A lot of people are talking about the Steubenville rape case. The short form: Some young men get a girl passed out drunk and rape her, take pictures, get convicted to a few years in jail. Much of the media spends endless time talking about how tragic this all is for the rapists (because they are good at football) and pointedly ignores how tragic it is for the victim. The internet then explodes with anger over how so much of the mainstream media engages in slut shaming, even if it is passive.
I gotta side with the internet. These boys committed terrible crimes and deserve serious punishment. While their suffering brings me no joy it is a necessary thing to prevent such crimes in the future. We should spend our time feeling sorry for the real victim if we are going to feel sorry for anyone.
What I do think though is that this misplaced sympathy is easy to explain. Obviously a culture of acceptance of rape as normal or no big deal is partly at fault. However, I think that a big part of the reactions we have seen is simply due to the pictures the public has had access to when viewing this news. I read a bunch of articles to see what exactly was portrayed and repeatedly saw a picture of two young, clean cut young men in nice suits and a picture of a girl passed out drunk at a party in casual clothes. Even if viewers had no particular tendency ahead of time to sympathize with the rapists they sure would after seeing that portrayal of the people involved.
Imagine if the articles instead printed two very different sets of pictures, one with a teenage girl made up nicely in a fancy dress and the other with two high school boys half naked at a party with a beer in each hand leering at the camera and making obscene gestures. You know who everyone would suddenly be sympathizing with, right? There is a reason that lawyers make sure their clients are shaved and dressed up fancy for court; people on the jury are far more likely to believe them innocent.
Of course we shouldn't have to dress people of either gender up in order for others to have sympathy for them. We shouldn't judge people worthy of rape because they drink too much and pass out. Yet, this is what happens. Humans make snap judgements based on appearance that blithely ignore facts and reason. What we should do is recognize this tendency and do our best to correct for it. We all need to focus on what happened in a particular circumstance and try to ignore how the people in question appear. It isn't something we are good at but the more we understand the ways in which we make bad decisions the easier it will become to mitigate this problem.
Pictures from: http://www.newstatesman.com/laurie-penny/2013/03/steubenville-rape-cultures-abu-ghraib-moment