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Barbara Amiel's Steubenville Column Reminds Us Of What Rape Culture Looks Like

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Just when it seemed nothing more could possibly be said about the trial in Steubenville, Ohio, where two high-school football players were convicted earlier this month of sexual assault, in came Barbara Amiel. Amiel's latest Maclean's column laments the sexual politics of our times, where "the Steubenville boys behaved like many drunken 16-year-old males before them when faced with a 16-year-old female drunk as a skunk herself; in other words, they behaved appallingly." "Behaved appallingly" is apparently Amiel's code for "dragged a 16-year-old girl to various parties, sexually assaulting her in the car on the way and delighting in the lifeless state of her body as they photographed and videotaped her humiliation to share with friends." Tomato, tomahto.

The online backlash against Amiel's column was swift. On Twitter, she was denounced by both readers and other journalists. Outlets as different as the Georgia Straight and Yahoo! covered the controversy. By all appearances, there's a collective horror at what Amiel put to paper, her pining for the olden days when you'd just shut up and behave better next time if you happened to find boys' fingers where you didn't invite them to be. The problem is that these attitudes existed before Steubenville, and I'm not hopeful they've gone away in the aftermath.

The term "rape culture" has come up often in discussions of the trial and aftermath of the Steubenville case. A definition of rape culture states that it is a culture in which rape and sexual violence are common, and are excused and even condoned by prevalent attitudes, norms, practices, and media treatments. You could do far worse for an illustrative example, though, than looking at Amiel's column, which said that the girl "didn't have sex as we once understood it," "ended up sans her clothes, of which there were not many to begin with," and "could do with an alcohol abuse program." The two boys convicted of sexually assaulting her -- to say nothing of the many teenagers, male and female, who failed to intervene -- are just behaving like your average drunk young men, and apparently what they need is a finger wagging and a short suspension from the football team.

Ms. Amiel is no stranger to controversy, and a scandal can be very good for a media outlet. Maclean's is surely enjoying some impressive hit counts on Amiel's most-recent piece. I might even have suspected that she was trolling readers for that purpose if her argument were not so sadly familiar. We've heard the "she asked for it" refrain before. It came from a member of the Toronto Police force, who told a university audience that women should avoid acting like "sluts" if they weren't interested in being sexually assaulted. It came from the niece of Mayor Rob Ford, who said something along the same lines on Twitter. It came from news anchors who lamented the no-longer-bright futures of the two teenagers convicted of sexual assault in Steubenville, sad that convicted sexual predators would be labelled as such by law. And it came from thousands of people as one 16-year-old who was sexually assaulted and widely humiliated by her peers was told, repeatedly, that she shouldn't have been so drunk, should have worn more clothes, shouldn't have flirted, and shouldn't have said a word.

Even as this case unfolded in this part of the world, we denounced brutal attacks on women in other countries, seemingly without connecting the dots between rape and cultures that blame victims for their own assaults. For example, horror was expressed around the world when a young woman was gang raped and brutally injured in India late last year; she later died of her injuries. A lawyer for the defendants said that he'd never heard of a "respectable woman" being raped in the country. And this month the international community was up in arms again when officials in India said a Swiss woman was partially to blame for being sexually assaulted because she was in an unsafe area. But what was Steubenville if not a gang sexual assault? And do we not frequently caution women to take precautions a young man would never consider? It would be foolish to say that Canadian and American women are not better off, as a whole, than the average woman in India or the Sudan or any number of countries around the world. But knowing things could be worse doesn't mean we should settle for them as they are.

I worry, sometimes, that women (and men) of my generation believe that feminism isn't necessary because the work is done. We can vote, we can own property, we can drive and earn our own money. We outnumber men in universities, and have opened doors to careers that were not long ago forbidden to us. We can serve combat roles in the United States military. We can marry any man -- and in more and more places, any woman -- we want. And to be sure, we are better off than we used to be, on the whole, thanks in large part to the work of many women who came before. But bars still have coasters that detect the presence of rohyphenol in drinks. Many women carry rape whistles. There are people who believe that intoxication, even unconsciousness, means yes. And every day, women are assaulted and they choose not to report the crime because of how they are likely to be treated if they do. As long as all of those things are true, there is still work to be done.

The real horror of Amiel's column is not that she wrote it, or even that it was published in a mainstream magazine. It's that she is merely putting to paper what is thought by so many, from those like her who can remember a time when the victim would have always just kept her mouth shut in shame to the teenagers in Steubenville who took to Twitter to threaten death to the young woman who spoke up. That's what rape culture looks like, and I hope we don't turn our backs to it again until the next Steubenville. It's not going away on its own.

 
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