A sexual assault case involving several teenagers in Steubenville, Ohio, last fall turned into a national story—and, for many on the left, a vehicle to indict America as a misogynist “rape culture.” While the two defendants were convicted in March, there remain unanswered questions about the case (currently the subject of a state investigation). But one thing that emerged clearly in the media coverage is the disturbing influence of radical gender politics.
In the Steubenville case, the radical feminist narrative got a boost from the facts. The 16-year-old victim, who became severely intoxicated at a party and was at times unconscious and at others barely conscious, was stripped and subjected to sexual abuse that included penetration with fingers (classified as rape under Ohio law). Overnight, nude photos of the girl and a video capturing some of these acts showed up in the social media (though the video was soon deleted); one of the perpetrators bragged about his exploits to friends in crude text messages.
Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond were arrested on August 22, eleven days after the incident. But from the start, some charged a cover-up to shield other culprits. The rumors were fueled by the fact that the defendants were stars of the Steubenville High football team, and many other current and former players attended the party. The football program, “Big Red,” is the pride of the town of 18,000. Head coach Reno Sacoccia appeared as a character witness for Mays and Richmond at a preliminary hearing.
At the end of the year, as the story went national with a front-page article in the New York Times, a group that dubbed itself “KnightSec” and “Occupy Steubenville”—an offshoot of Anonymous, a group of hackers with a far-left agenda—went on the warpath. The “hacktivists” posted the names, addresses, dates of birth, voter IDs, and other personal details of 50,000 Ohio residents and threatened to do worse if more rumored perpetrators were not jailed. In January, a KnightSec-affiliated website, LocalLeaks, released a mass of lurid allegations from the Steubenville rumor mill—all unsupported, and sometimes directly rebutted, by evidence at the trial three months later.
In the LocalLeaks version, the victim was deliberately set up for rape, drugged, kidnapped, repeatedly raped and sodomized by at least four attackers, urinated on, and finally dumped unconscious outside her parents’ home. (In fact, she willingly left the party with the boys and spent the night on a couch in the house of a friend of theirs.) The site further claimed that the attack was part of a larger conspiracy: A self-styled “rape crew” of football players supposedly assaulted women with the complicity of an adult male mentor, the owner of a private fan site for the team. As “proof,” the online vigilantes touted a photo from one of the man’s hacked emails, supposedly resembling the victim in a sexual assault case involving two lacrosse players some 300 miles away. The son of Jefferson County prosecutor Jane Hanlin—who had recused herself from the case because of her son’s football team membership—was also named as part of the “rape crew.”
Despite KnightSec’s criminal actions and uncorroborated smears, the group was given a platform by some mainstream media outlets including a blog on the website of the Atlantic magazine, the Atlantic Wire, and Anderson Cooper’s CNN show 360˚; HLN talk show host Nancy Grace also showcased onetime TV star and KnightSec ally Roseanne Barr, who amplified the baseless claims.
The actual facts were enough to convict the two defendants; three other boys received immunity for testifying. There was no evidence that anyone else witnessed the sexual assaults, which happened in a car and at the house where the girl spent the night.
There was plenty of evidence of reprehensible conduct—including an infamous video in which a young man mocks “the dead girl” and makes a string of rape and necrophilia jokes (to raucous laughs from a couple of boys and disgusted protests from two or three others). While the video was not, as some reports implied, a commentary on the rape in progress—the boys were not at the scene, and the sick jokes were based on rumors they may not have taken seriously—it was unquestionably repulsive. Both the clip and the other postings in the case paint a depressing picture of youth culture, whether one blames misogyny or a more general failure of values (as the victim’s mother and attorney have done). And far too many adults seemed more concerned with the football program than with the athletes’ wrongdoing.
Nevertheless, this hardly adds up to a case against a sweeping, all-American “rape culture.” Indeed, the boys’ own words rebut the feminist-propagated claim that most American males don’t see sex with an unconscious woman as rape: The word “rape” was used repeatedly in the video and in the text messages between Mays and his friends (one of whom called Mays “a felon”). The boys also seemed well aware of the likelihood of legal trouble if the girl and her parents went to the police.
Yet the “rape culture” narrative was given plenty of space. In Time magazine, novelist Peter Smith chided his fellow men for failing to break ranks with their sex and “say something” against rape (never mind the male judge who “said something” by sending the boys to prison). New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof preposterously invoked the Steubenville case as proof that America has as bad a problem with the mistreatment of women as do Third World nations where rape is rarely punished. For Kristof and some other pundits, Steubenville became the American counterpart to New Delhi, India, where a young woman’s death from injuries sustained in a brutal gang rape had recently shocked the world. Yet, if anything, the successful prosecution in Steubenville showed that the American justice system punishes perpetrators of sexual coercion even in circumstances that, in many countries, would have condemned the victim to dishonor, prison, or even sometimes death.
In an ironic twist, CNN—which had given largely uncritical attention to the “rape culture” crusaders—became their final target at the trial’s close. Reporting on the sentencing, CNN correspondent Poppy Harlow observed that it was “incredibly difficult” to watch the 16- and 17-year-old defendants sob as their lives fell apart, and host Candy Crowley commented on their youth. Sympathy for juvenile offenders, even in murder cases, is hardly rare. Yet the report was denounced, with the usual falsehoods and distortions, as a prime example of a rape-supportive culture: Left-wing blogs and an online petition asserted that the CNN segment never once mentioned the victim, when in fact Harlow and Crowley had spent some time discussing her and noted that “her life will never be the same.” The CNN journalists, reportedly dismayed at being branded apologists for rape, were getting a small taste of the smears directed so recklessly at Steubenville residents—including women like Hanlin—in the name of championing women.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine and a columnist for Real Clear Politics.