An entire set of unspoken assumptions has been dragged out into the light.
Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond have been found guilty of raping a 16-year-old girl, bringing an end to a case that has drawn controversy and media attention for months. From the start, though, it has been clear that this case is about much more than two high school athletes and their drunken assault.
The culture of football worship that prevails in Steubenville, a culture shared by many other towns across America, has been criticized as directly contributing to not only this attack, but many others that have gone unprosecuted. The complicity of the other teenagers in every phase of the incident has also been roundly condemned, with good cause.
The fact is, what has fundamentally been put on trial here is a whole set of social norms and assumptions surrounding adolescent behavior and rape.
We encourage teenagers to be a little wild, to take chances, to do dumb things in an atmosphere of diminished consequences. In some forms, this is healthy, an outlet for hormonal energy and a training-wheels period for learning to deal with the world. The danger comes when these antics begin harming people.
Driving drunk used to be laughed off as a bad habit, but something people do from time to time. Within the past two generations, we have seen that social sanction rescinded, and now people talk of drunk driving as a mortal sin. Similarly, adolescent rape, when it occurs in combination with underage drinking, has long been vaguely classed alongside drunken fistfights and ill-conceived pranks as just another regrettable, but understandable, form of teen hijinks. A million repetitions of “What did they expect would happen?” or “You know what boys that age are like”, a million awkward changes of subject rather than saying outright what happened, a million ways to make rape okay without ever saying that’s what you’re doing. And now we have seen that, too, rescinded, at least in this one verdict.
It’s just one verdict, if a loud and public one, and it’s too late for a lot of people whose stories will never be told, but that is how society advances. One awkward, belated step at a time. Little by little, we are making it clear that it is not okay to hurt people. Today, I’m willing to call this a win.
Photo—AP/Steubenville Herald-Star, Michael D. McElwain