IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Steubenville case: Why acquaintance rape is not a myth

In August 2012, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, two of Steubenville High School’s Big Red football players, attended a number of parties in the
Credit: REUTERS/Drew Singer
Credit: REUTERS/Drew Singer

In August 2012, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, two of Steubenville High School’s Big Red football players, attended a number of parties in the closely-knit, football-centered town of Steubenville, Ohio. During the evening, tweets referencing a “gang rape” and an Instagram image of a seemingly intoxicated girl being held by her hands and feet hit the web. Many of the comments and tweets associated with the posts made light of the alleged sexual assault.

The alleged rape was witnessed by several people, three of whom testified in October that they saw the two defendants sexually assault the accuser in a car on their way from one party to another, and then again when they arrived at their destination. Witnesses claim Mays and Richmond raped the young girl while she was passed out drunk and unable to resist.

Acquaintance rape is not a myth. However, the defense attorneys in the Steubenville, Ohio rape trial, set to begin Wednesday are prepared to argue that the alleged rape was not rape, but consensual sex, even though the accuser was unconscious according to witnesses. “We’re denying that there was any non-consensual contact, period,” defense attorney Adam Nemann told The New York Times.

The Steubenville defense strategy is an exercise in victim blaming 101. All too often in rape cases, defense attorneys — and society — generally focus their attention on the actions of the accuser. How much was she drinking? Did she flirt with the boys? Is the accuser a good girl? What did she do to put herself in that situation? Did she say no?

None of these questions matter. Yet unfortunately in these situations, the accuser often becomes the one on trial in the court of public opinion.

No one ever asks what the accused were doing to bring about the rape accusation. What made Mays and Richmond think it was okay to carry a girl, seemingly too intoxicated to walk, from party to party? If the accuser was passed out and unable to walk, as some witnesses have described, why didn’t Mays and Richmond seek out transportation so that she could make it home safely?

No one ever questions why Mays and Richmond thought it was fun to hold the accuser by her hands and feet like a rag doll, with her head hanging back limply while an onlooker took a picture of her. No one ever asks why the accused thought it would be fun to use their hands to penetrate a drunken girl. No one ever asks.

The Steubenville rape trial is simply the latest example of rape culture playing out in real time. The defense is attempting a victim blaming strategy because it works.

A blogger, Alexandria Goddard, posted the pictures from that night on her website in an effort to shed light on the case and has since been sued and threatened. Even in the face of this photographic proof and video of another Steubenville teenager videotaped laughing about the girl who was “so raped” and who was “deader than Trayvon Martin,” many of the adults in Steubenville have rallied around the football team and the two accused players. This reinforces the notion that the bystanders and the adults in Steubenville are more willing to support the accused, than to support the accuser.

When many of the adults in Steubenville rally around the football team and imply the accuser was intoxicated, yet willing to go with Mays and Richmond from party to party, they are shifting the attention from what the boys did that night, onto what the accuser did to put herself in that situation.

Simply because the accuser decided to drink heavily, she did not implicitly consent to everything that happened afterwards. Making the decision to drink should not imply consent for rape. And consent is not automatic until a girl utters the word “no.”

As the country watches events unfold in Steubenville this week, the questions we ask should be about what Mays and Richmond did, and whether their actions led to rape. The idea that the young girl caused her own rape because of her choices lets Mays and Richmond duck the responsibility to explain their decisions.

Zerlina Maxwell is a law student and political analyst. She writes for the Grio, New York Daily News, Feministing, and Ebony Magazine. This story originally appeared on