The verdict is finally in: guilty (or, at least, the juvenile court’s version of guilty).
There are some implications of the Steubenville trial that are abundantly clear to those who were paying attention: that the hero-worship of high school football players is out of hand, that rape culture exists, that rape apologists are depressingly common, that I’ll never watch or link to CNN ever again.
Other facets of the reactions to the verdict reveal an odd sense of unease surrounding the punishment of sexual assault. Steubenville is not the first context in which a conviction of sexual assault has been met with lamentations over the “ruining” of the rapists’ lives, or where communities have rallied in support not of the victim(s) of sexual assault, but of the rapist(s). In this case, the main factors in this galling outpouring of sympathy include the youth, grade point average, and sports participation of the perpetrators.
Do we really live in a society where being young, earning As, and possessing physical prowess exonerates all manner of crimes?
The answer is not so simple as that. We live in a society where rape culture teaches the myth that rape is easy to accidentally commit, that it’s a mistake anyone could make. Pair that with the over-emphasis on forgiveness in American society, a clear result of its Christian legacy, and you get people uncomfortable with the idea of anything approximating consequences for perpetrators of sexual assault. In their minds, since forgiveness is better than limiting the perceived potential of the rapists, why not have them simply confess and be absolved – and, as just anyone could do something similar, that rape is a crime is questionable in the first place.
This unholy marriage of rape culture with the cult of forgiveness means that some people forget that actions should, and do, have consequences for very good reason. Certainly, there are issues with the American criminal justice system (alternatively, the prison-industrial complex). No doubt, forgiveness on the part of victims of horrendous crimes is sometimes helpful to them in their healing process. None of that erases the need to hold people accountable for their actions, and in the case of Steubenville, there is no dearth of documentation proving that a great wrong did not simply occur, but was actively committed by people sure that their actions would never be taken to task. How else to explain the lack of shame, the creation and sharing of evidence proving the crime, the sheer arrogance expressed in said evidence?
Though punishment is not always a deterrent at all, let alone the best deterrent, allowing for the forgiveness narrative to allow people who commit staggeringly heinous crimes to walk away does not exactly send the right message to those who believe themselves to be above the law, or even basic respect for others’ humanity, agency, and bodily autonomy. Most people behave with common decency because they are commonly decent, but they’re not the ones about whom we have to worry.
Here’s hoping that the difference in outcome between similar cases in the past and what happened last night will send a clear message: that violating others’ bodily autonomy is not okay no matter who you might be.