by Carmen Rios
This past December, the US looked on in horror as a case of vicious sexual assault unfolded in Steubenville, OH. With the trial set to begin this Wednesday, what began as a local event will become a national conversation. And as media descend upon and digest the goings-on in the courtroom, we will be reminded that the violent and horrific experiences of one teenage girl represents an epidemic problem in our world, and that one in four women and girls will be raped or assaulted by the time they turn 18. We need to take action. Now.
Reading about Steubenville is like entering a nightmarish world, where a community left shocked and bruised by the allegations facing their boys did not take care of their girls. Some community members rushed to cover up and protect the rapists from harm rather than working to achieve justice for the victim. Instead of trusting or supporting girls, many of us would like to trust that boys have good intentions or that they were misunderstood. Rather than become angry about rape, we’d like to lash out at women frustrated by rape culture, as illustrated by the recent backlash against feminist Zerlina Maxwell, who in the past few days has been facing racist threats of death and rape because she dared acknowledge these problems on a national stage.
We stand with Zerlina: assault prevention is everyone’s problem, not just women’s. We know that Steubenville is not the first or last instance of rape within an athletic community, and although the details of what happened there have horrified us collectively, the overreaching theme of assault being covered up and excused when committed by athletes is not unfamiliar. And that needs to change.
Often, when we work through issues of rape as communities, we find that the root of the problem lies in our culture. We live in a “rape culture,” meaning we live in a world where rape is condoned, justified, excused, and even encouraged by how we socialize and teach our boys to be men and how we teach our girls to always be prepared for a seemingly inevitable assault. But we know that placing blame on survivors and victims and burdening them with the responsibility of warding off attackers or stopping their own assaults has failed and will fail again. We need boys and men to take responsibility for their part in a rape-free world, and we need to make sure that their role models and heroes are committed to making that happen.
As an activist with SPARK Movement, I am teaming up with Connor, a student athlete at Colby College engaged in work against sexual violence, to take a step in ensuring we are building a rape-free world. And that step is in educating leaders to take a stand against our rape culture. We are tired of sexual assault, and we’re sick of communities that support perpetrators of violence. But we’re mostly tired of talking ourselves hoarse about the problem and not offering solutions. So we are taking action. We are asking the National Federation of High School Associations, which offers annual required trainings for coaches, to develop and offer a course on sexual violence prevention. Coaches, as local heroes and role models, can lead their communities toward a rape-free climate, but only if they are prepared to initiate conversations with athletes around important issues of sexual violence.
You can support this initiative by signing on at Change.org/educatecoaches and sharing the petition with friends, family, activists, athletes, and coaches. Tweet about our initiative using the hashtag #educatecoaches and spread the word. Only if we act together can we change the world – and unless our culture is willing to settle for one riddled with violence, the time to act is now.