We’re Obsessed With Rape. Is It Helpful?

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Photo: NBC/2012 NBCUniversal Media, LLC

Watching the Steubenville rape case turn from a depressing New York Times headline to a full-on, three-ring media circus has been horrifying, and not just because of the details of the alleged assault. There’s something about the grainy videos and defensive authorities that feels a little too close to ripped-from-the-headlines crime dramas like CSI and Law & Order. There’s also something that feels pretty gross about watching it unfold in real life, and not being able to look away.

If you want to feel truly confused about what, exactly, is making you feel so yucky about following this case, look no further than the story of Michael Nodianos, who can be seen in cell-phone videos taken that night and publicized by the hacking collective Anonymous. Nodianos is no victim here. He’s on tape saying reprehensible things like, “She is so raped right now.” And people have, understandably, lashed out. It seems he’s no longer enrolled at Ohio State and has received threats.

But the discussion of Nodianos has a tawdry feel, too. This isn’t just a cry for accountability. It’s rubbernecking at best, vigilante justice at worst. Most sexual assaults aren’t even reported, let alone blown up into national news stories. Are we really voicing our support for assault survivors when we share leaked videos and hit refresh on constantly updated articles about which celebrities are now rallying to the cause? When does our morbid fascination actually begin to feed the rape culture we say we hate?

The high-level narrative that most headline-dominating rape cases seem to follow goes like this: An awful sexual assault is committed. Because we all agree that rape is awful, we get together to point out how awful the accused perpetrators are. We pile on the shame. After the dust has settled, though, we’re not left with better services for victims of assault. We’re not left with safe spaces in which young people of all genders can discuss the factors they see as contributing to rape culture. We’re not collectively more supportive of women who come forward to report they were raped by an acquaintance.

What we’re usually left with is a lingering notion that rape is primarily (or exclusively) perpetrated by really bad guys, and they are the only ones to blame. Whatever happened at those keggers in Steubenville, it’s pretty clear that this particular assault, and the fallout from it, are not a common situation. In most cases, the accused aren’t caught on video, aren’t exposed by an international group of hackers, and aren’t instantly vilified as really bad guys. Labeling it a “he said, she said” situation is a far more common reaction. We can see this play out in statistics about most women’s reluctance to come forward and name their attackers. And sometimes we even see it in the headlines, like the case of Los Angeles cops who “forced sex acts” with drunk women. Rapes are sometimes committed by those we’ve labeled “good guys.” And pretending that they aren’t doesn’t make it any easier for survivors to report.

If we’re all bystanders in cases like Steubenville, casually implicated in advancing this narrative, are we also, like Michael Nodianos, somewhat accountable? This seems to be the principle under which Anonymous is operating: We all bear some sort of responsibility for creating a culture of rape, so we’re all on the hook for ending it. But I’m not convinced that all of our righteous anger — our shaming the perpetrators and bystanders in such a public way — actually helps dismantle rape culture.

The question, it seems, is how to turn our gawking into something productive — and not just for the victim in whatever case is currently making headlines. This infographic (and this helpful corrective to some misleading stats in it) are a good start. They zoom out the lens, make us pay attention to the epidemic rather than one outlier example. The sad truth is that most sexual assaults don’t make for a good SVU narrative arc. They appear far less dramatic, far less clear-cut. And it’s only when we start collectively acknowledging that will justice really be served.