Shifting the focus

They had such promising futures. Now, being registered sex offenders will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

That was how CNN categorized the two high school football stars found guilty of raping a 16-year-old girl last summer. An Ohio judged sentenced Trent Mays, 17, and Ma’Lik Richmond, 16, to at least 1 and 2 years juvenile confinement Monday. And CNN and other media chose to focus on how the charges will stay with them as they grow into adults, how they will ruin their dreams of playing football.

They barely mentioned the victim.

Instead, the report’s tone, and other like it, is borderline sympathetic to the perpetrators. That sentiment is directed at two boys who filmed themselves gang raping their victim’s unconscious body before dumping her in a yard and urinating on her.

Dotti Thompson, executive director at the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Center in Marshalltown, was unsurprised by the statements.

“That makes sense considering that our society focuses on victim blaming,” Thompson said. “We need to start focusing on the people who are choosing to commit those crimes.”

Marshalltown Police Chief Mike Tupper sits on DVA/SAC board. He said when he heard the initial allegations, he was horrified. The whole culture of victim blaming has always perplexed him.

“If a business is broken into, we don’t place blame on the business for being broken into,” he said.

Victim blaming contributes to a reluctance on the part of victims to come forward if they have been assaulted, Tupper said.

Thompson said people often scrutinize victim’s behavior because it is easier to address. People choose to focus on how victims dress or how they conduct themselves. They point to alcohol consumption.

“Those are not done by accident,” Thompson said. “Those are purposeful ways to get power in the situation.”

Having people around ensures someone will corroborate the rapist’s story, and if the victim had been drinking, their inhibitions will be lowered, she said.

It’s easy to alter one person’s behavior; what is difficult is addressing a culture that fosters a disregard for consent, she said.

That conversation begins with everyone – parents, teachers, coaches – talking about what it means to give consent, not just in a sexual sense, but in a general sense, she said. It begins with teaching young people how to respect one another.

“There was a mentality that this girl didn’t matter and what happened to her didn’t matter,” she said.

Engaging in positive conversations about how to respect one another needs to becomes the norm, Thompson said. It will make incidents like the horrific events that took place in Steubenville last August less prevalent. It will also make it less likely that youth will stand by while others perpetrate such vile acts, Thompson said.

Tupper agreed that something needs to change. A majority of sexual assault cases go unreported because of the vilification that occurs when someone comes forward, he said. Often, people have the notion that the allegations are unfounded.

In his 20 years of police experience, Tupper has worked a lot of sexual assault cases. He said he can count on two fingers the number of false reports.

“People don’t make this stuff up to get attention,” he said.

The key to changing the culture is to talk about consent and respect even when the topics are not prompted by ugly events like the one in Ohio, Thompson said. Yes, being registered sex offenders will stay with Mays and Richmond their entire lives.

It should. It will act as a reminder.

“The label of being a sex offender is a heavy label,” Tupper said. “Here it is justified. The way they treated this young woman is horrible … this was a violent crime.”

Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Center provides a wealth of resources and sexual assault services. Contact them at 641- 753-3513.