Monday, March 18, 2013

Witness Steubenville

I hardly know where to begin.  I'm not normally political on my blog.  I write about history and writing and other writers.  But every once in a while, something occurs that I just can't keep quiet about.  For a while I thought I should.  "It's not my business," I said to myself.

But it is my business.  In my first book, GILT, my narrator, Kitty Tylney witnesses a rape.  And does nothing.  She's afraid--for her safety, for her position, for her life.  She has reasons.  To her, they seem like good reasons.  And she continues to allow things to happen without acting.  Until her own inaction comes back to haunt her.

The idea came to me after a case in a California high school where students witnessed a rape and did nothing.  I wanted to explore the psychology of a young person who experienced that and suffered the consequences.  Near the end of the book, Kitty has an argument with a young man named Edmund, who also witnessed (perhaps even abetted) the rape.

"I did nothing wrong!" Edmund tells her.  After all, he didn't rape the girl.  (He didn't hold her down.  He didn't post pictures on Facebook or take a video.)

"No, Edmund," Kitty replies. "You did nothing.  And that's not the same thing."

Everything about the Steubenville case makes me wonder what we've learned in the past four hundred years.  In 1539, Henry VIII pardoned Thomas Culpepper for raping an unknown girl.  Because Culpepper had a "promising future" at court.  There were other men present at the scene of the crime.  They are not named in the historical record.  They did not face prosecution.  They did not suffer consequences. (You might say that karma eventually got Culpepper and the king, when Henry had Culpepper beheaded for committing adultery with the queen, but that's another story altogether.)

What kind of world have we created where a girl can be sexually assaulted and it becomes entertainment?  First via text and YouTube and then via media that turn the case into a global morality tale--about social networking.  Outcry should not be about how young people display their entire lives for everyone to see.

Outcry should be about two young men who took advantage of a girl who could not say no.  (incapacitation through alcohol is no different from incapacitation by force.  Culpepper had his friends hold his victim down.  The Steubenville boys had their friends take pictures).

Outcry should be about what our children learn.  It's not OK to take advantage of someone who can't defend herself.  It's not OK to excuse yourself from your actions because "she was drunk" or because you have a "promising future".  It's not OK to take or process or pass around or publish photographs of humiliating, violent actions.  Ever.

Outcry should be that rape is illegal.  It is morally reprehensible.  It is emotionally corrupt.

It is wrong.

And it's not OK just to let it happen.  To watch, to witness and not take action.  Because sometimes doing nothing is still doing something wrong.