On Aug. 11, 2012, a 16-year-old girl was kidnapped by a couple of male classmates on the football team at her school. Too drunk to resist, she was physically dragged to various parties and sexually assaulted by a multitude of peers, who simultaneously filmed her rape, joked about it and live-tweeted it to their friends.
This didn’t happen in some other country. That rape happened in the United States.
But almost worse than the rape itself is the silence that surrounds it, teeming with hypocrisy. While most anyone who keeps up with the news is likely to have heard something about the rape epidemic in New Delhi, Steubenville — the Ohio hometown of the teenage girl — will likely remain a shadow beneath a spotlight aimed far away from home.
It appears that we live in a society that would rather scrutinize the faults of foreign nations than direct critical analysis upon our own social ills. Engrossed by the problem of sexual assault in India, our general public remains either blissfully ignorant or suspiciously quiet on its own perpetuation of a culture that demonizes rape as inevitable and identifies victims as responsible to some degree.
As a young woman raised in southern California, I’m only too aware of the pervasiveness of rape culture right here in America. I can’t even recount how many times I’ve been advised not to stay out too late at night, to be mindful of what I wear, not to give anyone the wrong idea because something could happen to me that I might regret.
I live in a world of “can’t,” “don’t” and “shouldn’t” that so many other women share, a framework of rules that constantly obligates us to determine the fine line between appropriately flirtatious and unjustifiably seductive. If I do not follow these rules, I do so at my own peril. If someone chooses to hurt me, I am at fault.
Add male entitlement to women’s bodies to the mix, and you have quite a confusing picture for young women. We are inundated with images in television, movies, magazines and so on that portray female subjects as not merely idealized, but sexualized. We are all too familiar with the presence of the token hot girl in commercials for products geared toward men in which such images of female allure are not intended to amplify sexual empowerment for women but serve rather to reinforce the notion that our bodies are commodified objects for the purpose of male pleasure.
As a result, young women are the recipients of an explicit directive to restrain their appeal while remaining subject to an implicit endorsement of female sexual display. At the same time, such presentations of female sexual display are for the most part geared toward the satisfaction of male consumers, where a constant barrage of such images is likely to contribute to a persistent pattern of objectification.
Men are thereby encouraged to feel entitled to women’s bodies — but when a man then chooses to commit sexual assault and the victim is a woman, we as a society often find that she is to blame. And this framework has very real results.
According to a recent government survey, almost one in five U.S. women have experienced sexual assault or attempted sexual assault. Investigations conducted by the FBI and Department of Justice found that out of 100 rapes, about 46 get reported to the police. 12 of those will lead to an arrest, and five will lead to a felony conviction. Only three out of 100 rapists will spend even a single day in prison.
Is it really any surprise, then, that so many of those who have suffered from rape so often fail to receive justice? When the few victims who do step forward finally accuse their attackers, the report is engulfed in a labyrinth of authority that entitles itself to question the credibility of the accuser, the legitimacy of the rape and ultimately to dismiss the vast majority of those who perpetrate the crime without real consequence. Rape survivors are forced to relive their experience. Women are assaulted, women are blamed and women are silenced.
In the case of the young men in Steubenville who failed so abominably to respect the rights, body and overall well-being of their peer, only two out of the various active participants and complicit onlookers of the assault faced charges. That the incident should continue to be investigated will likely be achieved only by the fight of those brave enough to apply pressure to those responsible.
And who, exactly, should be held responsible? The people who instigate an assault? The people granted official institutional power to appropriately deal with rapists, and who so often fail to do so? Maybe even the people who contribute to this cycle? To rape culture? To a society that promotes male entitlement to judge women’s bodies, access women’s bodies, legally decide on women’s bodies and then punish women when they decide for themselves how to use their own bodies?
Rather than commit ourselves to liberating and celebrating female agency and a woman’s right to say yes or no, we somehow find it in our right to place another society’s treatment of women beneath our own moral lens.
But we have our own rape culture. And rape is wrong wherever it is committed. Even if that place is here.
Ley Cerezo is a sophomore at UC Berkeley.