Beyond Steubenville, rape case inspires action, angst among victims

The Steubenville rape case, like other high-profile sex-assault cases, has been a moment for victims nationwide to come forward. Some are emboldened, others feel re-traumatized.

Michael D. McElwain/Steubenville Herald-Star/AP/File
Activists from the online group KnightSec and Anonymous shown protesting at the Jefferson County Courthouse in Steubenville, Ohio, earlier this year. Two high school football players are now on trial on charges of raping a drunk 16-year-old girl.

In the first two days of this week’s rape trial in Steubenville, Ohio, the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center received more calls than in any other two-day period in its history.

“It’s stirring up emotions for a lot more people, because you can’t run away from the media coverage,” says the center’s spokeswoman, Sondra Miller.

The juvenile court case, in which two teenage boys are accused of raping an incapacitated teenage girl after a party, has garnered national attention – alongside other stories this week about sexual assaults in the military and a settlement in Los Angeles over abuse by Catholic priests.

The saturation coverage impacts people in different ways – sparking everything from anger and fear to inspiration and a determination to help others.

“If you’re a survivor [of sexual assault or abuse] and you’re seeing those messages over and again, it can certainly trigger you – bring back flashbacks, anxiety, and so forth,” Ms. Miller says.

For others, “seeing the Steubenville case spurs them to action,” she adds. Calls from people wanting to volunteer have surged.

Support centers stand ready to help people who decide to come forward – often telling their story for the first time – in the wake of such high-profile cases.

The intense coverage of the Sandusky abuse case at Penn State resulted in a 300 percent increase in calls from men to the Cleveland center, and led to the creation of a male support group, possibly the only one of its kind in Ohio, Miller says.

For people who are already in support groups or receiving treatment, cases of sexual assault in the media can intensify their struggle – but can also help them recognize their own resiliency, counselors and medical practitioners say.

“Anything they’ve done to try to help push away the self-blame … will end up resurfacing,” says Martha Peaslee Levine, a professor at Penn State. She cites examples such as eating disorders, substance abuse, and cutting.

Dr. Levine, who is director of a campus medical-center program that treats eating disorders, estimates that people receiving services at the center talked about painful memories of abuse about three times more than normal during coverage of the Sandusky case.

Some people feel angry when they see someone on trial for sexual assault, because they were not able to get their own case prosecuted, says Eric Stiles, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and a former support-group counselor who now works with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC).

Others admire the accusers for coming forward and say that they wish they’d had the courage to do that.

“Inevitably the groups would come around to the idea of loss, and then it would turn into resiliency: what makes a survivor stronger. Not all individuals call themselves survivors, but they would come back to, ‘How did I survive this? What are my strengths?’ ” Mr. Stiles says.

Journaling, art, and meditation are some of the ways survivors have found helpful in coping with trauma and tapping into that resiliency, says Levine.

The tone of the coverage can make a difference in how it impacts survivors and other news consumers.

Statements by the defense and many social media posts surrounding the Steubenville trial have included “a lot of victim-blaming language,” says Katie Hanna, executive director of the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence.

In response, her group has teamed up with the NSVRC at the site of the Steubenville trial – and online – to try to educate the press and the public about sexual assault.

Some of the key messages they’ve promoted so far: that if someone is impaired by alcohol, she or he cannot consent; and that rape is rape, and the trauma is the same, regardless of how the victim is assaulted.

“When individuals [in online comment sections] say things like ‘The girl deserved it’ … it brings up anger [and other strong emotions] for me,” says Mr. Stiles. “I find myself jumping in and responding to those comments.”

Stiles says he has learned to detect when he needs to back off his own media consumption – and that’s an important coping skill for many survivors of abuse. He followed the Steubenville case closely on Wednesday, he says, but by Thursday night he knew he needed a break and didn’t read about it at all (he is a rural projects specialist and is not among the staff who traveled to Ohio).

In general, media coverage of such cases has improved, Stiles says.  “I’ve seen a higher level of understanding about how to work with survivors and not make it so sensationalized.” But local coverage and cases with certain characteristics do still tend to be sensationalized, he said – for instance, if a young man in the military came forward after being sexually assaulted, Stiles expects it would garner major attention and bring a lot of stereotypes to the fore.

As difficult as it is to face the alleged acts in such cases, news coverage “may help victims understand that they shouldn’t feel guilty, that other people have gone through something they’ve gone through, and that they’re not alone,” says Gemma Puglisi, a professor of public communication at American University in Washington.

In Steubenville, she says, the case against the teen football players is bringing to light a similar issue raised in the Sandusky case – that athletes shouldn’t expect to escape consequences when they do something wrong.

Cases of rape in which the victim is intoxicated are often discussed in the context of college, but not so often in the high school context, she says. “I think it’s going to really be a wake-up call for teenagers to understand how they need to respect one another.”

Educators and parents should provide guidance to young people who are reading and hearing about these cases, so that they won’t be traumatized by the details, advocates say. Schools do tend to reach out more for educational talks during high-profile cases, Miller says.


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