January 4, 2013; Source: CBS News

Several men in India have been charged with the horrific gang rape and murder of a young woman who happened to get on a bus with the accused attackers, and in response to these reports, Indians have erupted in horror that their culture could be so cruel, terrible, and punitive towards women and lenient towards men who abuse, rape or kill women. Meanwhile, Americans have largely been sitting back with a tut-tut, believing that women have it much better here and that nothing like that happens here anymore because of what we view as our more advanced attitudes or policies. But the alleged rape of a 16-year-old girl in Steubenville, Ohio makes us question whether this is so. Fortunately, the Steubenville incident has been brought to the attention of the American public due to KnightSec, a group claiming affiliation with the voluntary activist hackers’ association known as Anonymous.

In Steubenville, two 16-year-old boys, both football players, have been indicted for the alleged rape of a 16-year-old girl. The prosecution in the case states that the girl was so drunk that she was not capable of giving her consent, while the defense is expected to argue that she can and did consent. Ohio law states that sex with a woman who is not capable of giving her consent—such as being incapacitated due to extreme inebriation—is unconsensual sex. According to Peggy Sanday, a University of Pennsylvania professor emeritus, the law is pretty clear: sex is not consensual when “the other person’s ability to resist or consent is substantially impaired because of a mental or physical condition or because of advanced age, and the offender knows or has reasonable cause to believe that the other person’s ability to resist or consent is substantially impaired because of a mental or physical condition or because of advanced age.”

According to the New York Times, on the night of August 11, 2012, “Twitter posts, videos and photographs circulated by some who attended the nightlong set of parties suggested that an unconscious girl had been sexually assaulted over several hours while others watched.” The video circulated by KnightSec presents footage of several boys who make statements suggesting that they were either present or at least aware of the events of the evening in question.

Why did the hacktivist group release the tape (and follow up with rallies in Steubenville)? Because of reports that people in Steubenville were papering over the alleged crime since the charges are aimed at football players from the high school’s prized football team (not to mention reports that many others attending parties on the night in question allegedly either cheered these actions or at least did nothing to stop them).

Good for Anonymous. Calling out the alleged perpetrators and/or defenders of this incident is exactly what a nonprofit truth-teller is supposed to do. But it’s not an attack on Steubenville. Rather, it is an assault on what Sanday calls “the boy rape-prone sexual culture” in which some boys think that having sex with a woman who is drunk is not rape, but just sexual fun. In addition to the charges against the two 16-year-old football players, the attention brought by Anonymous may yet persuade the prosecution to pursue some of the alleged cheering bystanders as well.

Having endured an election where at least two candidates for the U.S. Senate and who knows how many running for the House of Representatives evinced a callous, almost barbaric view of rape, we should all be attentive to what happens in this Steubenville case. But beyond the recent ignorant comments on rape we’ve heard uttered by candidates like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock this past fall, it is important to note that, as the 112th Congress petered out last week, the House of Representatives failed to act on the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act that was passed overwhelmingly with bipartisan support in the U.S. Senate.

Instead, the House decided to pass a bill, several weeks after the Senate action, that removed Senate language designed to prevent discrimination against LGBT people, to protect immigrant women regardless of their status, and to protect tribal women. Rather than taking up the Senate bill, House Speaker Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Whip Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) allowed the VAWA to expire. Will the 113th Congress remember Steubenville and revive the Violence Against Women Act? Spurred by Anonymous, maybe it will.—Rick Cohen