For a long March week all we see is Steubenville. The cold won’t let up, and the headlines don’t stop: Teen boys, photos, drunk girl, rape.
There’s no escaping the story, partly because mainstream media outlets screw up—they chastise the bone-headedness of the rapists’ inadvertent cell phone confessions, as if that were their primary misstep, and sympathize with them once they’re convicted (at least one year in a youth correctional facility, along with the requirement to register as sex offenders).
What a shame, commentators say. Such bright futures. They don’t talk about the girl’s life. And so of course people react.
For a week we read pissed-off op-eds revealing new details, or new permutations and interpretations of those details, and the same resounding cry for responsibility and rectification. How do we fix this?
The story becomes an emblem, one of those times where the name of the event replaces the event, or the series of events of the event, until the particulars aren’t as important as the name—Steubenville—and what it stands for—rape culture—and we feel the sun setting on the particulars, which include:
Asphalt, the grain of tar digging into a girl’s knees as she knelt on the street and puked up booze. A circle of boys stood over her, jostling each other and laughing. She was making a mess, so one of them pulled off her shirt, out of the way of the vomit. Another waved three bucks around and said he’d give it to anyone who peed on her. They laughed, but no one took him up on it.
The backseat of a car—leather or vinyl or fabric?—where the girl lay sprawled, legs splayed, while a boy she’d had a crush on stuck his fingers in her vagina. His friend craned around to get a good look, filming it on his phone.
A dark orange floor—carpeting or linoleum?—and the legs of two boys in sports shorts, hands clasped around the girl’s ankles and wrists, lifting her a foot into the air, her head tipped back, hair dragging on the ground.
A basement, where the girl was stripped. More fingers in her vagina, more photos. A boy slapped his penis on her naked hip. A boy opened her mouth and tried to fuck it.
Texts and tweets:
“Where you at?”
“We’re hitting it for real.”
“Song of the night definitely is ‘Rape Me’ by Nirvana.”
“Did you [expletive] her?”
“LOL, she couldn’t even move.”
“Hey buddy, you want to send me that pic because you love me?”
“The dead girl”
“Is so raped.”
And then the dead girl woke up.
Asphalt and upholstery make up so much of teen sex. Teen rape. The dark bits between the two.
After Steubenville I find myself shying away from packs of boys. Nice boys, for all I know. A group of them shuffles in front of me, headed towards the subway, hollering and jostling each other the way boys do, big grins on their faces. Clean cotton tee shirts just washed by their moms, baseball caps with the brims pressed flat. One of them catches sight of me and moves closer to his buddies to let me pass. But I don’t want to pass. I don’t want to get close. I slow down so that I’m barely walking. It doesn’t matter that I’m late.
I do this a lot with groups of men. I cross to the other side of the street, give them a wide berth, hold my head high (which I’ve read deters assault) but don’t make eye contact (which I’ve read encourages assault), and if they yell I keep moving. I walk with big sturdy strides because I don’t want to look like a hurt sheep. This one’s a kicker.
I don’t really register the exhaustion of vigilance anymore, or the frustration of having to be vigilant when all I want is a damn pint of blackberries, remembering that along with grocery store comes don’t get raped!, but sure, I’m thirty-one and I’m used to that. It’s the boys that make me sad. I’m a teacher and a tutor. I like kids. I don’t want to be scared of boys, because it’s not about the boys—or not just about them.
When the girl woke up the next morning she felt, at first, confused. Where was she? Where were her clothes? She was naked, and she didn’t remember how she got that way.
She knew the boys who lay around her, still passed out, but she didn’t know the basement or the couch she’d apparently slept on, its strange fabric. She touched her hair, which felt matted with something. Her clothes, when she found them, were stained.
Somehow she made it home. She went home across the river, back to her own bed and bedroom, remembering nothing.
And then the chatter started.
“If that is [semen] on you that is [expletive] crazy,” a friend texted her, referring to a photo of her that was making its rounds online.
“I hate my life,” she wrote back. “I don’t even know what the [expletive] happened to me.”
She tried asking the boy whom she liked (the one who’d first stuck his fingers in her, though she didn’t know this yet).
“Nothing happen last night,” he wrote back. “You gave me a hand [job] and that’s it.”
“That is not all that happened,” she responded. “Tell me the truth now.” And, later, when he still wouldn’t comply, “Why would you let that happen? Why wouldn’t you try to help me?”
I didn’t know Anthony before I climbed into the backseat of a car with him, and he didn’t rape me. It’d been a pretty harmless night—just kids making the rounds of a Virginia town’s parking lots, picking one place and then another to settle for a while, playing music from car stereos with the doors open, bold kids sitting on laps while the shyer ones bummed cigs off each other—Newports, Marlboro Lights. We were sixteen-year-olds full of malt liquor, parked in cul de sacs. No bad intentions.
Anthony was quiet and wiry, skinny arms sprouting from a well-worn band tee shirt, some old metal group, its black fabric soft enough to bury your face in. Dark hair, brown eyes, an attempt at stubble. Moody and thus smart, in my estimation.
My friends disappeared into a house up the street, but he hung back, asking if I wanted to hang out. I was a virgin dork who never had boyfriends, never even got crushed on, as far as I knew. Did I want to hang out? Please.
We’d just settled into the fuzzy backseat of a sedan when he said he liked to bite, and was I ok with that? Well, I didn’t know. I’d read Clan of the Cave Bear and Stephen King, young girl dark stuff with sexy bits you could earmark and read again later. So, biting? I guessed that was ok—I thought of Skinemax, sexy moaning, a little black lace: spooky, kind of cool.
“I like that too,” I said, and his eyes lit up like Christmas.
The first stab of pain was muted by surprise and St. Ides. He had my lip between his teeth and was chewing it like veal, huffing deep breaths of pleasure. He moved on to my chin, and then my neck.
I did not then, and do not now, possess a poker face. I grimaced and flinched away until my shoulders bumped against the window. But I didn’t shove him off. I thought, somehow, that I was supposed to let him continue for as long as I could stand it. I’d never been told how to value my physical pleasure or lack thereof. It didn’t occur to me as a possibility.
And Anthony, getting sweaty now, didn’t seem to notice or mind my discomfort. He was happy to accept that generosity.
A hand disappeared, and then his penis was out, quivering in the air. He released my neck from between his teeth—relief, thank god—and grabbed the back of my head, pushing me towards his lap. Like he couldn’t believe his luck. But my lips were swelling, they didn’t feel like my own anymore, in fact I was blinded by a throbbing that wasn’t bound to one location, but rather was searing from inside my face, my neck—everything above my shoulders a constellation of pain—and here was his penis, pink and skinny and long, almost pointed, like a hot pencil. I couldn’t put it in my mouth.
I was up and over his lap in seconds, the door hanging open as he yelled, “Hey!” The grit of stones poking my knees as I crouched in a ditch and puked.
And here, suddenly and mercifully, was a friend, a good friend of my best friend, in fact, standing above me. She must have seen me fall from the car. I could see the lights of the house behind her, where my best friend must be. I attempted a smile, sitting up on my knees. She smiled back.
And then she lifted a camera. Snap.
Poppy Harlow stands outside a courthouse in Ohio wearing a bright red suit, as red as her name, speaking into a CNN camera. Her long blonde hair is perfectly blown.
“It was incredibly emotional,” she’s saying, “incredibly difficult…to watch… These two young men had such promising futures—star football players, very good students.” She blinks her eyes and nods her head forcefully every three words, as if to punctuate. Star football players. Very good students.
Poppy is very sad for the boys. “[They] literally watched as…their life fell apart,” she says. “One of the young men…when that sentence came down, he collapsed! He collapsed”—and here she folds her body forward, to illustrate the tragedy of it all, jerks forward like she’s been socked in the gut—“in the arms of his attorney. He said to him, ‘My life is over. No one is going to want me now.’”
Poppy doesn’t mention the death threats the rape victim has been receiving from local teenagers.
Later, two girls, 15 and 16, will be charged with “aggravated menacing” of the victim; a teenage boy who suggested that God would do the punishing (not him—he would just pray for it) is not arrested. There were other tweets, lots of Whores and Alcoholics tossed around, but there’s not much that can be done about those either, not legally.
“You ripped my family apart,” writes a cousin of one of the boys.
I never saw the photograph, but I saw my reflection in mirrors: amphibian, my swollen lips like purplish slabs of liver. For the next week, as the photograph was passed around the neighboring high school where the Saturday night kids went, I wore turtlenecks. I told my mom I’d tripped running up the stairs and slammed my face. Isn’t that stupid?
Turtlenecks, a beat up face and a story about falling: I’m not sure if there’s anything more cliché than that. I’m not sure what could be more obvious than that—lord, girl, come on—but no one said anything. No one asked questions. As if an unspoken contractual blindness bound us. And at the time, that felt like a mercy. I’d sort of asked for it, so he hadn’t done anything wrong. Better to forget it.
A week after the original sentencing, one of the boys makes an appeal. He says he didn’t know what he did was rape. He says he doesn’t want to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. His lawyer says that his “brain isn’t fully developed,” that “a person at seventy-five years old should [not] have to explain for something they did at sixteen.”
My ex and I sit in my new living room and argue about it.
“I don’t feel bad,” I’m saying.
There was one Monday, years later, when Anthony the Biter crossed my mind. I was sitting in a cubical at my temp job, fresh off the bus to New York City, squinting dispiritedly at a long list of names to be fed into a spreadsheet, when I decided to look him up, no doubt from boredom as much as a dark-edged curiosity.
And there he was, making a face on a social media site, a grown-up who’d gone to music college in Boston. So I wrote him a message. Something like, Do you remember. It was a bad time for me. I’ve felt weird about it always, though it was brief.
It didn’t take long to get a response:
Sorry? Had we met?
“I don’t feel bad,” I’m saying, “because she’ll live with it for the rest of her life too. That seems like a fair trade.” I’ve gone from zero to sixty in seconds—one second—the second my ex started defending the boys. Pedal to the metal, cylinders firing, all systems go, I want to break someone. I want to palm the back of someone’s head and push his face, rhythmically and repeatedly, into a wall. Let’s see some skin on brick, hear some teeth crack, motherfucker.
“They’re children,” my ex is saying. “You say you believe in rehabilitation.”
And I do, usually, essentially—I want to—but there’s an ugliness brewing in me that’s larger than anything I can justify. Because it feels like nothing ever goes punished, nothing’s made right, and why is it that finally when we get some justice we have to argue for it? Why is it that a man who loves me still argues for the rights of rapists?
Which is a flaw in my logic. I’ve never told anyone—especially not lovers or boyfriends—about what happened that night fifteen years ago. And I wasn’t raped; it wasn’t even sexual assault, not really, was it? (Or was it?) Besides which, we’re talking about Steubenville. We’re talking about people I’ve never met. It only feels like I’ve met them. And what’s that worth?
One of the Steubenville boys ends up being sentenced to two years (his friend gets one), which some people feel is too much, and some people feel is not enough. And I don’t know—both sides seem right, and wrong.
Throwing boys in jail won’t make them kinder, more engaged, less likely to abuse; it won’t stop some boys from raping and other boys from prizing their pleasure over the discomfort of another person. It won’t stop girls from tweeting or showing off photographs of victims, and it clearly won’t stop adults from perpetuating the whole cycle in the first place.
But a lot of us have bad memories and friends with worse. We live with rape statistics like “1 in 6,” “600 per day,” “60% unreported,” “98% unpunished,” and we become so famished for rectification that we’re carelessly voracious when we get it, or when we feel like we do. We’re a bunch of beggars stumbling on a crisp fifty.
After the trial ends, Steubenville mostly fades from the news. There are other, valid, things to think about—gay marriage, gun control, two bombs in Boston. The weather turns warm, which feels like a reprieve.
There are small waves when the boys’ football coach, who knew about the rape but didn’t say anything, lest he lose his players, has his contract renewed—two years, no problem—but mostly, it seems, people are tired of Steubenville. Like we’ve talked and written and fought about it enough, and it’s meant to go now. The whole thing. As if we did our duty the weeks we considered it, and we wish to be absolved of the responsibility of thinking about it now, this blight we carry.
I feel it too. That I should let it go. I do want to. Why beat a dead girl?