Last August, during a night of partying in Steubenville, Ohio, two high school football players openly and repeatedly sexually violated an intoxicated 16-year-old girl. Instead of reporting the crime, witnesses documented the assault in social media, and even laughed riotously about the attack in a YouTube video. They weren’t laughing on March 17, when a judge convicted the perpetrators, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, of rape.
The Steubenville rape case and verdict made big headlines around the world—and the lesbian community should have been paying attention.
Consider these alarming statistics just released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 43 percent of lesbians and 61 percent of bisexual women have experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetimes. Regardless of sexual orientation, most women reported that they were victimized by male perpetrators. And nearly half of female bisexual victims experienced their first rape before the age of 17.
Our nation’s response to the sexual violence so many LGBT women face, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), was signed into law by President Obama on March 7. “VAWA is the first federal legislation that explicitly prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity," explains Sharon Stapel, the executive director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, who witnessed the signing of this LGBT-inclusive law. “Since the recent passage of VAWA,” she says, “we will have better tools to identify sexual violence and better resources to respond to it.”
If only the media were as responsive. Despite the broad coverage on Steubenville, we haven’t seen much concern for the victim’s perspective. CNN opted to focus on the pair of newly convicted felons, advocating sympathy for two all-American boys whose “promising” futures were destroyed by the criminal justice system. While the network’s coverage sparked outrage and led to a Change.org petition gathering nearly 300,000 signatures, CNN aired a courtroom clip disclosing the juvenile victim’s name. Soon after the verdict, two teenage girls were arrested for making online death threats against her.
According to Stapel, revictimizing survivors of rape is all too familiar: “Victim-blaming is not unusual. Survivors of sexual violence are not just blamed but also isolated and intimidated. Too many are revictimized and vilified.” LGBT survivors of sexual violence are particularly vulnerable to this kind of victim-blaming, Stapel says, “which creates yet another obstacle in reporting the assault and reaching out to get help.”
April is Sexual Violence Awareness Month. With that in mind, we can strive for a positive outcome for survivors. “Awareness is key,” Stapel continues. “The more that we talk about this issue, the more it will encourage survivors to seek help. As members of the LGBT community, we need to have a conversation about it. LGBT people experience sexual violence at roughly the same rates as non-LGBT people, and many of the obstacles we face in seeking support are because of legal discrimination and institutional bias. As we raise awareness, we will better understand that sexual violence is an LGBT issue and a civil rights issue.”