Darakshan Raja is a founding member of Falling Walls. As a researcher and an advocate she works on examining criminal justice responses for victims of crime, Darakshan is currently a Research Associate at the Urban Institute where she evaluates criminal justice policies.
The societal response to the verdict handed out in the gang rape of a 16 year old that only focused on supporting the offenders and failed to acknowledge the victim serves as a clear example of how we as a country have a serious problem with our rape culture at home. In the morning of March 17th, a judge delivered a decision that two young men were found guilty of rape. It is important to note everyone who could have been prosecuted within the case wasn’t, and neither of the defendants were tried as adults. That in itself shows us that even in a criminal justice system, known for being punitive and overtly harsh on offenders, a certain level of leniency was shown to the defendants. Otherwise in a case where there were thousands of text messages, videos, images, and admission by defendants that even after the victim looked dead to them, they still continued to assault her, the penalties in this case could have been far higher. However, the most glaring aspect of this case isn’t the criminal justice system’s response, but the complete invisibility and dismissal of the impact of rape on the victim by the media and our society. From mainstream media to even progressive voices, the biased support for the offenders, and even apologies for their actions completely overlooks how we are framing rape as a victim’s problem. Most importantly, we have completely absolved our role as a society in creating the environment that led to a case such as Steubenville-a case of gang rape that takes place quiet often.
The onus in Steubenville has again been placed on the victim. The outcry surrounding the heavy penalties for the offenders is far from a valid outcry of how is it possible that we have created a situation where minors are offenders and victims. Was this a societal failure on not modeling ourselves a certain way so the younger generations can choose how to not commit violence against others? Was this a cultural failure where young teenagers have been sold that violence and rape is fun, and hence they couldn’t even understand the difference between having fun, and participating in actions that will forever scar them? Far from an outcry, what I am still grappling with is how internally divided we are as a country in our words and our actions. How the same country that could celebrate and reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, and then only a few weeks later have media coverage where a victim’s name is released by mainstream media outlets while she has been receiving threats proves how we have yet to learn how we participate in committing violence against girls and women on a psychological, verbal, and physical level.
This case also further exposes how we completely fragment the real nature of sexual violence- one that destroys the lives of victims, offenders, and the fabric of safety for the larger community. In this case, a minor who is a victim of rape will live the rest of her life healing, rehabilitating, and reintegrating herself into a world where her fabric of trust and safety has been destroyed. On the other end there is the sad reality that young men as old as 16 and 17 will walk the rest of their lives knowing that they have committed one of the worst offenses possible-rape. Either they will walk with deep remorse for what they have done, or deep resentment and anger towards the victim, women, and society. For the bystanders who watched, these youth will have experienced violence first-hand and will live with the reality that someday that can happen to them, their friends, and their children. For us as a society we can walk from this case knowing that sexual violence doesn’t just impact women who are adults, it is taking place against youth.
Despite this difficult truth, for many of us, it is safer to hold the victim accountable rather than acknowledging the pervasiveness of sexual violence. The reason being if we finally acknowledged anyone can be a victim to sexual violence, then it means our outdated myths of protection from sexual violence won’t work anymore. The framing of adult women as victims and the stranger male as a perpetrator wouldn’t hold true anymore. It would mean understanding that sexual violence isn’t about sex, but it is about violence. It would finally compel us as a society to quit denying that many victims are just children when they face sexual violence, and that most offenders aren’t strangers. Most offenders are actually known to their victims. Most importantly, it may finally force us to tackle the issue by humanizing the victim and the offender, and recognizing that our framing is more harmful than helpful. If we fail to throw out outdated myths that continuously hold victims accountable, then such a culture will only create more victims and offenders.