Sympathy and the Steubenville Rape Case

There has been a lot of outcry surrounding the guilty verdict that 2 Steubenville High School students were handed in their raping of a 16-year-old West Virginia girl in August. To make matters worse, a lot of the media coverage of the trial has been depicting the boys as victims of a life-ruining sentence as opposed to the receiving justice for the atrocious crime they committed: When covering the guilty verdict, CNN reporter Poppy Harlow said, “These two young men who had such promising futures -- star football players, very good students -- literally watched as they believed their life fell apart.” I do think it is possible to have sympathy for these boys, but when that sympathy comes at the expense of the victim, there is a huge problem.

Let’s start with the basics: nobody is perfect and everyone sins. As Romans 3:23 says, “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.” This verse teaches us that sin isn’t so much a specific action as it is the constant and always present force in our life that propels us to go against God’s will. There is no ranking sin when it comes to God. You can’t go to God and say, “Hey look, I didn’t sin nearly as much as this girl so I should be better in your sight.” God doesn’t work like that. Everyone is sinful and has failed to do what God asks of us. That is why we need Jesus: our salvation is not based on our own works; it is based on Jesus and the redemption he has given us. And I truly do believe that because of Jesus, God’s grace and forgiveness is available to us all; even the rapists from the Steubenville case.

A problem arises we want to negate or equate the Earthly consequences of different sins because sin itself is unrankable. Different manifestations of sin have different Earthly ramifications. It’s like comparing stealing a coworker’s pack of gum to stealing a coworker’s new car: Are both a sin? Yes. But is one a more serious crime which entails different consequences for both the victim and the thief? Absolutely! Just because we all fall short of what God calls us to does make the consequences of the sin we engage in equal. And that’s what I think people are missing when it comes to this Steubenville case: We all sin and we all need forgiveness and grace, but what these boys choose to do is extremely serious and awful. They shouldn’t get a “free pass” for apologizing, feeling bad, or even giving it up to God. These boys chose to rape this girl. They can be forgiven and cleansed in the eyes of God but that does not change the fact that they committed a serious crime with serious Earthly consequences.

It is not wrong to sympathize with the rapists. We can feel bad that they grew up in a culture that made them feel like choosing to rape a girl was ok. We can feel bad that this culture influenced them to be more concerned about getting kicked off of the football team for what had happened rather than feel remorse for what they had done. We can even feel bad that they will become part of a correctional system that will most likely fail them in providing education about their crime and rehabilitating them. But when we refuse to hold these boys accountable for their own choice to sin and violate someone, when we blame the victim for this rape, or when we blame the guilty verdict for ruining their lives, we have committed a grave mistake: the guilty verdict did not ruin their lives, these boys’ autonomous decision to rape an innocent girl ruined all three of their lives.

When news media coverage at large focuses solely on grieving for the rapists’ as opposed to the victim, there is evidence of a much bigger problem. It perpetuates an idea that the victim isn't as important as the lives and careers of the rapists. When we try to spin the justice that was served in that courtroom as a terrible event that happened to these Star Athletes with Promising Futures, we forget the fact that they committed a crime of which they are responsible for and we all become active participants in furthering a culture that wants to blame rape on everything except the perpetrators.

We need to see that we can empathize for the boys, but the girl is truly the one that our attention, love, and compassion should be aimed towards. This girl has been through hell: She was raped, had to deal with the video of her rape being passed around her community and the nation, she has been blamed for being responsible, she has been given death threats for “ruining” these boys life, and now must start the long and challenging road of trying to move on with her life without this act defining her. She is a Jane Doe in this whole fiasco and has no voice to speak for herself. Proverbs 31:8-9 says, “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” This girl has been victim of a rape culture that has saddled her with the blame of her rape just because she was drinking underage, as if drinking underage deserves the consequence of getting raped. She is the one whose bodily autonomy has been violated. She is the one who God is crying out for us to open our mouths, judge righteously her attackers, and defend the rights of. She has been the victim here, not the rapists.

Isaiah 1:17
Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause.

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    Abigail Muldoon

    Abigail is a women's and gender studies graduate student at DePaul University and an HIV prevention researcher focusing in trans youth. She strives to build coalition between feminists, LGBT members, and Christians and show that these identities are not mutually exclusive. When she is not busy with school, work,and church, she enjoys watching Buffy and playing video games with her husband.

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