox news yesterday, has been receiving death threats, and so have her family. After the verdict was handed down, the internet lit up with ugly messages of slut-shaming and solidarity with her attackers: “Remember, kids, if you’re drunk/slutty at a party and embarrassed later, just say you got raped!” wrote @jimmyontheradio. Another, @zJosiah, said: “I feel bad for the two young guys, Mays and Richmond, they did what most people in their situation would have done.”

Yes, it is possible to feel a sick spasm of pity for these young men whose tears in the courtroom were described at such melodramatic length by major news outlets. It is possible to feel pity for those who do violent acts, who hurt and shame others simply because they know nobody’s going to stop them and it seems like fun. Young people can get carried away in times of war, and here I include what we must surely think of in these circumstances as a gender war, especially when they’re on the winning team - and these boys were used to winning. Young people get carried away. But not always. And that ‘not always’ is where pity stops like bile in the throat.

In every situation where atrocity is normalised, in every death-camp and gulag and apartheid city, there are those who refuse to participate. The soldier who ignores the kill order. The prison guard who walks away. The families who risk their safety to shelter refugees. The men and boys who see rape and violence occurring and have the courage to say 'stop'.

We have sympathy for those who lack that sort of courage only because we worry, even the best of us worry, that there might be circumstances in which we, too, would overlook evil. That’s the question facing every man and not a few women in America right now as the enormity of rape culture begins to dawn. It’s a question of cowardice, and of character. Something is going on - the casual rape and abuse and dehumanisation of women and girls, and some men -  that’s so monstrous that to take its magnitude seriously would implicate a great many of us. The question is whether we have the courage to face it - this time.

Those attacking the Steubenville Jane Doe online, defending her rapists, lamenting the destruction of their ‘bright futures’, are cowards. They are cowards who are afraid of what will happen if systematic injustice is acknowledged, and human history is crawling with their kind. Right now that cowardice is being weaponised and used against women and girls, used to shame us into silence, to stop us from speaking out about rape culture as we have just begun to do in an organised fashion. So many of us wonder whether we would be brave enough to stand up in the face of evil. Whether we would allow it to continue or join in the rage. Well, this is the moment. This is our test. Anyone can be outspoken about Steubenville after the fact. The question is: who will stand up when the next Jane Doe is attacked, without expectation of thanks or acclaim, at risk of derision and ostracism or worse, and speak out about all the other Steubenvilles that are still taking place, and will continue to until enough people say ‘stop’?

Well, this is the moment. This is our test. Before another Jane Doe gets hurt, before more young rapists can tearfully claim they "didn't know", it's on us all - men and boys and everyone who loves them - to stand and be counted.

 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.