We Are All Steubenville by Jessica Lawless

Editor Carrie Ivy, Editor's Choice, March 27th, 2013

I think "Where were the adults?" is the wrong question to ask...

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In Steubenville, Ohio last August (2012), a 16-year-old girl was raped by two high school football players after a party, while others looked on and recorded the act. On Sunday, March 17, 2013, the judge in the case tried the two teenage boys as juveniles, and found them guilty of rape.

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One of the most prevalent questions about the Steubenville rape case has been, “Why didn’t anyone at the parties stop the assault?” This question willfully ignores the fact that most kids are taught it’s okay for straight teenage boys to create the terms of the playing field and that being a part of the winning team, whatever your gender may be, means perpetuating misogyny, not challenging it.

To me, the most salient comment from Steubenville came from the assailants and witnesses who said they didn’t know it was rape.

That’s exactly what I said of my own experiences.

Commentary about the Steubenville rape case may be fading away but I’m just now able to stand still with my own memories of being a wasted teenage girl, trying to makes sense of being assaulted. Back then, we didn’t have terms like “date rape” or “rape culture,” and we definitely didn’t have anti-violence programs in my huge urban high school.

It’s hard to re-visit this time in my life, even though it’s on a constant loop in some recess of my brain. Sometimes it brightly flares up; sometimes it quietly recedes to the background.

Here’s something in the background: I’m 13, high, and wanting more. In the alley where we meet everyday to drink and get high, Julio takes my hand and leads me into a doorway where he lights a joint for me. I inhale, and he pushes himself against me. He hands me his beer and unbuttons my jeans in one move. I don’t want him touching me. I don’t know how to just say no, and I don’t know how to get the attention of our friends sitting thirty feet away. I feel myself fading, being pulled into a dark tunnel that is easier to stay in, compared to consciousness. I only wanted to get high. Letting this guy do what he’s doing to me is the price he, my friends, and even I assume I have to pay for the drugs he has.

I actually find it powerful that the teenage girl who was raped realized she had been victimized within a few days of the assault and named it. Things have changed in the last three decades. Now, a girl has words for what happens to her. Having the words is far less than enough, but she has more than the adults who act shocked that violent assault happens between teenagers.

Here’s another memory: I’m 16. I’m at a party in a small apartment, full of wasted teens and a few people who have made it into their twenties. My boyfriend and I are huddled close. He asks why I had flirted with some guy at work. Before I can figure out what he’s referring to, his brown eyes shift to ice. Before my confusion fully sets in, he punches me in the face, and I’m knocked to the ground. Yelling and striking out as I leap up from the floor, he ducks out of my path. A friend holds me back. No one holds my boyfriend back. He’s been physically beating up his girlfriends for years, and no one knows what to do.

Where were the parents? Where were the adults?

These are good questions for focusing on our individual pain and confusion. They’re not good questions when we’re having a national conversation on acquaintance rape, assault, collusion, and why people silently stand by. Because this is the most normal shit that happens everyday, all the time.

When we’re talking about Steubenville, we don’t seem to be making connections to the Penn State child sexual abuse scandal. To the Catholic Church sex abuse scandals. To prevalent and unpunished sexual assaults in the military. It’s as if each crisis is discreet and distinct. Obviously there are distinctions – like there are distinctions between Golden Delicious apples and Granny Smith’s.

If we want to know where the adults are, then we need to make the connections. The adults are scared. The adults are covering their own asses. The adults are teenagers who grew up, and never learned anything else except that having power and control over others means winning. The adults are modeling violent behavior. The adults are absent.

We need to stop looking at each event that makes it to the level of national news as anomalies. We have to stop asking where someone else is, as if we aren’t that someone else. The next time you hear someone angrily call another person a bitch, cunt, slut, pussy, faggot, retard – call them on it. The next time you think, “She’s angry, she’s crazy, she’s making her own choices,” check yourself. The next time you see a couple fighting in the street – even if it is two kids, two women, or two men, even if you can’t tell their ages or genders – find out if they need help. Break the silence of being a witness, even if you don’t know who’s perpetrating the violence, even if they refuse or ignore you. Once upon a time we knew that silence equals death.

If you want to know where the adults are, look in the mirror. Then answer that question.

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Jessica Lawless We Are All SteubenvilleJessica Lawless is a writer, artist, and educator. She spends a lot of time in Ariel Gore’s Literary Kitchen and is also a regular contributor to make/shift: feminisms in motion. Originally from Chicago, she survived 90’s Seattle and then the oughts in grad school in Los Angeles. She now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico with her partner and two fabulous cats, Sadie Viva and Coco Glamora.

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Carrie Ivy

Carrie Ivy (formerly Carrie Seitzinger) is Editor-in-Cheif and Co-Publisher of NAILED. She is the author of the book, Fall Ill Medicine, which was named a 2013 Finalist for the Oregon Book Award. Ivy is also Co-Publisher of Small Doggies Press.