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'Those poor boys.' Wait, aren't they the rapists?

By MELISSA WELLHAM

TRIGGER WARNING: This article deals with an account of rape/sexual assault and may be triggering for survivors of abuse.

It’s the rape case making headlines all around the world.

Late last year, a 16-year-old girl in Steubenville, Ohio, went to a party, got drunk and left with a number of popular footballers from a nearby school. The footballers then took her to two more parties — by which point she was unconscious.

A photograph from the evening shows the girl being carried out of a party by her hands and ankles, her head lolling back dangerously.

This week a court found that these young men, then raped her.

Football players Trent Mays, 17, and Ma’Lik Richmond, 16, were accused of the crime soon afterward the events. The case has shocked many; both because of the atrocities committed against the girl, and because of how publicly advertised the atrocities were.

Mays and Richmond flashed the girl’s naked body as a joke, penetrated her digitally on numerous occasions, coerced her into oral sex, and exposed themselves to her. Other students on Twitter and YouTube claim to have seen people urinating on the girl and anally raping her.

Often rape trials become a matter of ‘he said, she said’ but in this instance, there was an overwhelming amount of physical evidence because the perpetrators of the crime had boasted about it on social media.

With photos.

Explicit photos and videos of the assault were shared by the footballers and their friends online.  The young men sent tweets and shared Facebook statuses that included the word “rape”. You can read about the details of the case here.

Shockingly, after the details of this incident came to light, the community of Steubenville rallied together in support of the footballers. High-schoolers and community leaders alike shared messages on social media shaming the girl, and suggesting that she had consented to the events that took place that night.

Despite the fact she was clearly unconscious in many of the photos.

Ma’lik Richmond is comforted by his attorney after the guilty verdict is delivered.

This week, Mays and Richmond were found guilty.

They were tried as juveniles, and have been sentenced to time in a juvenile correctional facility. Their sentence was for a minimum of one year. A maximum sentence of until they are 21-years-old.

And here is where it gets worse.

The defense team for the boys argued that the young girl did not “affirmatively say ‘no’”, and thus had not been raped. They essentially argued that silence – or rather, being unconscious — counts as consent.

After the boys were convicted, the case was covered extensively in American broadcast media, and the coverage itself has become controversial. CNN in particular has been criticised for their commentary, with online activists accusing the network of ‘sympathising with rapists’ instead of the victim.

Some soundbites from the coverage include:

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Yes, these young men are now on a sex offender’s list.

That is because they are sex offenders.

They raped a barely-conscious 16-year-old.

The Huffington Post’s Kia Makarechi summed it up succinctly: “CNN’s coverage of the verdict in the Steubenville rape case appeared to be curiously weighted on Sunday, focusing on the effect the guilty verdict would have on the lives of the now-convicted rapists and their families, rather than that of the victim and her family.”

He went on to describe the coverage in more detail:

In a Sunday afternoon segment, anchor Fredricka Whitfield followed the straight news of the guilty verdict (which she described as rape occurring “after a night of heavy partying”) by showing the rapists’ parents’ weeping in court. Footage of Richmond, his mother and father offering emotional appeals to the victim’s family dominated the segment.

Whitfield threw the story to reporter Poppy Harlow, but not before reiterating that Mays and Richmond’s “family members tried their hardest to plead for some forgiveness from the victim’s family, as well as from the judge.”

This was from the afternoon segment on CNN. Earlier that morning, anchor Candy Crowley said that the sentence had been “incredibly difficult” to watch. She continued:

“These two young men — who had such promising futures, star football players, very good students — literally watched as they believed their life fell apart.”

“What’s the lasting effect though on two young men being found guilty juvenile court of rape essentially?” Crowley asked CNN’s legal analyst Paul Callan.

“Being found guilty … of rape essentially?”

They were not found guilty of “rape essentially”.

They were not found guilty of something akin to rape.

They were not found guilty of something similar to rape.

They were found guilty of rape.

You can watch more of the CNN footage below.

This timeline highlights some of the most problematic moments of CNN’s coverage.

At 1:20, Poppy discusses the rapists’ impressive resumes.

At 1:54, Poppy says alcohol was a factor in their decision to rape.

At 2:20, Poppy speaks as though they are brave for apologizing.

At 3:27, Poppy tries to make us feel bad for them some more.

At 4:34, Candy makes a passing mention of the actual victim, then gets to the important part: asking how the conviction will make the rapists’ lives harder.

And at 5:18, they report that some sex offenders will have to be registered as sex offenders.

So what’s wrong with this picture? The CNN coverage should have focused on how difficult and emotional the court trial must have been for the victim. How her life may well be changed forever. How being raped is an incredibly traumatic and often life altering experience.

The victim was sitting in the courtroom, too. She was present for the verdict, and visible to the defendants — but hidden from the view of the main court by a screen to protect her identity.

Instead, CNN’s coverage focused on how difficult and emotional the court trial was for the perpetrators. How their lives will be changed. How allegedly traumatic the act of committing a rape  — and the subsequent consequences – are.

Trent Mays and Ma’Lik Richmond in court.

Maybe this coverage would have been different if the victim’s identity were not being protected. If CNN had been able to show footage of a weeping young woman. Or of her family crying in court. But, for obvious reasons, this was not possible.

Instead, CNN showed footage that made the perpetrators of this crime seem like victims themselves – and allowed journalists to report as if that were the case.

It is attitudes like those of the anchors, which expressly contribute to rape culture. Which contribute to young men like Mays and Richmond claiming they ‘don’t know what rape is’. Which make it okay for the Steubenville community to slut-shame a girl who is raped, and protect the footballers who have committed a crime.

Which contribute to society more generally blaming an inebriated young woman for getting raped – instead of blaming the young men who actually raped her.

The tweets below illustrate the broader problem of victim-blaming, which contributes to rape culture. Some people may find these tweets distressing. 

After the broadcast on Sunday, a Change.org petition was started online, calling on CNN to apologise for their coverage. You can sign the petition here.

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