Steubenville: Why People Behave Badly in the Aftermath of a Rape

So what went wrong in the town of Steubenville?  How do we understand why so many young people stood by and did nothing while a young woman was raped? Why did the football coach protect the perpetrators knowing they had committed this rape? Why were parents so quick to vilify the victim and jump to defend the teenage perpetrators?

It’s easy to look at the sexual assaults in Steubenville, Ohio and at Penn State University and draw a simple conclusion – it’s all about football. But to understand what really happened in both communities, you need to know very little about football and its culture. We’ve seen similar cover ups: the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America, and what they really have in common is they are all insular communities. Each entity acts like a family, they stand up for each other, they create a sense of belonging, and when sexual abuse occurred, they closed ranks and behaved just like nuclear families.

There is no silver bullet for preventing or responding to sexual abuse. However, the mental health community does know quite a bit about what happens when sexual abuse fractures families. We can use what we know to understand Steubenville, to heal and to prevent future episodes from occurring.

I have worked with countless numbers of young women who have been abused by their fathers, stepfathers, mothers’ boyfriends or male peers. In the vast majority of cases, this is how the story typically unfolds: The abuse or assault is ignored, even despite obvious and repeated signs it is occurring. When the abuse comes to light, often it is the child that is blamed.  It is she that is lying or it is she that is blamed for seducing the man or boy. In cases of incest, the daughter may be seen as the mother’s competition and the mother becomes enraged at the daughter for having stolen her man.

There are unspoken rules in families where sexual abuse occurs and they require all members to play along:

1) Pretend it’s not happening;

2) Do not speak of it outside the family; and

3) Whoever tells the truth will be scapegoated and most likely excommunicated.

The underlying message to not only the victim but also to all members of the family is, “If you break the rules, you end up alone.

These same rules apply to groups and communities that have been invaded by sexual assault. They shut down and try to protect themselves. So why do people behave this way? From a psychological perspective, here are a few reasons why:

Cognitive dissonance. We cannot hold two competing thoughts at the same time.  For example, “Trent Mays is a hometown hero.” And “Trent Mays is a rapist.” They just don’t go together and so to find a way for them to fit we have to change one of the thoughts, substituting instead of  “Trent Mays is a rapist” with “The young woman was asking for it.”  Example 2: The two competing thoughts of “I am a Penn State football fan” and “Penn State covers up sexual abuse of children.” The thought “Penn State covers up sexual abuse” gets replaced with “Joe Paterno wasn’t involved.” In other words, people lie to themselves in order to reduce their own discomfort.

The normalcy effect. In crisis, many people want to carry on as if nothing out of the ordinary is occurring. If you’ve ever taken a big fall and tried to hop up and walk away, you know what that’s like. If you’ve wondered why people stay in their homes despite evacuation orders, this is one reason. When faced with a trauma, our body shuts down in order to protect itself from overwhelming emotions. What will it mean for me if my husband/son/best friend is a perpetrator? How will I deal with that reality and how will it affect my life? How will it affect my emotional and perhaps financial security? What kind of parent or coach must I be? As our nervous system becomes flooded with anxiety, our primary defense of denial kicks in. Our bodies go to great lengths not to deal with feelings that threaten our survival.

The bystander effect. Are all the young people who witnessed the rape and did nothing “bad” people? We would all like to believe that if we were placed in a similar situation, we would have stood up and protected the victim, but the extensive research in the areas of social psychology suggests that just isn’t so. The bystander effect occurs when we do not intervene in an emergency when others are present. The more people around the less likely we are to help because we assume someone else is doing it.  There is also tremendous pressure to conform to a group norm: it becomes more difficult to act when you see others pretending that nothing horrible is happening.

There are three very simple things we can do to protect victims:

1. Assume the responsibility to call for help is yours. Assume no one else will.

2. Pay attention to your instincts. Women in particular are socialized not to make a scene, but in hindsight report that they intuitively knew something was wrong. And most importantly,

3) Whenever someone reports an incident of sexual abuse to you, believe them. Despite media hype of false accusations, it is actually very rare for someone to fabricate a rape or molest accusation. No matter how shocking or unfeasible it seems to you, try to listen and respond with support rather than minimization or denial.

The response that trusted adults and bystanders have to a child’s sexual trauma can seriously mitigate or reduce his or her suffering in years to come. Not being protected is a secondary trauma that the victim must bear as well. The best thing that happened to this young woman in Steubenville is that her parents believed her and took action.

Preventing further crimes like Steubenville from happening requires a multi-tiered approach that addresses male privilege, the reverence of the sports star, and the rape culture in which we live, but we also must understand the dynamics of sexual abuse and how they apply not only to nuclear families but communities as a whole.

Laura Booker, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in NYC and the author of

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