I’d like to preface this Laurie Penny article with a tiny ray of hope. I was in the drugstore a few weeks ago, and a customer was kidding around with the young man behind the pharmacy counter about being in college. He asked if he’d ever taken part in a “dogfight.” The young guy looked puzzled. The older man explained it’s when a group of guys compete to see who can pick up the ugliest girl.
The young man looked at him. “Why would I want to do that?” he said. “Seems kind of mean. I’d be upset if someone did that to my sister.”
The older man looked embarrassed. “Ah, it’s just for fun.” The young guy shook his head and walked away.
So at least one young man understands. Women and girls aren’t “things” for your amusement, they’re human beings. What a radical notion!
Steubenville is rape culture’s Abu Ghraib moment. It’s the moment when America and the world are being forced, despite ourselves, to confront the real human horror of the rapes and sexual assaults that take place in their thousands every day in our communities.
Susan Sontag observed of the Abu Ghraib atrocities that “the horror of what is shown in the photographs cannot be separated from the horror that the photographs were taken – with the perpetrators posing, gloating, over their helpless captives. If there is something comparable to what these pictures show it would be some of the photographs of black victims of lynching taken between the 1880’s and 1930’s, which show Americans grinning beneath the naked mutilated body of a black man or woman hanging behind them from a tree. The lynching photographs were souvenirs of a collective action whose participants felt perfectly justified in what they had done. So are the pictures from Abu Ghraib.”
The pictures from Steubenville don’t just show a girl being raped. They show that rape being condoned, encouraged, celebrated. What type of culture could possibly produce such pictures? Only one in which women’s autonomy and right to safety counts for so little that these rapists, and those who held the cameras, felt themselves ‘perfectly justified’. Only one in which rape and sexual humiliation of women and girls is so normalised that it does not register as a crime in the minds of the assailants. Only one in which victims are powerless, silenced, dismissed. It is impossible to imagine that in such a culture, assault and humiliation of this kind would not be routine – and indeed, the most conservative estimates suggest that ninety thousand women and ten thousand men are raped in the United States alone every year. That’s what makes the Steubenville case so very uncomfortable – and so important.
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