A rape case against two high school football players has rocked the town of Steubenville, Ohio, a small community of 18,000 residents in the Ohio River Valley. The case goes to trial today.
The victim, a 16-year-old girl from a West Virginia town just across the river, accused the players of rape last August in the wake of a party held by a volunteer football coach. The girl apparently left the party with the accused players. Tweets, photos and videos suggest that the girl may have been sexually assaulted and urinated on throughout the evening.
The Steubenville case gained national attention over the last few months, as the drama unfolded on social media, and particularly in the wake of the gang rape of a young woman in New Delhi. Rachel Dissell, reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, has covered the Steubenville story since the beginning.
According to Dissell, the tone of Steubenville is tense as residents struggle with the onslaught of reporters and national attention, but there is also a sense that this trial is an opportunity to have a larger discussion and find some truth. "The type of sexual assault that this is is probably one of the most common ones that you would see across the country…but it’s not one that is often in the media spotlight. Mostly media tend to report on stranger rape cases," says Dissell. "So while this is very common, this much attention is not often given to it and to issues like this."
She attributes this heightened attention to the circumstances: football players are involved and football is so important for the town; people know everyone involved so well; there were concerns that the case wouldn’t be handled appropriately because of the personal connections and because of the important role social media played. "It became a larger discussion of what some anti-sexual violence groups would call a 'pervasive rape culture.'"
On a local level, the school district is in the early stages of addressing the issue of sexual violence. "The Steubenville schools did reach out to some Ohio sexual assault agencies that do prevention to at least start a conversation about how they can make sure they’re incorporating the right messages into the school system in terms of how to talk to students about what type of sex is consensual and what's not," says Dissell.
"At least it’s a start. But right now it’s too soon to tell what will prevail there."