It’s Been Ten Years Since Steubenville

Author and filmmaker Nancy Schwartzman on how far we have and haven’t come since the rape case that changed everything.

Content Warning: Sexual assault. Please consider your mental health before reading.

Ten years ago this month, a young woman was sexually assaulted by a group of high school athletes in Steubenville, Ohio. The girl, who was unconscious, had been transported, stripped of her clothes, and digitally assaulted (meaning the assailants used their hands). Later there would be undeniable evidence: texts and posts on social media in which perpetrators documented, and even bragged, about the horrific acts that took place that night. Two of those students, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, both 16 at the time, were convicted of rape. 

Steubenville was a turning point in how we talk about sexual assault and rape culture. It was the first sexual assault case to go viral on social media, sparking major online activism in response. Nancy Schwartzman, a filmmaker and a writer, has followed this case since the beginning, first making a documentary about the town, and most recently publishing Roll Red Roll, a book about the incident. The New York Times called it a “meticulous account” of what happened that night and the culture that allowed for it.

This week, I talked to Nancy about the film, the book, and what she learned from all of it. 

Samhita Mukhopadhyay: Why were you initially drawn to investigating the Steubenville rape case? 

Nancy Schwartzman: I had already been examining issues of consent in my first film, The Line—what is coercive consent, what is enthusiastic consent, etc. And by the end of having so many conversations with young people about the topic, what became very important, I thought, for us to all be looking at was perpetrator behavior. 

[Sexual assault was talked about] very much like the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial. The victim is scrutinized: her behavior, her alcohol levels, her outfit, her prior sexual conduct. For me, what was just never discussed, and actually where the problem was: “What are the conditions that enable sexual assault to run rampant, and what are the behaviors we should be looking out for?” 

When Steubenville broke, [at first] I thought, “Nothing about this is new.” But when I started looking into it more closely, all of the text messages and social media were public. And it was a script of how these guys were talking about the victim, how they were planning it in advance, and how they were egging each other on. So all of a sudden, we had a window into perpetrator behavior.

It’s hard to remember now, but Steubenville was one of the first big sexual assault cases where social media and the internet played a huge role. That’s why it garnered so much national attention, right?

Yeah, the Times also didn’t break the story; Rachel Dissell in Cleveland started reporting on it. And what was happening was more about how this was dividing the town, and then [the hacker group Anonymous got involved] to get more global media attention. That’s what caught the New York Times’ eye. I remember when I first went to Steubenville and sent some pictures to people like, “I’m here, I’m here,” someone was like, “Whoa, Steubenville, that town from the internet.” It was the first time the internet world and what we call brick-and-mortar collided.

Going to talk to older people [in the town], it was this fascinating generational divide. A 70-year-old man who runs the appliance shop and volunteers at Fort Steuben, the historical fort, he was just like, “These people, they came in with masks, these people from the internet.” So the internet “invaded” this town, they [came] in with a threatening message and their faces covered in a mask, and then people actually showed up on the courthouse stairs. It was also interesting that the people who showed up were from the town, so they got to benefit from the anonymity of Anonymous—from the fact that the outside world was saying “Yo, what’s going on in your town is fucked up.” People could agree quietly after years of being silenced, or going along with it, or not even knowing there’s an alternative way possible. 

Historic Fort Steuben in Ohio. (Photo by: John Greim/Loop Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Yeah, that is super interesting. One of the things that you’ve explored in the book is the culture that creates sexual assault. Many of these people in the town were upset about the attention the case was getting and felt that the whole thing was overblown. So can you talk about some of those circumstances a little bit, some of those contexts that you were referring to?

Most people I spoke with, including [a lovely man who owned a big family-owned store], would acknowledge, “Well, what happened was bad.” Everybody categorically agreed that it was bad. So aside from the negative attention, they were horrified. I think one of the things folks didn’t understand… I mean, [the store owner] cornered me in his shop and put his fingers in my face and was like, “Digital, it was digital penetration, it was digital.”

Oh my God.

I know. So I think there was a wild misunderstanding of assault in all its forms. And the [digital penetration] was one detail of the case that was eminently provable in court, but there was a lot of stuff that pointed to other sexual misconduct. So there was a physical minimizing of the actual harm, which was obviously a problem. There was also this question of: “If someone is blacked out, how bad can it be?” So there was a wild misunderstanding there.

The people that I really was the most frightened of, in a way, were the mothers of sons. In all of my screenings, I was like, “Oh, shit, there’s a bunch of dads in the back, and there’s a bunch of men.” I called the men in to be my allies. They’re in locker rooms, they know, they grew up in this environment and were like, “Yep, I know this behavior, this is familiar to me, this is not good. I have a daughter or a son, and I don’t want him in trouble.” [But] it was the mothers of sons that were fiercely protective. “Not my baby,” and “She must have done something.” I just did not expect this level of obstacle with that demographic.

Why do you think that is?

I don’t know. I’m not a parent, and I don’t have a son. I think a mother’s love for her son… Well, I think in the big picture, this is a place that is really, really, really steeped in patriarchal tradition. The book covers the history of the mills: The men are working, and the women are at home. There aren’t any places for women to go. There’s a really strong separate-sphere ideology. Men are at the mill; women are at home. Mill’s closed, men are on the football field, boys are on the field, girls are cheerleaders. There were no women on the city council; it’s a very, very Catholic town. There are no women in leadership in the clergy. I mean, it was alarming, across the board.

When we’re thinking about moms protecting their sons, mommies generally love their little boys, and their little boys are perfect. If they do something wrong, it’s someone else’s fault. I saw that growing up in my town. The way that gender roles play out, it’s wildly unsafe to be a young woman or a queer person in that town.

I think a lot of people in the “#MeToo era” are talking about the limits of the criminal justice system in sexual assault. Steubenville is a rare case where perpetrators were convicted. There was some sense of justice through the criminal justice system, and that’s because there was so much documented evidence that you could not ignore it. But what was your learning and takeaway from that? And what happened to the boys after they were convicted? 

My book has a whole section about transformational justice and different models for justice. For most of us, we get no justice. I talked to Aya Gruber, who’s an amazing feminist criminologist. So often, the burden of “What should be done?” is on the victim. Like, “Well, it’s your obligation to report because he could do it to someone else.” You know what? It’s not my obligation to do anything because the criminal justice system is so dangerous for women, it’s dangerous for people of color, and it’s unreliable. It’s not a space for justice. The burden should not be on our shoulders to do something.

But the boys were sentenced: Trent was sentenced to two years in juvenile detention, Ma’Lik was sentenced to nine months, and Ma’Lik got out and finished high school. There was a big ripple of anger because he was brought back onto the football team, and that divided the town. People were like, “Hey, football is a privilege; it’s not a right. He should be let back into school, but this was the environment that led him to get caught up in something like gang rape. What about the football team has changed to ensure this doesn’t happen?” The coach had said, “He did his time. I believe in second chances.” But they didn’t bring anything onto the team to ensure that thinking and behavior changed. That was a missed opportunity, big time. 

I think what I really wanted folks to understand is that it’s not… Every survivor doesn’t have to become a fucking activist. And you’re doing nothing wrong if you’re a survivor and you decide not to report to the police, because reporting to the police is a dangerous act that might not be in your best interest.

Samhita Mukhopadhyay is a writer, editor, and speaker. She is the former Executive Editor of Teen Vogue and is the co-editor of Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance and Revolution in Trump’s America and the author of Outdated: Why Dating is Ruining Your Love Life, and the forthcoming book, The Myth of Making It