One Steubenville Rapist is Released. Did He–Or We–Learn Anything?

January 9, 2014  |  

I remember the first time a friend told me she’d been raped. She was a goofy, intelligent, open person, and we got along well over our shared interests in philosophy and art, and, because we were high schoolers, our respective difficulties with our parents. Both being born solidly to Gen Y, she told me over AIM one night, me downstairs on my family computer, six feet away from my dad watching TV. She’d gotten a little too drunk with an older cousin, gone to the seaside with his friends, and snuck off with one of them. They’d lain down on the empty beach, out of sight of the bonfire party, and the first time he asked her if she wanted to, she’d said, “I don’t think so.” After some persistence on his part, she’d given a half-hearted, “Okay,” and lost her virginity on an evening too hazy and too reluctant. “I said yes,” she’d written to me, “so I guess it doesn’t count as rape. But it feels like it.”

Consent is a funny thing, by which I mean not a funny thing at all, and, at present, a big issue facing our culture, especially our youth. With substance use and party mentality affecting kids at what seems to be a younger and younger age, teens are finding themselves up against more dangerous tendencies and more complicated interactions long before they’ve developed the necessary abilities to think about effects or repercussions. When a case like the Steubenville rape comes along, we get a clear look at how harrowing the combination of immaturity and intoxication can be. A 16-year-old girl woke one morning to find that she’d been demeaned, abused, and, on whatever scale, sexually assaulted by a group of high school boys—and, for better or worse, that most of the ordeal had been recorded on smartphones in various photos, videos, and tweets.

In March 2013, Judge Thomas Lipps convicted Steubenville teenagers Ma’Lik Richmond and Trent Mays of rape, sentencing Richmond to a minimum of one year in juvenile detention and Mays to two, but allowing both sentences to be dependent on behavior and rehabilitation progress. This Sunday, Ma’Lik Richmond was released from Cuyahoga Hills Juvenile Detention Facility after serving nine months of his year-long sentence. Richmond’s lawyer, Walter Madison, released a statement on behalf of Richmond and his family, praising Richmond for “[making] the most of yet another unfortunate set of circumstances in his life… [Richmond] met it squarely, lifted his chin, and set his shoulders; he is braced for the balance of his life.” Not a single mention of the victim is made, nor does he hint at any of the circumstances of the crime.

I believe that a main factor in the perpetration of any crime but especially a crime of this nature is an absence of empathy. And the difficult thing about empathy is, if it is honestly present in a person’s consciousness, it goes both ways. I can imagine any number of reasons why Richmond and his lawyer might not want to mention the crime or the victim. Richmond clearly hopes to move on with his life, and perhaps he and Madison believe he can do that faster if August 11, 2012 is never brought up again. Perhaps, despite being tried and convicted, Richmond and his lawyer maintain that he was innocent, and believe any show of remorse or apology is a form of confession. I can imagine that because I can imagine how another person might feel in a given set of circumstances, because I can empathize.

But where was empathy on the evening of August 11, when Jane Doe passed out and Ma’Lik Richmond held her by the ankles for the sake of Instagram? Why do Ma’Lik Richmond and Trent Mays deserve our empathy for their “ruined lives” when they cannot allow a single show of empathy on their part for the girl that they abused, no matter how drunk she was, no matter whether they abused her with their fingers or their hurtful videos or staged photos? And, perhaps most importantly, why weren’t they able to show her empathy that night? Where does this total deficiency come from, and how do we stop it? Can parents teach it, and they just choose not to, or fail at it? Is our culture so steeped in violence and degradation that it renders useless any efforts to oppose that? We must fight to help our teenagers better understand the intricacies of both sex and substances, since at this point we cannot expect either to disappear from the collective teen consciousness.

A ruined life is a ruined life, and all three of these kids have them right now. Ma’Lik Richmond served his time and will register as a sex offender for up to 20 years. Trent Mays remains in his juvenile detention facility, serving out his time, and when he gets released he’ll go through the same process. But what can be said for this Jane Doe? Her punishment exists somewhere inside herself, in the total violation of her rights, the total betrayal of her faith, in the invisible wounds of the victim-blaming backlash that robbed her of friends, of dignity, and of support. Jane Doe’s life changed forever one night when she had too much to drink and assumed the people around her might actually care about her health or well-being, and how sad we all are that she assumed wrong. How sad we all are, and how deeply we must hope that this changes our practices and our preachings, and how strongly we must all fight to make sure we do everything we can to educate our youth—not just in matters of sex, drugs, and alcohol, but in the very act of respecting their fellow human beings.

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