Last August in the football-crazed town of Steubenville in Ohio, US, a 16-year-old girl passed out drunk (and possibly drugged) at a high-school party. A group of football stars, primarily Ma’lik Richmond, 16, and Trent Mays, 17, lugged her unconscious body about to three parties like an animal, urinated on her, raped her brutally, stripped her, penetrated her with their fingers while videotaping the entire act, calling her ‘dead’ and ‘so raped’, and uploaded all the ‘fun’ on Twitter.
What followed was even more telling of regressive, violent mindsets that aren’t confined to developing countries. The victim did not report the crime immediately because she did not recollect the events of that horrific night. Her parents found her naked pictures on social networks two days later, along with comments by other girls and boys calling her a ‘whore’ they had no sympathy for. Some, including two girls, threatened to kill her if she filed a complaint against the town’s ‘football heroes’. She was turned into an outcaste by both the kids and adults of her small town of 18,000 people. A cyber detective from the same town, Alexandria Goddard, who had followed the students’ Twitter feeds, uploaded the sordid proceedings on her blog and was in turn slapped with a defamation suit for ruining the name of the town’s heroic football team. Another do-gooder group called Anonymous hacked into the personal exchanges of 50,000 Ohio residents, uncovering a terrible trail of adult corruption, teenage waywardness and inhuman apathy towards the raped student. Indignant townsfolk ostracised them as well.
Last month, justice finally prevailed. Richmond and Mays were charged with rape; the coach who covered up for his star performers faces investigation into his role; defamation charges against Goddard and her supporters were dropped, and the two girls who threatened the victim were also arrested.
The lesson one draws from the terrible event is that goodness is not innate to humans – it has to be enforced. The boy in whose house the girl was molested apologised publicly only when lawyers advised him to do so. Students who had called the girl a ‘slut’ showed no remorse until the court verdict was read. Parts of the American media, including CNN, actually showed sympathy towards the rapists for their ‘wasted potential’ and ‘end of their bright football careers’, with no mention of the victim’s plight; many even revealed her name.
It is frightening to think that if this is the situation in the US, how puny are Indian laws and social support for victims of child sexual abuse (CSA) and juvenile rape. First, CSA occurs mostly within homes or schools – spaces where children should feel safe and protected. It needs massive social upheaval to get parents, siblings and friends to come up and report it. Second, despite recent updates to laws, enforcement still remains a pipedream with only a fraction of accused actually convicted.
Our cover story this month in Atelier Diva looks at this unfortunate social malaise and highlights the Child Sexual Abuse Awareness Month that falls in April across India. Cover diva Tisca Chopra, whose own friends faced the harrowing evil, supports our cause. Let us not assume that goodness is inherent in all of us, and that the human conscience works of its own accord. Let us instead arm ourselves with knowledge, stand up for each other and insist on stringent punishment for breakers of the law. Humanity has to be taught, not assumed.
First published in the April 2013 issue of Atelier Diva