When it comes to how Americans respond to rape, our society could use a radical shift in thinking. But not simply in the rhetorical way many demanded last week.
The uproar following an exchange between CNN reporters Candy Crowley and Poppy Harlow, who expressed sympathy for two teenage boys convicted of rape in Steubenville, Ohio, was nothing short of predictable.
Amid a flurry of blogs and tweets from popular media personalities, more than 285,000 people to date have signed a petition demanding that the news channel issue an apology. And when CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC all aired a clip revealing the Steubenville rape victim’s name, the cries of shoddy news coverage vociferously increased.
It is true that Crowley, Harlow, and other reporters whose response to the court’s judgment focused on the impact it would have on the boys seemed to momentarily forget about the teenage girl for whom the verdict might feel like justice, not tragedy.
But what is rendered invisible by reactionary protestations about rape culture and a jump to reprimand is that the Steubenville case creates a confluence of tragedies we would do well not to overlook. Let me be clear: my aim is not to absolve the media’s missteps in covering rape cases past, present, or future. It is to offer a broader view of the incidents at hand and uncover alternative readings that should not be ignored.
When CNN characterized the two young men that were convicted of rape as “star football players” and “good students” with “promising futures,” they rejected the myth that rapists are outcasts and monsters, and reinforced the reality that most rapists are actually normal boys and men. They are bright. They are successful. They are the ones we cheer for on Friday nights and the ones we trust with our daughters, our sisters, our friends, and ourselves.
It is self-defeating to overlook the benefits of this more accurate depiction of boys and men who rape. Women’s rights activists have been saying “good guys” can be rapists for years, and it behooves them to take advantage of a moment when so many people are listening. Instead of rejecting wholesale the conversation that happened on CNN, advocates and commentators might also take the opportunity to point out what Crowley and Harlow got right: that a rapist can be the boy next door.
Busting the myths about what kinds of boys and men can be rapists leaves society to grapple with many uncomfortable truths. The normalization of sexual violence against women and girls, and capturing their degradation on film, contributed to the Steubenville situation. Rape culture encourages “nice guys” to act in “monstrous” ways that irrevocably damage the lives of everyone involved.
The tragedy of Steubenville isn’t just the rape and mediated humiliation of a 16-year-old girl by her classmates, though the detrimental impact on her life certainly bears repeating. The tragedy is also the way rape culture leads “promising” boys and men to believe that violence against women is not only acceptable, but also entertaining.
We shouldn’t be so swift to dismiss the devastation this verdict of guilt will cause in the lives of Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond. It opens the door to conversations about rape culture and justice that are desperately needed. Among the topics in these conversations are whether rape convictions are a deviation from the norm, whether prison (where boys and men are frequently raped) is an adequate vehicle for rehabilitation, and why men and boys must be a significant part of the solution to gender-based violence.
I don’t believe CNN owes anyone an apology. I believe we must recognize and respond to the breadth of this tragedy in order to move forward as a society. That requires a deep consideration of all the dynamics within this incident at this moment in American history.
It also requires sympathy with the ones who are named “victim” as well as the ones who are victims yet are given the name “monster.” There is value in showing compassion to even those that act reprehensibly. Doing so moves the conversation past habitual polemics that lead back to where we began, and it puts us on a different path toward fundamental change.
Mandy Van Deven is a writer, advocate and online media strategist. Her work exploring contemporary feminisms, global activism, and sexuality has been published in Salon, AlterNet, GlobalPost, The Guardian, and Marie Claire. Learn more at www.mandyvandeven.com