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 .

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide