What was done to you was not your fault.
Before I say another word, before I go any further, I want you to please re-read that. Not just read it, but absorb it.
It was something that was done to you. It was done TO you. You were not capable of consent. It was done to your body because mentally, you were not present, and you did not give your consent. You did not give your consent by drinking at the party, by being at the party, by what you wore to the party, by whatever you might have said or done at the party. You did not give consent; therefore, it was done to you, and done against your will.
And it was not your fault. As much as you did not give consent, nothing you did can be blamed on you. You weren’t at fault for drinking. You weren’t at fault for being there. You weren’t at fault for dressing, acting, talking, or walking a certain way. Nothing you did caused this; you are not at fault in this situation.
However, not only did the golden gods of Steubenville, Ohio do what they would with you that night, America has victimized you all over again. Because, you see, those good young boys, those football-playing, intelligent young men, would never have done this. Right? So it must have been your fault. Because you’re female. And if there’s anything we like to do, it’s blame the woman. It’s something we’re very good at, going all the way back to Eve. You’re just one in a long line of women taking the fall.
So we call you a whore. We bemoan the fact that these boys’ lives are ruined. We disparage you because you were (gasp!) underage drinking. Someone pipes up with the fact that you might not have been a virgin before the night of the party. Someone else shouts that in one of the photos, it looks like you might be standing on your own, so therefore were obviously wanting to be there, to have these things done to you. Even better: people send you death threats. Because this is clearly your fault.
What we don’t say: that a group of boys, so many boys (some of them, age-wise, if not mentality-wise, men) that no one has ever been able to provide even a potential possible count of how many there might have been, took a sixteen-year-old girl who was either blackout drunk or who had been roofied and raped her, repeatedly, over one long night and into the next morning. Not only did they rape her in every single orifice she had, they urinated on her as well. Because it was funny. And because they could. And of course, because it’s the digital age, they videotaped and tweeted it every step of the way. With things like “I have no sympathy for whores” and “never seen anything this sloppy” and “some people deserve to be peed on.” When they were finished, they dumped her on someone’s lawn. Like you do with garbage that you have no further use for. Because that is how we treat human beings. We dump them when we’re done with them. Like garbage.
We concentrate instead on the fact that the two boys who were caught – not the multitude of boys who are guilty, just the two boys who were caught – will now be labeled sex offenders for the rest of their lives. That their lives are over. How will they play professional sports now? How will they get good jobs, go to college, move into good neighborhoods with this hanging over their heads? And who among us at that age didn’t make poor decisions? How unfair. How unfair for those poor boys. These poor boys, who cannot, apparently, be held responsible for possibly drugging, then holding a semi-conscious girl against her will for hours, passing her around like a plate of cold cuts, and raping her repeatedly, then recording it. These are not the actions of children. These are not actions of someone making a bad choice. These are actions of rapists. They got off light, sentencing-wise. The other boys who weren’t caught? Well, aren’t they lucky. They are free to do it again. Or something even worse. Because by not catching them, we’re telling them what they did was alright. What they did was acceptable.
And we either vilify or ignore the central character here. You. Because you are either the evil devil temptress woman who ruined these poor boys’ lives, or you aren’t even worth our time.
You are the victim of a terrible crime, and you have been further victimized by the woman-hating society in which we currently live. And for this, I apologize doubly. I have been reading comments on blog posts and screaming myself hoarse on your behalf for days. I have been weeping because I know what it feels like to be in your skin.
We don’t believe our rape victims. Even when they have the courage to come forward and say, “I was raped.” Even when there is video showing it being done to them. Even when there are tweets and recordings of people admitting they did it. We refuse to believe it, because it’s much easier to believe that the woman somehow deserved it.
By drinking too much at a party while underage – even though the other people at the party were also underage and also drinking.
By dressing a certain way – as if men can’t physically control themselves when faced with certain apparel.
By not being a virgin – as if you’re not allowed to say no if you’ve said yes once, whether to that person or to someone else.
By flirting with someone – because flirting is just subtext for “I want to be brutally raped now, please.”
By daring to be female around people who happen to be male – because, well, it’s what we deserve, right? For not having a penis? And not offering every man in the room a place to stick their penises?
If I could, I would like to sit you down. I would like to tell you that you are not broken. That your life doesn’t end here. That not every man you meet will be like these boys were. That there are very, very good men out there that understand that no means no, even if you’re not physically capable of saying no. That not everyone in the world thinks you are to blame for this, even though those people seem to be the most vocal right now. That none of this – none, not even the slightest bit of it – is your fault. These boys are to blame. Even the ones who didn’t touch you and just stood by and recorded it or tweeted, or just stood by and laughed. You are not at fault. You didn’t ruin these boys’ lives; they ruined their own lives the minute they decided to assault you. This is their fault. This is not on you. Nothing about this is. None of the hateful words people are spewing right now have anything to do with you; they have everything to do with small minds and fear. I hope your family is holding you close; I hope your family is telling you how much they love you, how cherished you are, how special.
You are sixteen years old. Possibly seventeen, now. You have your whole life in front of you. You can be anything you want. This does not define you. You are stronger than this. You are stronger than you know. You faced down that entire town. The strength that had to take – I can’t even imagine. I think about you refusing to back down on this, seeing it through to the end, and I am so, so proud of you. You stood not only for yourself, but for every other girl that this has happened to. You showed them what bravery was. You showed them that this is not allowed. You showed them that we will not allow this to happen to us, to our sisters, our daughters.
You have started a national dialogue about rape shaming, about how to teach our children about rape, about how far this will go before someone says, no. No more. This is not something we will allow. This is not something we will permit people to do to our children.
None of this is your fault. None of what they did to you is your fault, no matter what the media says, no matter what the people in the town say to you or about you or behind your back. You can hold your head up high, and I hope you do.
You are not broken. You are not broken, or even bent around the edges a little bit.
In my eyes, you shine so bright we all need to squint a little just to look at you. I am so proud of you. I am so humbled by you. I thank you so much for your courage when you could easily have run, backed down, locked this behind a door in your heart and never spoken of it again, never looked at it again except at 2am when sleep won’t come and the morning seems like it’s a million years away.
You are my sister, my daughter, my friend. We should all be flocking around you to protect you; instead, the world threw stones. And you refused to run, and you refused to back down, and you refused to turn away.
We could all learn a lesson from the internal strength of a sixteen-year-old girl in Steubenville, Ohio who was assaulted, accused of ruining people’s lives when she told the truth about it, and stared them all down and refused to change her story because she had truth on her side.
I expect great things from you. Those of us who have been tested in the fire often come out stronger than we’d even imagine on the other side. Please know there are people out here who are raising their voice with yours. There are people out here who will not let you walk through this alone. And we are just as loud as the people who hate; only we’re twice as powerful. Love always is, you see.