Basu: Rape is repugnant, but so is complicity

From left, Defense attorney Adam Nemann, his client, From left, Defense attorney Adam Nemann, his client, defendant Trent Mays, 17, defendant 16-year-old Ma'lik Richmond and his attorney, Walter Madison, listen to testimony during Mays and Richmond's trial on rape charges in juvenile court in Steubenville, Ohio. (Mar. 14, 2013) Photo Credit: AP

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On the video, a laughing young man carries on about how "dead" the girl on the floor -- just out of camera range -- is.

"She's deader than a doorknob," he chuckles. "Deader than O.J.'s wife. ... Deader than Caylee Anthony. ... Deader than Trayvon Martin."

The 16-year-old female was not dead, but in an alcohol-induced blackout. Her limp body was photographed being carried down to the basement. Two Steubenville, Ohio, high school football players then took turns sexually assaulting it while others photographed and laughed.

Earlier that August evening, the guys left a party loading the girl into a car, where the assaults began. In the basement, three friends watched, and some took pictures and videos. One of the rapists later sent out hundreds of text messages about it.

Hundreds of thousands of texts were found on 17 phones. That was how the victim learned she'd been violated.

The video of the laughing guy was posted on YouTube by a group affiliated with the hacker movement, Anonymous. Townspeople are quoted saying it's the only reason authorities prosecuted.

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Off camera, a male voice says: "That's like rape. It is rape. They raped her."

So does he get between her and the assailants? Threaten to call the cops? No, he just provides new fodder for the other, who carries on: "They raped her quicker than Mike Tyson raped that girl. They raped her more than the Duke lacrosse team. She is so raped right now."

He also laughs about her being urinated on.

The callousness is almost unfathomable. The Steubenville victim was treated as undeserving of the most basic human empathy. One high schooler, for example, tweeted: "Song of the night definitely is 'Rape Me' by Nirvana." One witness was reportedly so concerned about another witness drinking and driving that he confiscated his car keys. Yet he did nothing to save a young woman from rape.

But that was not what affected some CNN anchors when Sunday's verdict against rapists Ma'lik Richmond, 16, and Trent Mays, 17, was announced.

"Incredibly difficult to watch as these two young men who had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart," said Poppy Harlow. Paul Callan ached over how the men -- who will get a year or more in juvenile prison -- will be "haunted for the rest of their lives" by being labeled sex offenders.

Not a word about how the victim could be haunted for the rest of hers.

The Steubenville video drives home how normalized rape is when the perpetrator is not an escaped convict hiding out in search of prey, but the kid-faced athlete next door whose buddies have his back.

"Crimes of sexual assault are occurring every Friday and Saturday night across this country in big and small communities," said Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine after announcing the verdicts. There is, he said, an "unbelievable casualness about rape."

Maybe that's because communities, including friends, coaches and college presidents, coalesce around the guilty to support the team and the town's image.

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DeWine, who initially claimed witnesses were not legally required to intervene, has now asked a grand jury to consider charges against other teenagers, parents, coaches and school officials. There is evidence the head coach got wind of the rape early on but didn't report it.

Sexual violence, including gang rapes, has been in the news from Steubenville to India to the U.S. military. Is it driven by hostility toward girls who dare drink like the guys do? Toward women who dare to infiltrate male professions like the military, or report on Egypt's Tahrir Square, as CBS' Lara Logan did, when attacked? Toward women riding the bus to a college education or camping out in the woods, both of which led to gang rapes in India? Or is it just access?

But while there is massive societal culpability, says Elizabeth Barnhill, the longtime director of the Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault, there is now also societal outrage, some of it from men.

So maybe Steubenville will be the tipping point. Maybe its crimes, its complicit bystanders, its institutional indifference and possible cover-ups will cause communities finally to wake up, stop making excuses and say "enough." Will you?

Rekha Basu is a Des Moines Register columnist.

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