It’s more than not cool: Young men should speak out against rape

Community efforts, family support and cultural shifts in attitude toward sexual violence can prevent sexual violence.

Several supporters of the victim attended a rally in Jefferson County, Ohio, and city administrators launched a website, Steubenville Facts, to answer criticisms about the handling of the case [AP]

“That’s not cool, bro,” says one of the young men out of frame in the video. 

“What is wrong with you?” another young man asks moments later. 

A 12-minute video released last week drew international attention and more than 100,000 views featuring Michael Nodianos, a former Steubenville High School baseball player with a cherubic face wearing an Ohio State t-shirt. 

With the camera rolling, Nodianos rattles off vile, inhumane jokes about raping an unconscious girl he calls “dead”. On the night – August 2012 – of a gang rape of a local 16-year-old girl, Nodianos continues his diatribe facing the lens, talking about urinating on the “dead” girl and comparing her to Trayvon Martin, JFK and other dead celebrities. For 12 minutes. Other young men at the basement party are laughing. 

This video is related to a case last summer in Ohio that resulted in the charges of rape and kidnapping against two local star football players. The case has earned national attention because of its virality on social media and the involvement of popular athletes. Local bloggers have gotten involved claiming justice has not been served. Last Saturday, 1,000 supporters of the victim attended a rally in Jefferson County, Ohio, and city administrators launched a website, Steubenville Facts, to answer criticisms about the handling of the case. 

Steubenville police issued a statement this week that they are aware of the video. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine told a local television station, “Our goal is to find out exactly what happened and to prosecute those who are involved.” 

I showed the video to two of my three sons. Brendan, 21, a senior at the Ohio State University, was visibly upset at the content and also furious at the OSU t-shirt Nodianos was wearing. 

“Tell people we don’t do that at Ohio State.” 

My youngest son was speechless at first. “That’s just gross,” said Colin, 18, after a few minutes. He’s a freshman at the University of Iowa, where before he set foot on campus in August like all other incoming freshmen, was required to complete online training in sexual assault awareness. 

Malicious confusion of bravado

It may seem simplistic, but it is just this reaction of revulsion from peers in their age group I believe that can stop the malicious confusion of bravado and masculinity with deviant sexual violence among young men. If no one laughed, if no one recorded the outrageous rape rant of this young man, and reacted instead universally with disgust, then perhaps we would move closer to being a civilised culture where rape is not considered funny. It is a crime.

 India protesters pressure government on rape

It may sound absurd to think positive peer pressure will help. But nothing else to this point has seemed to work. Other young men shunning this sort of behaviour may well be the answer or part of a larger reaction. 

“This is a case where somebody was bold enough to think this is not a bad thing. It is shocking he is not ashamed of it,” says Christopher Ptak, who as the director of prevention programmes for Sarah’s Inn, runs the Step Back programme for boys at Oak Park-River Forest High School outside of Chicago. His life’s work is stopping this kind of behavior and the delusion that these rants are in the realm of normalcy. 

An average of 207, 754 rapes occur in this country each year, according to the US Department of Justice. More than 17.7 million American women have been victims of attempted or completed rape, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. Forty-four percent of rape victims are under the age of 18, the network reports. 

After complete revilement, my second reaction to the video as the mother of three sons from 24 to 18 was to wonder what went wrong at this young man’s home? No mother wants her son to grow up to be a rapist, just as no mother wants her daughter to be raped. And certainly no mother wants her son to grow up to tell rape jokes. But, according to the research, my naïve notion of family being able to prevent sexually violent tendencies is flawed. 

In the 2010 report, “American Perceptions of Sexual Violence”, from the FrameWorks Institute, this idea of the “family bubble” model shows “a lack of understanding about how sexual violence can be prevented (and) demonstrates that people are making cognitive mistakes about the early roots of sexual violence”. Inaccurately, according to the report, some “argued that sexual violence occurs because individuals do not learn right from wrong from their parents as young children”. 

The report goes on to say that community efforts in addition to family support and cultural shifts in attitude toward sexual violence will help prevent sexual violence. Again, I think it is other men standing up and saying this is aberrant, this is criminal, this is wrong, can help mark a line that can never be crossed. 

Ptak agrees, “We’re talking about building a community where the red line has been set where that is absolutely not acceptable. There will always be people who commit heinous acts.” 

“But I strongly believe most young men are decent human beings. My goal is to prevent the vast majority of rapes,” he says. 

‘Rape is trivialised’

Rape culture “describes a culture where rape is trivialised, where both the abuse and sexual objectification of women is normalised, and where as a result, the sexual abuse of women is more likely to happen,” writes Foz Meadows in “Reporting on Rape and Sexual Violence“, a media toolkit created by the Chicago Taskforce on Violence Against Girls & Young Women. 

“No mother wants her son to grow up to be a rapist, just as no mother wants her daughter to be raped.”

It may be that training young men that this is completely unacceptable and “not cool” may be one part of a solution. 

Ptak says the mandatory nine-week, 45-session comprehensive programme he created includes curriculum on dating violence, sexual assault, healthy masculinity and healthy relationships. The programme is being studied by a statewide taskforce to expand to other schools in Illinois. To date, 1,600 young men at Oak Park High School have completed the programme. 

As the world reacts to the trial this week of five men and one minor accused of gang rape and murder of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh Pandey in India, it is important to note rape knows no cultural boundaries. 

The death of the medical student in India who was brutally gang raped and mutilated aboard a bus has ignited protests in several cities and the call for a change in laws, attitudes, behaviours and culture in that country. The men charged in this case could face death penalty. 

In the United States, the Violence Against Women Act was not reauthorised by Congress in 2012, but will hopefully be passed in 2013. While the act remains in effect, new considerations on sexual assault provisions will hopefully be expanded if the act is passed this year as advocates hope. With the media uproar surrounding this recent Ohio case, a move to pass the act may gain momentum. 

It seems a no-brainer as either a man or woman to say you are against rape. Tragically, that is not the case. 

The no-brainer is that young men like Nodianos clamour for attention and boast about inhuman acts against a young woman. 

If other young men are trained and conditioned to stand up and speak out against sexual violence, and be intolerant of any action otherwise, then perhaps an attention-seeking high school student would know not only that rape is a crime, but that no one else is laughing. It is worth trying. 

Michele Weldon is an author and assistant professor of journalism at the Medill School, Northwestern Leader. She is also a leader with The OpEd Project.