Skip to main content

Why don't some boys see it as rape?

By Peggy R. Sanday, Special to CNN
January 4, 2013 -- Updated 1840 GMT (0240 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A video shows boys talking about the alleged rape in Steubenville, Ohio
  • Peggy Sanday: Incident demonstrates a split in the boy rape-prone sexual culture
  • She says some boys stage a sexual spectacle for their mates as part of a night's fun
  • Sanday: Other boys are able to name rape when they see it, as some do in the video

Editor's note: Peggy R. Sanday, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, is author of "Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood, and Privilege on Campus" and "A Woman Scorned: Acquaintance Rape on Trial."

(CNN) -- In the 1950s, I was almost gang-molested by a group of male fellow high school students. The incident took place one afternoon in the basement basketball court of the nearby Catholic church, of which I was a member. I had recently invited one member of the group to what I thought was an innocent get-together at a local square dance. I supposed later that they thought "I wanted it."

As I remember the incident, after some friendly play in the gym, the guys (four of them) turned on me, holding the ball as if I were the basket. The look on their faces terrified me. I ducked under their outstretched arms and ran, all the way home without looking back. I never mentioned the incident until 1983, when I spoke at a rally supporting a student of mine who was gang-raped at a fraternity party.

The rape case unraveling in Steubenville, Ohio, brought back memories of my own frightening experience. I didn't know what was happening that day when the four young men began looking at me differently. I only knew that I had to get away as soon as possible.

Peggy R. Sanday
Peggy R. Sanday

In the Steubenville case, a girl purportedly passed out and was allegedly sexually assaulted by two young men on the high school football team while others watched.

What strikes me about the incident is that it demonstrates a split in the boy rape-prone sexual culture. Some young men continue to believe that when a girl gets drunk, staging a sexual spectacle for their mates is part of a night's fun. They don't think of it as rape. Some of their buddies, however, disagree. In their transition to manhood, they are able to name rape when they see it.

This split opinion is illustrated in the video posted a few days ago by Anonymous showing a young man -- presumably an eyewitness -- egged on by others, telling his version of what happened. The video footage is disturbing, to say the least.

Rape case shocks Ohio town
Murphy: Rape is grossly under prosecuted

He repeats in a litany format that the girl is dead. However, he doesn't mean lifeless, except in the sense that she isn't moving. "How do you feel on a dead girl?" he asks someone in the room. He describes her as "deader than a doornail." When asked "How do you know she's dead?" he answers that she is dead because she isn't moving.

He then goes on to describe how dead: "Deader than Andy Reid's son ... deader than Chris Henry ... deader than OJ's wife ... deader than f***ing JFK ... deader than Trayvon Martin." In other words, made only for use by men.

In the cacophony of voices spurring him on, one hears the word "rape" from one or two other voices. One says, "This is not funny," only to be drowned out by the laughter of the main speaker and those supporting him. When asked "What if that was your daughter?" he answers, "If that was my daughter, I wouldn't care. I'd just let her be dead." Besides, he says, "Is it really rape because you don't know if she wanted to or not," the teenager says on the video. "She might have wanted to."

In response, the onlooker says, "You are sick."

What happened in Steubenville that night in August seems to suggest that some sort of sexual assault took place, at least from this eyewitness account if the video is verified to be authentic. Most rape laws in the U.S. state that sexual activity on a person who is incapacitated or unable to consent constitutes rape.

One of the clauses of the Ohio law states that sexual activity is not permissible when "the other person's ability to resist or consent is substantially impaired because of a mental or physical condition or because of advanced age, and the offender knows or has reasonable cause to believe that the other person's ability to resist or consent is substantially impaired because of a mental or physical condition or because of advanced age."

The girl's incapacity comes not just from the multiple mentions of her being dead in the video. There is also possibly a photo of her being dragged along held by her wrists and ankles by two boys.

In the United States, surveys administered from the early 1980s to the present indicate that 20% to 25% of female students say they have experienced nonconsensual sex by the age of 21. Every year, a high-profile case of gang rape appears in the news. With each new report, many Americans react with shock.

Confronted with such cases, many explain it away, thinking or actually saying "she wanted it." Why do we think this way? Doing so is behind the strange idea of "legitimate rape." When will our sexual culture change so that an inebriated girl (or boy) is protected rather than abused?

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Peggy R. Sanday.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1626 GMT (0026 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT