By: Jaclyn Friedman
Last summer, two young football players in the Ohio town of Steubenville carried the unconscious body of a local girl from party to party, violating her in ways you’d probably prefer not to think about. (I’m not pretending this incident is merely “alleged,” because there’s video and this column isn’t a court of law.) Today, she’ll face her attackers in court for the first time. It’s a brave act, as she surely knows she’ll not only be facing down the boys who did this to her, but also the adults whose jobs it is to blame her and call her a liar. Only she can know what will make this sacrifice worthwhile: Is it enough for her to be heard in court? Will it only be healing if the boys are convicted? Whatever it is she needs, I hope she gets it.
But rape prosecutions are argued on behalf of the state, not just the victim, and there’s a good reason: Rape doesn’t just harm one person. It tears at the fabric of our communities. And if we treat this trial as simply the story of what a couple of kids did to another, we’re missing the point. This isn’t an isolated incident, and the incident itself didn’t happen in isolation.
This rape is like most in that it was enabled by a deeply entrenched, toxic masculinity. It’s a masculinity that defines itself not only in opposition to female-ness, but as inherently superior, drawing its strength from dominance over women’s “weakness,” and creating men who are happy to deliberately undermine women’s power; it is only in opposition to female vulnerability that it can be strong. Or, as former NFL quarterback and newly-minted feminist Don McPherson recently put it, "We don't raise boys to be men. We raise them not to be women, or gay men." This starts in childhood for many boys, who are taught young that they’ll be punished for doing anything “girly,” from playing with dolls to crying, or even preferring to read over “rough housing” outside.
Toxic masculinity has its fingerprints all over the Steubenville case. The violence done to the victim was born out of the boys’ belief that a) sexually dominating a helpless girl’s body made them powerful and cool, and b) there would be no consequences for them because of their status as star athletes (If you want to see stomach-churning first-hand evidence of this, check out this video of one of their friends gleefully talking about how “raped” and “dead” the victim was). The defense is basing their entire case on it, arguing that this near- (and sometimes totally) unconscious girl’s body was the boys’ to use because “she didn't affirmatively say no." The football community’s response—by which I mean not just the coaches, school, and players, but the entire community of fans—is steeped in the assumptions of toxic masculinity, treating the athletes and the game as more important than some silly girl’s right to both bodily autonomy and justice. Steubenville residents have been quick to rally around the team, suggesting that the victim “put herself in a position to be violated” and refusing to talk to police investigating the assault. The two players who cooperated with police were suspended from the football team, while the players accused of the rape have been allowed to play. The coach even went so far as to threaten a New York Times reporter asking questions about the case. (No surprise there: When it comes to male-dominated sports, toxic masculinity is the rule, not the exception.)
But sports is hardly the only breeding ground for toxic masculinity. Witness the recent, vicious bullying of Zerlina Maxwell by fans of Fox News. Last week, Maxwell was on Hannity and dared to opine that the best rape prevention isn’t about what women can do to protect themselves, but instead focuses on raising men who don’t rape. She also personally identified herself as a survivor of rape. What followed was a nearly inconceivable onslaught of misogynist and racist attacks, including repeated threats of rape and death. All because a black woman insisted that the work of stopping rape—“women’s work” if there ever was such a thing—requires men’s labor. Under the influence of toxic masculinity, the logical response to a man being forced or even encouraged to do something coded “female” is always violence.
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