Who is to Blame? Reflections on the Steubenville Rape Case

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the rape case in Steubenville, Ohio. I’m not going to share a lot of the details, since so much is out there already in the media.

Much of the commentary and analysis I’ve heard has focused on how this could have happened and what we can do to prevent it in the future.

I’ve heard everything from questioning the availability of alcohol to teenagers, to the culture of rape and violence that exists in our society, to the role of athletics and how we protect athletes from the consequences of their actions, to the role social media played in the rape and the subsequent prosecution.

I don’t want to talk about any of that.

Because the issue of who is to blame and how we can prevent it in the future goes so much deeper than any of this.

Let’s instead talk about how it is we teach children to dehumanize others.

This case is merely a reflection of the broader cultural norms around dehumanization that begins at birth.

In order to violate another person, we have to see her or him as less than human. We have to see them as objects. We must distance ourselves from their humanity.

If I were to find blame in this situation, I would place it squarely at the feet of a society (us) and a culture (yes, us again) that sees children as less than human from the day they are born.

When children are born, their dependence on us can lead us to forget that they are human beings with feelings and a need to have control over their bodies. Their ability to control their bodies is limited at first, but it grows as they do.

Because they are dependent and small, we take control of their bodies for them. We decide everything for them. We clothe them, bathe them, brush their teeth, take them to the doctor. We don’t question our right to do whatever is necessary to take care of their bodies, even if they object.

Our culture believes that a child’s objections are based on her or his ignorance.

If children knew better, then of course they would choose what we choose for them. We don’t treat them with the same respect we give to adults, according to this logic, because they are less than adults.

We see their differences as deficiencies that must be corrected through discipline, control, and force, if necessary.

As a group we see children as less than and we justify this dehumanization as necessary to ensuring they grow up correctly.

Dehumanization and Consent

As a culture we don’t believe it is necessary to consult children about what will done to them.

Whether it is medical procedures (not necessarily life-saving emergency procedures), enforced institutionalized school, spanking and hitting, or being forced to eat food when not hungry, we believe it is our right as adults to make these decisions for them.

Of course, we have lots of “good” reasons for treating children this way. Perhaps we even justify treating children this way “for their own good.”

We might even try to teach children lessons that will keep them safe from sexual predators. We might say you have the right to say no. If someone tries to touch you and you don’t like it, speak up, run away. We tell them no one should touch unless you say it is ok.

And then we treat them exactly the opposite.

We spank them. We physically remove them from situations. We hold them down for their own good. We take them to their rooms. We make them go to bed and shut the door.

We don’t ask for a child’s consent to punish them physically, to shut them in their room. We just do it. Of course we do, we’re the parents. That’s what we’re supposed to do. That’s what good parenting is in our culture.

They grow up and we wonder why teenagers don’t understand that sex without consent is rape.

It’s not just about rape education and awareness.

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