Imagine having one of the most traumatizing moments of your life recorded, distributed and viewed across the internet. This is a reality that survivors of sexual assault experience regularly. While the bystander effect (the diffusion of responsibility and acting in socially acceptable ways) has long been cited when discussing why bystanders don’t intervene, cellphone video technology creates yet another voyeuristic barrier. In a digitally-powered, clout-driven world, many bystanders have become more comfortable recording (and then posting) acts of sexual assault rather that intervening, turning these crimes into exhibitions.
A Voyeuristic Culture
While the act of sexual assault is dreadful enough on its own, giving everyone a professional grade recording device and a variety of distribution platforms creates another layer of trauma for victims. And it is a layer that bystanders participate in.
On Aug. 12, 2012, two football players from Ohio’s Steubenville High School football team raped a 16-year-old female after she became intoxicated and ultimately passed out after attending two house parties that evening. At the subsequent trial, most of the evidence presented was hundreds of cellphone pictures taken by dozens of students at the parties and ultimately shared on social media. The judge described this distribution of these pictures as “profane and ugly.”
More recently on Feb. 14, 2020, eight basketball players at Many High School in Many, Louisiana were arrested when a video that showed them restraining and sodomizing another student with an object was circulated via Snapchat. The students faced a litany of charges including sexual battery, second degree kidnapping, and, for filming the incident, pornography involving juveniles.
Students at our very own St. Xavier High School are the latest to make headlines for this type of behavior. Several weeks ago, news outlets reported the existence of a “disturbing off-campus video” involving several St. X students. The video depicted several students holding a classmate down as he was sodomized with what appeared to be a lacrosse stick. The assault was taped, then widely shared with other students in Jefferson County by way of Snapchat.
As the videos keep circulating, the question rarely asked is whether those filming understand the gravity of what their smartphones are capturing.
The Normalization of Sexual Assault
The Kentucky Revised Statutes are quite clear on what a sex crime is. The terms rape, sodomy, sexual abuse and sexual misconduct are all clearly defined in chapter 510 of our state’s laws. There are other terms we use however, that serve to normalize these crimes.
Elizabeth Meyer, an associate professor for the University of Colorado, Boulder’s School of Education highlights the use of phrases such as “boys being boys,” as an “attempt to explain away aggressive behaviors by linking them to natural or biological impulses, without examining other reasons for the actions.”
Elsewhere, the violent acts of sodomy happening annually in athletic locker rooms get minimized as they are referred to as “acts of hazing.” Gary Phillips of New York’s Journal News states that “calling sexual abuse hazing downplays the brutality of the incident and passes off a serious crime as a ‘rite of passage’ ritual that went too far.”
If the question is “why would someone film and post a sexual assault rather than attempt to intervene,” then normalization and downplaying sexual assault is the answer. Instead of seeing a teenage girl who is intoxicated beyond the point of consent being assaulted by classmates, partygoers see a party girl who just had a little too much. Instead of seeing a violent gang rape at an off-campus party, teammates see “team traditions.” It is through this normalized lens, onlookers reach for their devices; not to phone authorities, but to roll film.
Call It By Its Name
In my book “The Title IX Guy: Several Short Essays on Rape Culture, Masculinity (the good kind & the bad kind), & Other Things We Should Be Talking About,” I cover how discussions about sexual assault are still considered taboo. Parents shy away from having conversations with their kids. Teachers have cited a lack of knowledge on the issue as reasoning for not educating their students. Even law schools have begun sidestepping the teaching of sex crimes due to students voicing concerns about how these crimes are taught.
To break the point and shoot reaction to sexual assault however, these conversations mustn’t be avoided. Rather, we must make it a point to start conversations about sexual assault during one’s formative years. The seriousness and long-lasting effects of these crimes must be stressed. A great way to begin is highlighting the fact that sexual assault is in fact a crime. Having sex with someone passed out at a party is rape. Violating a classmate anally with an object is not an initiation ritual. It is sodomy. Sneaking up behind a woman and groping her breasts at a fraternity is not “playing around.” It is sexual abuse. Perhaps if we call sexual assault by its name, people will see it for the crime that it is.