Booze and sex and the sexes

Demonstrators hold signs outside the courthouse in Steubenville, Ohio. Trent Mays, 17, and Ma'Lik Richmond, 16, are accused of raping a 16-year-old. LISA DeJONG / (Cleveland) Plain Dealer
Demonstrators hold signs outside the courthouse in Steubenville, Ohio. Trent Mays, 17, and Ma'Lik Richmond, 16, are accused of raping a 16-year-old. LISA DeJONG / (Cleveland) Plain Dealer (LISA DeJONG / (Cleveland) Plain Dealer)
Posted: April 25, 2013

LOST IN last week's attention on the Boston Marathon bombings and the Texas fertilizer-plant explosion was the news that a grand jury had been chosen to investigate the Steubenville, Ohio, rape case.

If you don't remember the Steubenville headlines (and who would, after the horror of the past week?), let me refresh your memory.

Two Steubenville High School football players were convicted in March of raping a girl they partied with last summer. The judge found that the victim was so inebriated on that debauched night that she couldn't have given consent to the sex acts the boys performed on her.

The victim learned what happened only after news, photos and videos of her being violated were posted and tweeted out to the world.

Note to bystander shutterbugs: Next time you witness the ravaging of a drunk girl, don't call your best friend. Call the girl's mother. Or 9-1-1.

After serving their jail sentences, the Steubenville rapists will have to register as sex offenders, a designation that'll probably follow them for the rest of their lives.

That's why many Steubenville residents think it's overkill to convene a grand jury. Justice has been served, they say. The boys' lives will never be the same. It's time to let this thing go already.

Oh, how I beg to differ.

These episodes - girl gets drunk, boy has his way with her, rape charges ensue - are becoming epidemic. Or maybe they've always been epidemic but we didn't know it until kids started whipping out their smartphones to document the debasement.

Although the Steubenville victim lived to see justice served, we can't say the same for Nova Scotia's Rehtaeh Parsons or California's Audrie Potts. Both teens took their own lives after they became objects of ridicule following similarly publicized sex acts.

Each incident raises the same questions. Where were the adults when this stuff was going on? Who bought the alcohol that soaked the parties where it happened? Why didn't bystanders have the decency to help girls who were so obviously incapacitated? Why would any boy believe that a girl's inebriation gives him the right to touch her?

While the grand-jury investigation seeks to answer these questions in the Steubenville case, I hope it turns up the volume on a bigger conversation we need to have about sex, alcohol and the different standards of behavior we have for males and females who are under the influence.

It's a conversation that former Philly prosecutor Christopher Mallios has every day as an attorney with AEquitas, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that provides resources, globally, to those who prosecute violence against women.

"What fascinates me in these cases is how society holds women more responsible for what happens to them while they're drinking but holds men less responsible for what they do while they're drinking," says Mallios.

"Women are treated much more harshly. People say, 'She got drunk at a party - what did she expect?' But with men, they say, 'He's not a rapist - he's just a guy who did something he wouldn't ordinarily do sober.' "

And yet we don't cut men this same slack when they perpetrate other crimes - like car theft, for instance, or robbery - while under the influence.

"Communities that talk about getting tough on crime rarely include the crime of rape or sexual assault that's committed when alcohol is involved," Mallios says.

Worse, society's "he's otherwise a good guy" defense only emboldens men who are bad guys whether they're sober or not. Like the kind of guys who, when they can't get a woman to consent to sex, use alcohol to help them get sex anyway.

That's because we still think that the rapist is the stranger in the woods, when more often than not he's the funny guy at the party, the charming classmate in the dorm dining hall. Alcohol is his most-used weapon, Mallios points out; the second most-used weapon is his niceness. He uses it to gain a woman's trust, and then he betrays it.

And if we don't start talking about that - really talking about it - we'll continue to blame the rape victim who had too much to drink instead of the "otherwise good guy" who raped her.

So bring on the Steubenville grand-jury investigation. Because this despicable case raised more questions - about men, women, alcohol and accountability - than it answered.

Two Steubenville boys are in jail. Their victim has been defiled. And two girls elsewhere have taken their own lives because of what happened when booze, sex and lies collided.

With stakes this high, don't we all deserve some clarity?


Email: polaner@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly

Blog: philly.com/ronnieblog

Columns: philly.com/Ronnie

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