On Rape and the Culture of Monsters


The rapists and bystanders in Steubenville committed monstrous acts of inhumanity and cruelty, but Tom Gualtieri insists it is a mistake to call them “monsters”. 

As more and more is reported about Steubenville, I find myself recoiling at the rising tide of ugliness swallowing the case. There has been an onslaught of sublimated anger, name-calling, judgment and abuse not only of the victim but also of her predators, bystanders, coaches, the people of Steubenville, and a society which elevates young athletes above the culture producing them.

In a fine essay published earlier this week  at The Good Men Project, blogger HeatherN makes a controversial but logical point:

My immediate reaction to the knowledge that we dehumanize rapists is, “so what?” [Writer’s note: Me too.] … rapists deserve to be imprisoned; I’d argue for a lot longer than current sentencing allows in most states. But still, treating rapists as non-human because they are criminals only contributes to a culture which treats all its criminals as subhuman.

Conversely, elevating these young men to god-like status removes them from the lowly earth where humans dwell with all their evil, fallibility, selfishness and even the goodness in which Anne Frank chose to believe. The objectification of both criminal and victim is detrimental to all of us.

With 38% of yearly reported rapes perpetrated by a friend or acquaintance of the victim, 28% by an “intimate” and another 7% by a relative, we must be very careful not to put the young men who raped Jane Doe at a distance. In our culture, we prefer that someone who commits a monstrous crime look like a monster … but he doesn’t. He looks and behaves like you and me, and it is a mistake to interpret the acknowledgment of a criminal’s humanity as sympathy. Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond  were (and are) members of a community where they were known, perhaps even liked. They behaved like monsters. They did a series of monstrous things. But if we forget that they are human beings, we forget that human beings are capable of great wrong.

Rape victims are objectified by the rapist—dehumanized. In the United States, which is ranked sixth worldwide in reported rapes (approximately 27 victims in every 100,000 women) there is an estimated 60% which go unreported partly because of what the victim must face if he or she comes forward. Police, leadership, communities, and families blame the victim, denying that “young men with promising futures” can rape. The criminal becomes a symbol of goodness, and the victim, a vengeful harpy; but when the rapist is also dehumanized, his or her responsibility is obliterated. At the same time, denying that a criminal is a human being absolves the society of responsibility for his development and rehabilitation. We either lock criminals up forever, essentially putting them to death, or we make it possible for them to re-enter society. Revenge serves no justice if we want someone to take responsibility. If we believe the criminal is a monster, why not execute him? No amount of time in prison can teach a monster remorse, and we certainly don’t want monsters among us.

Without a thorough psychological examination, it’s impossible to know if either Mays or Richmond is a sociopath. (Mays’ wretched apology makes me wonder, but I am not a psychologist.) The storm of violence this situation has become makes me question the sanity of our society too. The elevation of sports figures beyond their station—once again dehumanizing them—sets these young men apart from society. Does hubris lead to rape? I would like to say “no,” but I think the answer is more like “sometimes.” Hubris, a very human flaw, can be pointed to as can a disturbed psychology. Hubris, though, is compounded by outside reinforcement.

On Monday, March 18, two teenage girls who texted threats to the victim were (mercifully) arrested. “You ripped my family apart,” the first girl tweeted, “You made my cousin cry, so when I see you [expletive] it’s gone [sic] be a homicide.” She is 16 years old and was arrested for threatening the victim’s life. The second girl, age 15, was also “charged with threatening the girl with bodily harm” (according to a story on HLN) after her tweet, which read, “I’ll celebrate by beating the [expletive] out of Jane Doe.”

I want these young women to be punished as severely as the rapists because of their complicity and denial. I feel the same way about those who have threatened Michael Nodianos and his family. Nodianos is the young man in the video posted and shared by Anonymous (and/or Knight Sec), which depicts him treating the crime as a joke. Nodianos was not charged with any crime and was not present when the victim was raped. Nevertheless, because of his ignorance, heartlessness, and lack of empathy, Nodianos’ family, like the families of the rapists, has been objectified and harassed by violent threats. We know nothing of his upbringing, nothing of his family, yet they are blamed for his wretchedness. We can theorize about how he came to this point but we do not really know. Childhood development is not a math equation, and Michael Nodianos’ mother is not a cipher.

When I read a comment thread under an article, video, or online op-ed, I’m frequently aghast at what people say to each other. Today’s youth learn this is acceptable because it is not only our youth who behave this way. It is a cultural phenomenon. Hidden behind the anonymity of the laptop, anyone can say anything from home and disappear. It’s easy to lob grenades of hate through the ether and then walk away. In my essay for The Weeklings last year, “When Cthulu Calls,” I examined this phenomenon from a comic perspective. But here is its serious side: dehumanizing is a societal illness. Mr. Nodianos is having his eyes opened by the daggers which have come his way. He has been made a “thing” in the eyes of onlookers, just as he failed Jane Doe by laughing about her plight in that video. Just as Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond dehumanized her.

As one of approximately 89,000 yearly victims of reported rapes in the United States, Jane Doe deserves justice, sympathy and, perhaps most of all, privacy to recover from her public ordeal—though “recover” seems a foolish word in the vast wake of post-traumatic symptoms she is likely to experience: abrupt changes in mood, acute distress, alcohol or drug abuse, anger, anxiety, confusion, crying, depression, disbelief, eating disturbances, embarrassment, emotional disorganization, fatigue, fear, graphic flashbacks , headaches, insomnia, irritation, lack of appetite, nausea, self-blame, shock, sleep disturbances, suicidal ideation. Jane Doe does not want to be our symbol any more than she wanted to be a victim. She is a budding young woman who made a few teenage mistakes – mistakes we have all made – none of which are an excuse for the violence her attackers committed.

When CNN stepped into the fray, reigniting anger about the case and, justifiably, about America’s attitude toward rape, I was ready to point a finger again at Poppy Harlow and even more at Candy Crowley whose work I respect. Then I actually watched the video. Pity subsumed journalistic integrity all around. Our anger stems from the fact that no one in the segment portrayed the young men as monsters, which would have satisfied our bloodlust but would not have been entirely accurate either.

I have little sympathy for people who knowingly commit crime—and none for someone who commits an act of violence. Mays and Richmond will never be able to shake the mantle of “registered sex offender.” They have been taken down from the pedestals they were set upon by their community and by a nation which loves to idolize. I’m not concerned about their “bright futures” being ruined, but I do admit to a sort of contemptuous pity, the kind of head-shaking I reserve for someone who has done something foul from which he cannot be saved. Whether or not Mays and Richmond were misled by their community and our society, they alone are responsible for their choices. The greatest punishment they can know—the one that will benefit us, their victim and the people of Steubenville—is that they live with the absolute understanding of what they did to that young woman. They can only atone by re-entering the world with the understanding most of us never have to learn the hard way: in a worthwhile society, humans honor the capacity for both compassion and respect.

Monsters have an excuse. It is only a human being who can take responsibility for his action.


Originally appeared at The Weeklings



Tom Gualtieri is a theatre artist with his hand in many disciplines: lyricist, playwright, performer, director, knitter. He maintains an ongoing collaboration with composer David Sisco. His solo play, That Play: A Solo Macbeth, resumes performances April 4, 2013.



Lead photo: Photo: Keith Srakocic, AP


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  1. As a result of this scandal and the onslaught of rape apologists in both the news media and the social media, I’m more convinced than ever that there is a rape culture. As a man I’m amazed that many of the promoters of the rape culture are girls and women. As the middle-aged father of two wonderful young women (who, incidentally, are better human beings than I was at their ages), I’m sickened by it.

    I’m sick and tired of a football culture in which nonathletic boys and men are viewed as inferior and individual players are often not held accountable for victimizing others off the playing field — whether it’s bullying or physical or sexual assault. If a young woman has been raped by one or more members of the local high-school or college football team, she can expect to be victimized again by individual football fans — even if there’s been a conviction! Another such instance has come to light online — this one in Torrington, Connecticut. Actually, this has happened in other communities; and other instances have never seen the light of day because cover-ups were successfully staged or the victim chose to not report the crime.

    If I were the father of Michael Nodianos, I would not be defending him in public. I’d be ashamed to the point of nearly having a broken heart, and I’d be too embarrassed to show my face in public.

    I have absolutely no respect for all of those who piled upon the 16-year-old victim from the very start. I have no respect for a sports media who are indifferent about individual athletes victimizing others off the playing field. Has, say, Rick Reilly said a word about Steubenville?

    The whole mess turns my stomach!

    • Tom Gualtieri says:

      Nodianos’ behavior is no more excusable than the rapists and, as you say, probably born of the same culture which allows men to get away with these crimes even as the victim of inviting her attack. Yet, Nodianos’ family should be left alone and yes, even Nodianos should no more be threatened with death than the victim herself. The whole thing is a mess and it turns my stomach as well.

      What we must do, instead of attacking, is finding a way to educate and better American society.

      • Tom Gualtieri says:

        Sorry – typo – the sentence should read: “even as the victim is ACCUSED of inviting her attack.”

  2. Your lust for retribution is born in the same place that their impulse to humiliate Jane Doe was. A place where hate needs somewhere to go and it goes to someone we, for whatever reason, right or wrong, are able to dehumanize. Jane Doe was assaulted, repeatedly, and is now harassed because no one around her had SYMPATHY. Why not try to teach our young people about sympathy by having some, no matter what. NO excuses. This is hard emotional work, its worth is immeasurable. If you can sympathize with a sex offender you can sympathize with anyone.

    A decent person wants rehabilitation for everyone involved in this case. Not punishment.

  3. If you’re going to edit my reply (which is your right) I would like to at least highlight the two quotes from your piece that inspired my admittedly rather rancorous response:

    “I have little sympathy for people who knowingly commit crime—and none for someone who commits an act of violence.”


    “I want these young women (who sent threats to Jane Doe) to be punished as severely as the rapists”

    You speak of empathy and sympathy and yet make excuses for yourself when it becomes too uncomfortable. Please consider reading my blog post about this issue, at angelhorn.com. That’s all.

    • I realize your comments weren’t directed to me, but I did visit your website and read your post entitled “Thou Art My Beloved Son.”

      I clicked on the hidden link and read Chelsea Levinson’s post. I’m amazed you find fault with it. Young women who have been raped by athletes are at an even greater disadvantage in most instances because our society has place athletes on pedestals without regard for the individual athlete’s character. I was actually surprised there was a conviction. I suspect if the two defendants had been tried by a jury, they would have been acquitted because of the social bias in favor of athletes.

      You seem intent upon stereotyping everyone who favored prosecution in this case. The unsuccessful attempts in Steubenville to stage a coverup, thus cheating justice, seem not to have fazed you at all. I certainly did not chortle over the guilty verdict. My mood was sober, not one of elation. I felt a slight sorrow this conviction had to happen, but some necessities of life are unpleasant. The fact of the matter is that rapists have a tendency to rape again. I don’t know about you, but I’m concerned about the safety of the public. What do you propose should be done with juvenile rapists? Place them under home arrest? So, I guess if a rapist rapes again because he wasn’t sent to prison after his first rape is no big deal. Yeah, that’s just the breaks.

      You continue your negative stereotyping of those of us who favored the prosecution of the two rapists by saying that we hope they will get raped in prison. (I agree with you that that’s a terrible thing to say. No one deserves to get raped. I personally know at least two rape victims. They were both raped when they were young, but ended up having psychological problems as adults. One of them still has nightmares at the age of 61 years about the male rape he suffered.) Well, that may be true of some people; but it isn’t true of me and, I dare say, most of us who favored prosecution. I believe Jerry Sandusky should be protected from the wrath of fellow convicts. I’m sure the prison officials have taken steps to ensure his safety.

      Punishment is a fact of life, whether you like it or not. God favors punishment in certain situations. There’s no such thing as unconditional grace. When the guilty and the innocent are treated alike, there is no justice.

      Yes, I favor rehabilitation, but not without accompanying punishment (a term in prison). Unfortunately, some people are unwilling to be rehabilitated.

      Frankly, you sound quite self-righteous to me. You seem to get some sort of smug self-satisfaction by telling everyone else how wrong they are. I suspect your attitude toward rape victims, deep down in your heart, is a blase attitude of “What’s the big deal? It’s just a penis in a vagina. It’s not a bullet in the brain.” With all your preachiness in telling other people how wrong they are, perhaps you should examine yourself to see if you might be just a little bit callous. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if you’re one of those who deal with the problem of bullying in the schools by blaming the victim of bullying and saying the bully is a victim, too.

      To say that those who believe that rapists should be subjected to punishment provided by a criminal justice system have the same “heart” (for lack of a better word) as rapists who seek to dominate and humiliate others is downright insulting.

      • In my third paragraph, I meant “somber,” not “sober.” Typos usually are inevitable, especially when one is tired.

      • Wow, way to play the player, not the ball.

        I’m glad you read my post, but sorry that you seemed to have missed the entire point which was, and I quote: “sympathy for Jane Doe does not preclude sympathy for her rapists”.

        I never said anything “stereotyping” those who favored prosecution. Allow me to quote myself again: “I don’t excuse rapists from their penance and punishment “. In other words I favored prosecution. Why would I stereotype myself?

        How nice for you that you know personally two rape victims. I see one in the mirror everyday. Please don’t tell me or any other victim how to feel.

        I’m not even going to address your paragraph about my self righteousness. And by the way the girl who bullies my daughter was likely born with FASD, so yes, she IS a victim.

        Finally…well ultimately all I am asking is that I and others be permitted to express sympathy to whomever we please, without judgment or conditions.

        Perhaps your God can explain that to you.

    • Tom Gualtieri says:

      Actually, you seem to have misread the intent of the quotes. I didn’t say I was a perfect human being, I said I have these feelings but the intent of the piece is to indicate that my feelings are not necessarily acceptable either. Feelings are not logic – they may be honestly felt but need to be kept in check so that one may do the right thing in the end.

      Your self-righteousness seems to be getting the better of your reason.

  4. Rape should NEVER be viewed as a spectator sport. It is a heinous crime whether perpetrated against a child, young man or woman, or older man or woman. It is NEVER acceptable to hurt another human being. And when we call these offenders “monsters” we are unknowingly empowering them with super-human skills, taking power AWAY from those of us who care, want justice, want it to stop. We are a human race, with touts and feelings. We need to start taking better care of each other from birth through death. Nothing is more important than that.

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