The picture is still one of the first things that comes up when you search “Steubenville rape case.” The girl is a blur of pixelation, but you can see where her shirt lifts to expose her stomach and lower back. There are two boys carrying her by her wrists and ankles, and her head is slung back toward the floor at an extreme angle. A third boy in white mesh shorts looks on from the left of the frame.
What happened in Steubenville, Ohio on the night of August 11, 2012, would become public in pieces, and this image was one of the first to spread online. Other photos like it were posted to Instagram, tweeted by teens with 10 or 12 followers, and shared among the amorphous social circles that tend to exist in high school.
The victim, a 16-year-old girl who had come to Steubenville that night from a nearby town in West Virginia, had become so intoxicated that she was described as “sleeping” by witnesses who watched her being moved from party to party by Trent Mays, a 16-year-old player on the town’s revered high school football team, and Ma’lik Richmond—also 16, also a star player for Big Red. Throughout the night, they penetrated her unconscious body with their fingers while their friends took videos and laughed. The victim would learn what was done to her, according to her mother, by reading about it on social media and in the local paper.
The details of what happened next feel familiar to me now, because they have happened again like this in the years since: The rape was reported and the small town split its loyalties. A Big Red volunteer coach told The New York Times that the girl’s rape claim had been an “excuse” to cover her own bad behavior. “What else are you going to tell your parents when you come home drunk like that and after a night like that?” said Nate Hubbard, who was 27 at the time and one of the team’s 19 coaches. “She had to make up something. Now people are trying to blow up our football program because of it.” Others in the town, speaking anonymously for fear of retribution, told the Times that football players acted with impunity and they hoped someone would be held accountable.
Mays and Richmond were eventually charged and convicted of rape, a rarity in this country. They were sentenced to juvenile detention, where Richmond served for about a year, and Mays for nearly two. It was around this same time that I started my first job in journalism, which is maybe why the story felt so big to me. It seemed to be everywhere—media personalities from Nancy Grace to Roseanne Barr had staked a position, a CNN reporter mourned the boys’ stolen futures, and Anonymous held protests near the small town’s courthouse. The saturation of coverage in my particular bubble made it feel like some kind of tipping point—a case that, because of the involvement of social media, had made the kinds of routine violence and degradation girls and women experience something that couldn’t be ignored. There was nowhere, it seemed, to avert our gazes.
But as we approached the five-year anniversary of the case, I wondered what it had been like to be a teenager in the shadow of Steubenville, Daisy Coleman, Rehteah Parsons, Missoula, and so many other high-profile assault cases with details that seemed to bleed into one another. Were they really as ubiquitous as I believed? And did they change anything?
The answer, like most things related to sexual assault, is complicated.
“I remember the case because it was one of the first I noticed, the first one I really heard about and followed,” said Cat Woodbury, a 23-year-old from Massachusetts who was in her first year of college when news of the Steubenville case broke nationally. “[The victim] was so close to my own age.”
Like most high school students, Woodbury never learned about consent in her high school health class. “I remember it was more about preventing pregnancies and STDs,” she told me. Which is also why the case was the first time she thought of rape as something that could happen within a peer group: “Before then, I thought of it as more like strangers attacking people, not really people you would know.”
Anne (not her real name), a 21-year-old from New York who was in her senior year of high school at the time, had no specific memories of the Steubenville case other than hearing about its general existence, but said she considered that time period the beginning of when she “first started paying attention” to the issue of sexual assault.
“You don’t hear, and you don’t get talked to a lot, in sex ed classes or from your parents, about consent or about rape,” she said. “For most people, your only encounter with these topics is Law and Order SVU.” (Incidentally, SVU featured an episode in 2013 that functioned as a crude composite of several high-profile rape cases, including Steubenville, that involved college and high school students.)
In the five years since, little has changed about the kinds of sex education that Anne and Cat described. According to data kept by the Guttmacher Institute, just 24 states and Washington, D.C., mandate sex education, and the curriculum varies wildly from district to district.
But talk to experts on violence prevention and you will hear, again and again, the importance of comprehensive sex education—including consent education that starts at a young age—in addressing sexual assault among this age group. This may sound like after-school-special bullshit, but the connection is actually pretty straightforward, which is maybe why every woman I spoke to mentioned their lack of sex education as a factor in how they understood these cases at the time.
Teaching sex and consent at a young age is in some ways just a gift of vocabulary. If we don’t teach or talk about sex or consent in a way that has depth or nuance, young people grow up lacking the language or understanding to attach to their experiences, desires, and expectations. This seems to apply just as much to potential victims of assault as it does to potential perpetrators, since studies suggest that men who commit acts of sexual violence don’t often view them that way, and the same is true for many young women who experience sexual violence and aggression. To them, it feels normal.
For Crissy (not her real name, and who also works at Gizmodo Media Group), who was a sophomore in high school when she first heard about the Steubenville case, the taboo around discussing sex or sexual assault extended beyond the classroom and permeated her entire community. Growing up in “small-town, conservative Christian Texas” meant there was an informal ban on talking about any of this, she said. That seemed to translate into how she and her peers followed the news.
“I can remember it happening and thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, that is terrifying,’ but it wasn’t something that stuck around,” she said. “No one from where I’m from cared that much. It is an incredibly conservative bubble, so it wasn’t something that was big in our circles.”
And like most of the women I spoke to, Crissy felt that sexual assault was talked about more now than it was even a few years ago, but that it didn’t feel like much else had really changed beyond that. While a surge of campus activism in the last several years led to the creation of groups, like Know Your IX, that offer resources and information to victims of sexual assault, a series of “Yes Means Yes” laws in states like California and New York, and a set of guidelines from the Obama White House (which are now being revisited with scrutiny by the Trump White House), the outcome of many cases feels nearly identical to what we saw in Steubenville five years ago.
Even in the rare case that result in a conviction, the path there usually involves the same grotesqueries. Women are blamed for what they wore or the drinks they consumed. The men who committed the assault are often referred to by their status as an athlete or a promising young talent. Schools still fail to adequately address complaints. We debate expulsions and standards of evidence. We struggle to answer the question of what to do. We almost always come up short.
Crissy pointed to the Baylor University football team—where reports of a pervasive culture of sexual violence that went unchecked resulted in the president of the university and the head football coach being removed from their positions—as an example of the loop these cases seem to play on. “The sad thing is a lot hasn’t changed in terms of enforcing this stuff,” she said. “I think we’re so permissive when it comes to people on higher levels. If it’s a high-profile person, people are a lot more permissive. You can feel like the understanding has improved, but the actions haven’t improved.”
Anjali Khanna, a 19-year-old student who said the string of high-profile rape cases she saw on the news were part of the reason she started a consent training program at her Virginia high school, agreed that there’s more discussion, but that sometimes feels like the extent of it.
“I wanted to figure out how to talk about sexual assault in middle and high school, before kids even step on a college campus,” she said of the awareness and education program, which she called Stand Against Silence. “By college, it’s much too late.”
But the statistics around rape and assault remain steady. Most rapes are never reported, and those that are are rarely prosecuted, even five years out from what felt, for some, like the start of a watershed moment. “I feel like there is awareness of the issue—more people know about it and recognize it as a real problem,” Khanna told me. “But still no one really knows how to solve it.”