We have seen much—and much-deserved—criticism of the mainstream media coverage of the Steubenville rape verdict. Some reporters, notoriously, have focused on what “good students” the convicted young men are and what “bright futures” had been squandered by their actions. While these may have been misguided analyses of the verdict, the outrage stems from the fact that such comments are part of a broader social narrative.
The lack of discourse and concern for the future of the Steubenville victim points to a deeper social problem; it’s a double-down on blaming the victim. Even identifying her as the “accuser” positions her as the one who was imposing upon her assailants. The reality is that her future and her life have been tragically altered by the actions of several boys. She deserves the love and compassion of us all who hope for a just and loving society.
The future of the perpetrators was tragically altered by their own actions. They must own that.
For those of us looking at this case from afar, disconnected from the emotion of the Ohio courtroom, we must resist lamenting the future of the perpetrators and consider their past if we are to make sense of this case and prevent it from happening again. Yes, these boys deserve our compassion and hope for a better future. However, we should not sympathize with the consequences of their behavior, but for the condition of their humanity that led to their actions. We must be honest in our recognition of the culture in which so many boys are raised and nurtured. As a society, we continue to teach boys that girls and women are “less than,” with language and attitudes that challenge and encourage masculinity through threatening and degrading comparison to girls and women (“you throw like a girl,” for example).
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Further, very often the role of girls and women is ornamental to, or in support of, the male experience. In many contexts, sports cheerleaders, swimsuit models, and the like reinforce the deeply-held assumption that women’s social, and often professional, roles are subservient to men. The disparity in wages, especially in an economy that many men view as a meritocracy, is a glaring example of cultural patriarchy in which the goals and aspirations of men are seen as more noble and superior to those of women.
Those of us concerned for these young people, both victim and perpetrators, have a moral obligation to recognize how the messages of our culture are manifest in the behavior of high school boys at a party.
One of the powerful influences in the lives of young men is sports; in the Steubenville case, football was a strong socializing force. I have spent most of my life in and around football. And, as a former professional player and member of the college Hall of Fame, I benefited from the game. I took from my experience countless lessons, none of which included violence towards women. While I am troubled by the link many people make to violent masculinity, I do understand why the culture of football has been indicted. One of the many lessons I learned was that of respect for authority and “looking out” for teammates. But, if women are viewed as “less than” then they can neither be in authority nor considered part of the team. Their presence, once again, becomes ornamental and secondary. This is an argument I am willing to have because the other lesson I took from the game was that leadership means doing the right thing, even if it’s unpopular. It is time we made that leadership more common. Men from all sectors need to recognize the ways in which patriarchy forms the way boys see themselves and the girls and women in their lives and in society.
Most men are not violent. But when we teach boys from the beginning that women are inferior, it’s no wonder that violence against women is committed overwhelmingly by men and that we fail to see its connections to our attitudes about women. It’s no wonder that the majority of men remain silent, even about the random sexist jokes and everyday discrimination that are the building blocks of a violent culture.
We can change that. Men can change that. Men are working to change that now, in fact. More and more men—including athletes—are realizing that violence against women is their issue and taking the lead on making change. Men stood with women in Delhi; men are taking the lead in Dallas. Thousands of men—including me—have already joined Breakthrough’s Ring the Bell: One million men. One million promises. campaign, which calls on men to take concrete action to help end violence against women.
I invite you to join us. If enough men join women in calling for an end to violence—as they did recently at Dallas City Hall—we can make serious change. If enough men teach boys that showing empathy is not “showing their feminine side, ”but is part of healthy masculinity, we can raise healthier, more well-rounded young men who consider young women their equals. If enough men teach enough boys to do the right thing, next time, maybe it’ll be the football team that helps prevent the rape. With enough men as leaders and partners, we can build a culture in which women and men are safe: safe going to parties, safe speaking up, and safe being whoever they want to be.