Steubenville Rape: We Are Failing Survivors of Sexual Assault

Last month, the people of Steubenville, Ohio, witnessed the conviction of Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond for the rape of a 16-year-old girl. But true justice feels a long way off. This week, Steubenville High School football coach Reno Saccoccia received a two-year extension of his contract, despite allegations that he covered up the rape to protect two of his star football players. Though Saccoccia may face investigation, the lack of accountability for his role in the assault demonstrates a dangerous failing in current community-based responses to sexual assault

At least two-thirds of all sexual assaults are committed by someone the survivor already knows: the stars of the football team, an uncle, a neighbor, a respected community organizer, a lifelong friend. Because of the intimate, isolating, and invisible nature of sexualized violence, police are usually not the first responders to sexual assault — coaches, principals, family, and friends are. You are. Yet from Steubenville to Penn State to Forest Hills, it is clear that many of these “first responders” lack the skills and willingness to support survivors of sexual assault in the most critical moments.

We need to move away from a Steubenville model, which blames survivors for their own abuse and makes excuses for people causing harm based on gender, race, class, religion, and social position in the community. As potential first responders to sexual assault, it is essential for ordinary people to build and practice concrete skills for supporting survivors and organizing against violence. Rachel Farr, of Communities Against Rape and Abuse (CARA) in Seattle, writes: “I am not proposing that sexual violence and domestic violence will no longer exist. I am proposing that we create a world where so many people are walking around with the skills and knowledge to support one another that there is no longer the need for anonymous hot-lines.” Here are five important ways to start:

1. Listen and believe people who have experienced sexual violence.

Simple but powerful. If someone tells you something that happened to them, listen. Don’t interject, don’t critique them, don’t grill them for details beyond what they feel like sharing, and most of all, don’t argue with them. If someone says they were hurt, in however many words, they were hurt, and they need to be taken seriously. 

2. Assure the person harmed it is not their fault.

Rape culture sends out the message loud and clear: If a woman is harmed, she must have done something to deserve it. Survivors often feel that the harm was their fault, and they should have done something to prevent it. One of the most important assurances for me to hear as a survivor came from my self-defense mentor Lynne Marie Wanamaker, who looked me in the eye and said, “I’m sorry that happened to you. You should not have been hurt like that.” 

3. Help survivors explore what they may need for safety and healing. 

“What survivors need is support in their own self-determination and safety.” - Shannon Pérez Darby, in The Revolution Starts at Home

Sexual violence can strip the person harmed of their sense of autonomy, control, and trust. Justice for survivors cannot simply be about punishing those who have done harm, but about supporting the survivor as they take back power and control over their life. Despite the best intentions, acting on behalf of people who have experienced harm without their consent and treating them like “victims” can reenact the same feelings of powerlessness that the assault inspired. Constantly check in with survivors about what they need, what they hope for, and how you can help, even if you don’t always agree with the survivor’s approach. And above all, don’t take a page from Reno Saccoccia. ACT. 

4. Focus on building healthy relationships.

It’s a maxim in anti-violence movements that “hurt people hurt people.” Over time, healthy relationships that depend on clear communication and mutual respect can disassemble the cycles of violence that plague communities and can provide a support network to fall back upon in instances of pain and hardship. By actively caring for the people close to you and reaching out to those not-so-close, you are investing in greater community accountability down the line. 

5. Hold yourself accountable.

According to Connie Burk of the Northwest Network of Bisexual, Trans, Lesbian, and Gay Survivors of Abuse (NW Network), “Accountability is not something that happens to bad people. It is a human skill. It is a skill that each of us must commit to developing as an internal resource for recognizing and redressing the harms we have caused to ourselves and each other.” Taking responsibility for the harms that we cause each other and seeking help can intervene in the perpetuation of sexual violence. This means not just taking responsibility to not cause harm ourselves, but speaking out to the people in our lives against sexism, racism, and homophobia, and noticing how we respond to the pain that violence has caused in our own lives. 

Obviously this list is incomplete, and grassroots anti-violence organizations around the country such as CARA in Seattle, Philly Stands Up in Philadelphia, and INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence in New York continue to organize community interventions and survivor support groups. All quotes are from The Revolution Starts at Home, an anthology for confronting intimate violence within activist communities, edited by Ching-In Chen, Jai Dulani, and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. 

 

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Lena Amick

A current student of Oberlin College, Lena has been teaching self defense to women and girls for over four years. She is dedicated to building socially, economically, and racially just communities, and her family and friends are the most important part of her life. She currently works as a case manager for the Immigrant Worker Project of Ohio, and is a proud Young People 4 fellow. She loves to dance.

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