Commentary: Rape Is About Men’s Actions, Not Women’s

There are many important lessons to take away from the Steubenville rape verdict.

From left: Trent Mays and Ma'lik Richmond. (Photo: AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, Pool)

When the verdict of the high profile Steubenville, Ohio rape case came down, I felt that justice had been served. Ma'lik Richmond and Trent Mays, star high school football players, one African-American, were found guilty of sexually assaulting an intoxicated 16-year old girl. The rape had been videotaped in front of other students, who sat back and did nothing.

The two were sentenced to up to one year in juvenile jail.

Soon after the verdict was handed down, I witnessed how the debate was unfolding on the news and in social media and I was no longer relieved. I was furious.   

News outlets such as CNN spent way too much time sympathizing with the rapists, worrying about the young boys’ futures and how they were ruined.

What about the victim? How will her life be changed forever? Guess they forgot about her.

My Facebook feed wasn’t much better. Yes, folks admitted that the boys were wrong, many believed that this situation could have been prevented had the girl “conducted herself,”  “not gotten drunk” or “wasn’t so damn fast.”

This type of victim blaming and rallying behind men isn’t just a white “thang” or solely a product of sports culture. Black folks fall into this same trap often too.

Back in 2011, a young 11-year-old Mexican girl was allegedly gang raped by more than 18 Black men. When the media came into the community, there was an abundance of African-Americans who blamed the child, not the men. One woman told the Houston Chronicle, "Where were [her parents] when this girl was seen wandering at all hours with no supervision and pretending to be much older?" Other residents told the New York Times that the girl “dressed older than her age” and that she would “hang out with teenage boys.”

And so why don’t we get it? Why are we so quick to defend men and boys who violate women?

For starters, we live in a culture that demeans and devalues women and so we are socialized to protect men. We also live in a world that tells men that being a real man means being aggressive, hypermasculine and sexually dominating. But when specifically looking at rape in Black America, it’s a lot more complicated.

Black men and boys are constantly told they are a problem — criminals, thugs, shiftless, trifling, gang-bangers, etc. We are also aware of the unfair criminal justice system whose residents are disproportionately men of color. And so we collectively make a choice.

We choose our men over our women and justify that choice by blaming women and girls for their own victimization.

But it’s important to also recognize that, in making this choice, we have become a society that doesn’t even understand what rape is, because we keep telling ourselves it’s the product of girls behaving badly.

It’s time for a change.

The first step is teaching each other that being "fast" has nothing to do with rape. I can be a sex worker and I still don’t deserve to be raped. I can have consensual sex with half the basketball team and I still do not deserve to be raped. I can even send boys naked pictures of myself and still not deserve to be raped.

Rape is not a consequence of being a “h--” or “drunk” or “bad.” Nor is it about lust, desire and seduction. Rape by the hands of men is an act of violence, power and control that is SOLELY about men's actions, not what women are doing or not doing.

In the end, the Steubenville rape case reminds us that we have a lot of work to do. And that work must include sitting down with our men and boys — at home, school, church, barber shops, on the corner and in the locker room — and having honest and complicated conversations about what rape, consent and respect for women really looks like. 

That alone, not victim blaming, will reduce rape in our community.

So what are we waiting for?

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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