Upon first consideration, the Steubenville rape case and the Supreme Court’s deliberation on marriage are simple things, easily understood—and with no more connection to each other than proximity in headline news. In one we have the emblem of “rape culture”, in the other a testament to this nation’s fraught but ceaseless march toward a more perfect union: American sexuality at its worst and its best, the jungle and the picket fence. It is so pat it makes a thinking person gag.
Steubenville, the town, has been a convenient setting for a devil story, the type beloved by cultural commissars including those on what passes for the left. Broke, beat, “down there” somewhere, a football-crazy small town in the blasted heartland, it is a context overdetermined for danger and victimization, in this instance a drunken 16-year-old girl exploited sexually by a couple of high school football heroes while others watched, tweeted, took photos or videos, posted them for the networld but did nothing else. The two boys, also drunk and 16 at the time, were convicted in mid-March and could be in juvie prison until they are 21, then registered sex offenders for life. A relentless Ohio blogger, a grown-up who unearthed some vulgar electronic communications and helped project them to a national audience, brays, “Why aren’t more kids in jail?”
Meanwhile, in the alternate universe of high-end law, marriage is painted in pastels by assimilated gay leaders and their straight allies. As described by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, whose decision is the basis for the Supreme Court’s review, “‘marriage’ is the name that society gives to the relationship that matters most between two adults. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but…‘marriage’ is singular in connoting ‘a harmony in living,’ ‘a bilateral loyalty,’ and ‘a coming together for better or for worse, hopefully enduring, and intimate to the degree of being sacred.’”
In other words, to be married is the best of all worlds, key to stable families, successful children, robust society… And yet, there’s Steubenville, and not just Steubenville, but Anytown, USA, where the mostly straight products of those mostly straight sacred unions behave like animals.
What links these seemingly disjoint stories, despite the emphasis on “gay” in the marriage debate, is heterosexual culture, something it would pay to think seriously about before running off with hair on fire about rape culture or, alternatively, getting misty-eyed about “I dos.” Reality is somewhat less grandiose.
In reality we still exist largely in a realm of primitive heterosexuality. Central to it is marriage, or the idea of marriage, but before marriage there is courtship, and before courtship there is high school.
Heterosexuality in high school is not pretty. Boozed up parties and zonked out kids define its rites of passage. Someone, usually a girl, has her head in a toilet. If she’s lucky, a friend holds her hair while she vomits and, in between heaves, slurs something like “I really love you” before slumping in a corner or on the bathroom floor. Her friends attend to her long enough to make sure she’s not dying. Others jeer, “She’s a mess”. They’re not mean exactly, or not always; everyone is drunk and stupid and very young. They drink and dance, make out (usually badly), grope one another, disappear into parked cars from which they might emerge coolly or distrait, as elsewhere the casualties mount. Two kids senseless from drink paw each other on a couch until the girl turns away to throw up on her shoulder. The boys all laugh, but one of their own is standing on a table in only underpants and a tie, hollering like a banshee and spilling beer while another circles dazed in the street and a third has driven off into the night pie-eyed. If he’s lucky, he’ll survive to hear about it. Someone helps clean up the girl on the couch; “I’m fine,” she mumbles before passing out, and she must be fine, the others think, because later she’s kissing and petting with the same or another boy. The girls who aren’t passed out or in the cars might whisper that those who have stolen off are loose, but the little gossips are curious, too, and some half-wish a boy had wanted to pull off their clothes. The next morning no one will remember much of anything, but later, certainly before high school ends, someone will be pregnant and someone will be dead.
That was my experience in the social whirl of Catholic college-prep schools in a town that still had buoyant hopes in the 1970s. Reading sworn testimony from the probable cause hearing in Steubenville, I couldn’t but feel the tug of the familiar, with the difference that the students whose tawdry entertainments are now being picked apart by adults have grown up soaked in commercialized sex and trained by the tools of their elders’ invention to believe that their secrets, like their banalities, are safe with the world.
Almost nothing anyone did that night of August 11-12, 2012, was right or responsible. The girl at the heart of the case, A., drank herself to oblivion at a party stocked with a table full of liquor and enough beer so each group of teens had two cases. When the hostess’s brother, a high school coach, shut down the bash, he left the kids to their own addled devices. A. told her friends, “I want to go with T.,” one of the now-convicted boys. The girlfriends let her go. The mother at a house they drove to next shooed them away after about twenty minutes, and her son said A. particularly was too wasted to stay. T. and his now-fellow convict M. carried her out by the arms and legs—a joke, one witness said; a necessity, said another. Outside, she sat down in the middle of the street to retch. T. and M. were holding her hair. No observer seemed to have thought it odd that she or they had removed her shirt so it wouldn’t get soiled. On the final car ride, T. fingered A. and played with her breasts while she mumbled softly and another drunken boy made a three-minute video. At that boy’s house she threw up again and again; M. stayed with her in the bathroom while the others cleaned the rug. No one says how within a short time her clothes came off and she was lying on the rec room floor while M. fingered her and T. slapped his limp dick against her hip. Another boy, who had hooked up with A. for a month and a half earlier in the summer, had arrived and told T. to “wait till she wakes up,” but otherwise took pictures with a phone already containing photos of women’s bottoms that, he says, the women had sent him. Then he left. T. may have tried to get A. to blow him, but the single source of that report said it was a failure and didn’t strike him as “forceful.” A. wasn’t saying anything, but she did talk later, to give the boys the password to her phone, and then she and T. fell asleep together on the couch.
Until they all sobered up it might have been any night in teenage straightland. Without the texts and internet postings, no one’s parents would have known. If the kids went on to college and Spring Break, they would have elaborated their rituals of sex, booze and amorality (see Spring Breakers for one hell of a hard lacquer gloss on this). Having survived, most would eventually marry, and unless the bride was stumbling around in her wedding dress or the groom arrived at the reception falling down drunk, marriage would signal that one’s passage to full heterosexual maturity was complete.
In the wake of Steubenville, the best that most mature heterosexuals could do was join the chorus for punishment. Having failed to create a good, let alone great, society for their children and grandchildren’s exploration, they offered, as if by reflex, their culture’s hoary answer to all sexual miscreants: the policeman or the vigilante.
Even to one accustomed to the styles of liberal sex panic, the commentary here has been stunningly violent. In The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Nation, online opinion from readers or writers has advocated lockup and sex offender status for the boys; mass arrest and prosecution for every blotto teenager who didn’t call the cops and for every sober but confused one who didn’t know what to do. A grandmother promised that if her granddaughter ever endured what A. had, she’d kill the boys who mistreated her and spend a comfortable retirement in prison—to huzzas from other readers, seconding murder as an understandable response to the events of that night. On the first day of the trial in Steubenville, protesters wearing the Guy Fawkes mask became cheerleaders for the police state.
Throughout, drunkenness was deemed relevant to the girl’s victimization but irrelevant to everyone else’s behavior. With an indifference to language and proportion, “brutal rape” became the default description of what had happened, and dirty, reckless teenagers—whom the liberal press would readily call “children” if they’d got drunk and had sex with a 27-year-old teacher—were characterized as deserving adult treatment. CNN was pilloried for an interview considering what the sex offender registry might mean for a 16-year-old, or a 21-year-old; imagine the response if Candy Crowley had entertained the argument that the eternal brand, punishment without end, is an affront to justice in every case, especially those with no cloak of “innocence” to make principle easy for the rest of us.
The absence of evidence that the girl was drugged continues to be seen as proof that very likely she was. The seven days that passed between the time the girls’ parents went to police and the boys’ arrest are seen to indicate a monumental cover-up effort. Before the trial a Nation reader declared that the boys “are gonna have a hard time proving that they didn’t rape her.” Turning due process on its head is hardly the rube’s province. As Michelle Dean sniffed in The New Yorker before the trial, “The impulse to observe the principle of innocent until proven guilty can be an admirable one. It’s just that in this case, as in so many others, people’s reluctance to ‘judge’ is often chiefly exercised as an excuse to avoid uncomfortable facts.”
The uncomfortable facts are not what Dean imagines. In one way or another, straight people have participated in the persistence of a sexual culture of staggering constriction. Once upon a time that culture projected duty and called it love; now it projects carelessness and calls it freedom. People have strived for the real things, and sometimes achieved them, or some version of them, but always despite a web of rituals and goads and expectations, a politics (including left politics) that values neither love nor freedom nor hope for care, not enough.
In that once-upon-a-time, we also locked up homosexuals, or shamed them, entrapped them. Now we say we’re enlightened; the impulse to meet sex with police power, under different conditions, may still be as strong as ever, but we can be cool with gay marriage.
It is a common fallacy for any majority group to believe that a minority’s struggle for equality signals a wish to be just like the majority; hence, so much rhetoric in the marriage debate that makes it seem as if marriage were a gift heterosexuals might bestow, a magic bag of lessons on how to be proper adult lovers—licensed at last, and vindicating what the circuit court called “the principal manner in which the State attaches respect and dignity to the highest form of a committed relationship.”
Frankly, heteros have nothing to teach homos beyond, maybe, how to endure childbirth. If the zeal to arrest toddlers for stealing a kiss and to lock away teenagers for having stupid, drunken, nasty sex is an indication, the lesson ends once the babe is through the birth canal. The opposite—that heteros have something to learn, from the history of gay liberation rather than marriage equality—is surely true.
This is not to romanticize homosexuality. Regardless of the subjects, sex is a mix of rapture and risk, sweetness and cruelty or something more humdrum. But because history did not present gay people with the open choice of the jungle or the picket fence, they developed an alternative culture, a relational language and set of ethics not just to avoid a trap but to have at least a decent experiment, a decent anonymous encounter, a decent first time—not necessarily a transcendent one (though maybe), but not an awful one—and a different sense of family. Gay kids may drink or damage themselves and others for all the reasons anyone in this society might and more, but gay culture doesn’t teach its kids that the surest route to sex is through a bottle and a lie. Straight culture teaches that.
JoAnn Wypijewski writes the Carnal Knowledge column for The Nation, where a shorter version of this article originally appeared. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.