Tabatha Southey

Rape is still treated as a matter of sex. But I know better

Special to The Globe and Mail

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There was justifiable outrage over CNN’s coverage of the conviction of Trent Mays, 17, and Ma’Lik Richmond, 16, for raping a 16-year-old girl in Steubenville, Ohio.

Correspondent Poppy Harlow said it was “incredibly difficult … to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students. …”

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“What’s the lasting effect, though, on two young men being found guilty in juvenile court of rape, essentially?” fretted Candy Crowley, essentially.

Unlike most crimes, rape is often treated as something like a natural, though distasteful, bodily function. Like gas. The reaction is sometimes close to, “Ah, c’mon, man, why’d you have to do that in here?” Many pretend not to notice.

Judge Thomas Lipps admonished those who had witnessed the Steubenville assault “to have discussions about how you talk to your friends, how you record things on the social media.”

But it was forwarded cellphone photos, videos, texts (Mays texted that his victim was “like a dead body”) and tweets that built the case. Yes, they heaped humiliation on the victim, but they also documented a crime that usually goes undocumented.

I can’t think of another crime where the judge would essentially tell people not to leave evidence. I can’t imagine a judge telling a mobster in a racketeering case, “Really, you should have whacked that guy. Couldn’t you tell he was wearing a wire?”

Or, to a young man whose academic career is threatened by a marijuana conviction: “The next time you have that much weed and the cops are at the door, have your friend flush it.”

But there’s something about rape… Despite the fact that, for example, star football players can usually find women who want to have sex with them, and yet clearly some still rape, rape is still characterized as being about wanting sex a lot – as a comprehensible indiscretion.

When I was the age of the Jane Doe in this case, I was sexually assaulted by two boys as I walked home from school.

I prided myself on having a mouth like a sailor, imagined myself unshockable. But the things those boys said to me while walking beside me – aggressively, methodically herding me, I later realized, by causing me to move away from them, off the sidewalk, up a steep hill, out of sight, where it was easy enough to push me down – shocked me profoundly.

I was a 16-year-old girl. I knew exactly what boys who really wanted to have sex looked like. I knew boys who would have sawed their own arm off to have sex with a girl, were there a marketplace for such a transaction. And I knew this was different.

I wasn’t raped. The choreography is unclear to me, but as one boy got off me, just before the other landed, I managed to get up and run down the hill. It wasn’t that I fought hard or was clever – I was lucky.

As time went on and I heard more stories, I came to see it this way: Statistically, so many women are attacked that the odds are some will get away.

The possibility of rape is something women live with all the time, like an element among the other elements. Though their everyday actions don’t reflect it, the potential for disaster is omnipresent. All women live on a fault line.

I would never have reported the crime except that a police car happened to be passing, saw me running and then investigated what I was running from.

I was prepared by a lawyer for the trial: I was told I would be asked what I was wearing and how exactly I had kissed my older boyfriend on the corner where the boys had first seen me. But as we entered the courtroom, we learned that they had decided to plead guilty.

I understand there being some sadness over the sentencing of Trent Mays and Ma’Lik Richmond because, scared as I was of these boys, I felt no satisfaction hearing the judge sentence them to be incarcerated for several years (both had long criminal records). I just wanted it never to have happened.

Days after their release two years later, they raped a woman and beat her so badly that when they left her, in a ditch, they believed her to be dead. She wasn’t.

I remember thinking that I knew what their eyes had looked like as they had done this.

The image that had come to me shortly after I was attacked was that of looking into the wrong end of a pair of binoculars: that same flat, dark impenetrability. The sense of being on the receiving end of an unknowable gaze.

I both want and don’t want everyone to feel that gaze, just once.

Follow on Twitter: @TabathaSouthey

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