Sharing the Trauma: Steubenville Aftermath

20 Mar

When I first learned of the convictions of the two high school football stars in the Steubenville rape trial, I felt a bittersweet sense of relief and victory: justice had been done. A precedent had been set. Our society is finally moving in the right direction. Feminist happy dance.

Then everything went to hell.

First, CNN validated everyone who blamed the victim by spending the immediate aftermath of the trial bemoaning that the rapists’ lives were ruined by the verdict. CNN’s facebook page resounded with angry demands for an on-air apology, which the network tepidly acknowledged in an evening follow-up segment in which their talking heads focused on the victim’s suffering and repeatedly stressed that obviously, their sympathies lay with the victim and not her attackers. Online petitions boasting hundreds of thousands of signatures are demanding on-air apologies by both Candy Crawley and Poppy Harlow. So far, the network has not responded.

Then came the news that two teenage Steubenville girls had been arrested for threatening the victim online. One of them  threatened to kill her. The police department has had to assign security to the victim and her family. Other Steubenville classmates took to social media to denounce the victim for ruining her attackers’ lives.

This morning I learned that a thirteen year-old girl  is pressing charges of sexual assault against two eighteen year-old high school football stars, this time in the town of Torrington, Connecticut. Twitter is already inundated with Tweets condemning the girl as a “whore” and “young ho” who got what she deserved for hanging out with older boys.

I’m a female, a feminist, and a survivor; I know that sexual assault happens all the time in high schools. I know that no girl is too young to be safe from sexual predators. I know that classmates tend to blame the victim. What has caught me off-guard is the fact that major news networks and a chorus of adults’ virtual voices hold the victims responsible. I’m especially galled by the people who try to hide it by first saying the victims’ parents are also to blame and then throwing in something about how the attacks wouldn’t have happened if the girls hadn’t “acted stupid.” If you’re going to be a rape apologist, I’d rather you be honest about it.

Last week, a feminist activist named Zerlina Maxwell went on Fox News to dispute the argument that the best way to prevent rape is for women to arm themselves. She said that rather than telling women to carry firearms, we should be teaching boys and men not to rape. She subsequently was targeted online with misogynistic, racist invectives. People called her a bitch and a nigger. They told her that they hoped she’d be gang raped and killed.

It’s been a very triggering week thus far. I’m compelled to stay informed, to add my voice to the discourse to defend the victims and denounce those who would hold them accountable. My husband keeps telling me I need to unplug. I keep agreeing with him and wading deeper into the virtual firestorm. I’ve spent decades keeping my mouth shut, both about things that happened to me and to people I loved who didn’t want to publicly accuse their attackers because they knew that in all likelihood they were the only ones who would be punished if they did. Fuck keeping quiet. This violence thrives in silence. I’m going to yell.

My PTSD is rattling the bars, testing the barricades. I squeeze my eyes shut and will it back. I try to detach. I imagine closing a box and placing it on a shelf. I know that when my recovery group meets tomorrow we will weep for ourselves and for all the damaged, terrified girls and women out there whose fear to speak up is being continually reinforced by the news and social media.

I know that grieving is necessary, but that it also needs to lead to something productive. Because I cannot bear to just sit here wallowing in despair. Not after an adolescence in which I was repeatedly assaulted and blamed myself. Not after so many of my friends and loved ones have been victimized and I could do nothing but comfort them and hope it wouldn’t happen again.

I used to lie awake at night and visualize how I would torture and kill my foster sister’s stepfather, my friend’s boyfriend, those asshole club guys who raped my friends in a car on a night I couldn’t go out because I was grounded. I still think, if only I hadn’t been grounded, I could have saved them.

I try to focus on the silver linings: so many people have spoken up to support the victims and castigate those who blame them. This issue is now in the limelight, which could result in policies and educational outreach to address the problem in middle and high schools.

I try to keep my trauma in check. But I can’t just tune out what’s happening. I can’t try to ignore it.

I don’t know what to do.

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