I remember the moment very clearly.
In my AP U.S. history class last fall, we were discussing the presidential election. Somehow we led ourselves to the subject of rape, possibly from discussing the War on Women or the abortion debate.
I don't remember my fellow student's exact words, so I'll refrain from misquoting them, but this person said something along the lines of, "Well, if a couple is married and the husband rapes the wife, I don't know if that's really rape. That's a gray area."
There's been a lot of talk about rape lately -- and not just in my classroom. On March 17, Trent Mays, 17, and Ma'Lik Richmond, 16 -- two students at Steubenville High School in Steubenville, Ohio -- were found guilty of raping a 16-year-old intoxicated girl as she lay unconscious. In a verdict delivered by the judge, Mays was sentenced to two years; Richmond, only one, although both could remain in detention until they are 21.
The concept of social media and the role it played in both the rape and the trial was an issue that every news organization seemed to hone in on -- and for good reason. Both Mays and Richmond sent photographs of the victim during and after the assault, and even recorded a "video in which a student cracks jokes about the alleged rape just hours afterward," according to the Associated Press.
For now, though, I want to step away from the cold and impersonal facts. That's the thing about journalism, the reason why I'm so incredibly hesitant to pursue it as a career -- I find myself growing deeply attached to the stories I write and read. I care too much about the people involved; in short, I can't separate myself. When I write something, I surrender a part of myself to it. Forgive me if this piece wilts with emotion, but I can't just talk about social media anymore. Or the verdict. We have to talk about what this actually means -- and what happens next.
When my fellow classmate excused spousal rape, I realized something. When I learned people on Twitter were threatening the survivor, saying that she deserved to be raped and was a "whore," I realized something. When Candy Crowley and Poppy Harlow both expressed empathy and lamented how these boys had had such "promising" futures on CNN, I realized something.
We need to accept that we live in a culture that shames and tries to discredit rape survivors, that some of them "deserved it."
We need to accept that we live in a culture where rape has become a topic of humor.
We need to accept that when we make excuses for rapists and for their actions, we are perpetuating the existence of a rape culture.
Am I supposed to lament the "promising futures" of boys who sexually humiliated and violated a young girl? Boys who sent pictures to their friends of the unconscious girl, their semen smeared on her chest?
How are we to say that the girl deserved it? As journalist Jessica Valenti (@JessicaValenti) tweeted, "The worst a dude expects if he passes out drunk at a party is maybe a few dicks Sharpied on his face. But women should just anticipate rape?"
When we boldly deny the term "rape culture," when we say that the term is useless liberal propagation, we are allowing for sexual violence to become normalized.
Question: Is this really the point at which our society has arrived at? Answer: It has, and it's repulsive.
In the end, I must return to the survivor. I hate to say "the victim," because she is, in every sense of the word, a true survivor. Her bravery gives me hope that we can mend the wounds of a society where the term "rape culture" has tragically become common vernacular.