Juvenile justice expert Tamar Birckhead boils down the Steubenville rape case to expose systemic problems.
“My life is over. No one is going to want me now.”
These were the words of 16-year-old Ma’lik Richmond after a judge adjudicated him delinquent of rape earlier this week in juvenile court in Steubenville, Ohio.
Hyperbole? Perhaps. But it’s also an age-appropriate response to a well-worn scenario that’s continuing to play out in the media as well as in the homes of this Rust Belt city of 18,000.
The facts are familiar. A teenage girl—vulnerable and the object of ridicule—drinks too much. A group of boys, including one she believed would protect her, instead take advantage of her. She wakes up unclothed and has little memory of what occurred. The rumor mill kicks in. She is humiliated and blamed. There is evidence of a cover-up, talk of conspiracies and conflicts of interest. The young men, celebrated high school athletes with promising futures, are publicly tried, convicted and ultimately jailed. Months later, after the media circus ends, the teenagers and their families are left behind—far behind—to try to pick up the pieces.
The story has been updated to fit the times. Now there are text messages, social media, online video, and the sex offender registry. Technology has indeed advanced—almost beyond our powers of comprehension—but the narrative never changes. Why is it that our system of justice perpetually chews up and spits out rape victims, while our sons continue to be empowered through the abuse and defilement of their female peers?
As a society we chip away at the edges of these problems, but the pathology remains. We criminalize underage drinking. We demonize adolescent sexuality. We label defendants and assess culpability. Yet, who is served by such responses?
A girl is left profoundly damaged, not only by the crime itself but by the harsh scrutiny and ostracism of her community. As prosecutor Marianna Hemmeter said, “[The juveniles] treated her like a toy.” In a culture permeated by images that objectify women’s bodies and characterized by the commodification of sex, this is hardly surprising. We are a society that is still struggling to define the act of rape and to draw a clear line between sex and violence in ways that are commonly accepted and understood. Recent research from the Centers for Disease Control reveals that nearly twelve percent of high school girls have been sexually assaulted; over forty percent of female sexual assault victims were raped before age 18.
Meanwhile, boys are punished, put in cages and stigmatized, but what lessons do they learn? Spending a year or two warehoused in a juvenile prison is unlikely to help. Data out of Ohio shows that low-risk sex offenders who received community-based treatment, designed to provide more effective rehabilitation and save money, were less likely to recidivate than those who were incarcerated with a general population of high risk young offenders.
The narrative, however, remains the same. The victim’s mother contends that Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays, his 17-year-old codefendant, lack a moral code. Judge Thomas Lipps asserts that they will learn from this experience and change for the better. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine vows to continue the investigation, convene a grand jury, and hold others responsible—parents, coaches, and those who stood by and did nothing. It is likely that the victim must testify again, reliving the fear that she felt upon waking up naked in a strange house, not knowing what to think or what had happened.
It is, despite our best intentions, a tragedy. The lives of these young people may not be over, but their innocence has been forever extinguished. Today it is in Steubenville. Tomorrow is it in my town … or in yours.