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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.

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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?

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

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