Five Years Since Steubenville: Five Important Lessons

steubenville sexual assault five years

Today marks five years since the highly disturbing sexual assault of a 16-year-old girl in Steubenville, Ohio.

Not only was this girl victimized in truly harrowing ways for hours and by multiple people—including several Steubenville High School football players—but much of it was documented on cell phones and shared with other students and on social media.

The survivor’s nightmare wasn’t over after the night of Aug. 11. The criminal case that ensued garnered nationwide attention, and public reaction included critiques of and threats toward the victim.

And while this case resulted in statistically rare convictions for some of the perpetrators, it’s important to examine the harmful realities of sexual violence that remain five years later.

Here are some of the lessons from Steubenville that are still as relevant today as they were then:


1) Victim blaming is alive and well.

The Steubenville survivor was under the influence of alcohol the night of her assault, and photos taken that night showed her to be unresponsive. Although consent cannot be given while someone is intoxicated, discussions on social media proved that many folks still blamed her for the abuse she endured. Unfortunately, victim blaming is still a thing, particularly in sexual assault cases where victims are partying and consuming alcohol. The 2016 Netflix documentary “Audrie & Daisy” highlights the vast amount of victim blaming that occurred after teen Daisy Coleman was raped by an acquaintance. Daisy was taunted by classmates, who called her a liar and told her she was a “skank” who was “asking for it.”

Lesson: Blaming victims reinforces rape culture by failing to put the onus on the perpetrators who commit rape. It doesn’t hold rapists accountable and sends the message that we can prevent our own assaults, when the only way to prevent sexual assault is to not commit sexual assault.


2) Creating sympathy for perpetrators is misguided and dangerous.

In addition to victim blaming, creating misplaced sympathy for perpetrators is another example of rape culture. For instance, after the Steubenville verdict, a CNN reporter said: “It was incredibly emotional, incredibly difficult even for an outsider like me to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures — star football players, very good students — we literally watched as they believe their life fell apart.” One of the perpetrators was eventually allowed back on his high school football team, and it’s reported that he and another perpetrator have joined college football teams.

Much like the constant media references to convicted Stanford rapist Brock Turner’s successful swimming career, focusing on the accomplishments and what’s at stake for perpetrators to lose misses the point and undermines the seriousness of their crime. Not to mention, many survivors may feel guilty or end up not reporting their assaults for fear of the negative consequences for their assailants and not wanting to “ruin their lives.”

Lesson: Perpetrators are not victims of their own crimes. Let’s support survivors by believing them and advocating for them.


3) Cyberbullying can re-victimize survivors.

The Steubenville survivor reportedly awoke the morning after the incident with little recollection of what happened, only to eventually discover text messages and social media posts that documented her nightmare. In addition, after the guilty verdict of some of her assailants, she received death threats online.

There can be serious consequences of cyberbullying. Look no further than Audrie Pott, one of the teen sexual assault stories featured in “Audrie & Daisy.” Audrie committed suicide after she experienced intense cyberbullying following her assault.

Lesson: Abuse can occur both on and offline. According to Pew Research Center, 1 in 3 teens who use the internet/social media has experienced online harassment – and girls are more likely to be victims. Like sexual assault, cyberbullying is never OK or justified.


4) Title IX – when enforced – protects K-12 students.

Multiple school officials were investigated after the Steubenville assault for their roles in covering up what happened. Sadly, this egregious behavior of failing to protect students is becoming all too common. Thankfully, laws like Title IX are meant to help. Under the enforcement of the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), Title IX protects more than just equity in sports – and more than just universities. The law ensures students at the K-12 level are also kept safe from sexual assault and harassment.

Lesson: Title IX is critical. Currently, OCR has a large backlog of sexual assault investigations, and that list is growing. Unfortunately, under Betsy DeVos, the Department of Education recently announced it would scale back on its investigations. With the law’s enforcement in jeopardy, we need to demand that OCR takes it seriously.


5) We need to prevent sexual violence now more than ever.

From Steubenville to Stanford to Maryville, young people have endured heinous abuse, and not just in the last five years. Sexual violence must end, and you can play a part in that.

Lesson: Don’t reinforce rape culture, teach youth about consent, support healthy relationships through programs like That’s Not Cool, coach boys on what it means to be men, encourage the use of apps like Respect Effect and Circle of 6, and of course – believe survivors.


Have we made progress in five years? I’d like to think we have, but there is more that we can do. Let’s take these lessons, learn from them, and take action now. If you’re looking for ways to act, we are taking five days to share five ways you can help!