No, Miley Cyrus did not cause Steubenville

Richard Cohen draws a dubious link between Cyrus' VMA performance and the Steubenville rape case

Published September 3, 2013 6:00PM (EDT)

  (Charles Sykes/invision/ap)
(Charles Sykes/invision/ap)

Richard Cohen says that he really liked Ariel Levy's account in the New Yorker of the Steubenville rape case, which is strange because he clearly did not read it.

In a Monday column for the Washington Post, Cohen uses Levy's piece -- which examined how social media and media spectacle shaped and distorted original reports of the assault and its impact on the victim, her assailants and a small Ohio town -- to argue that "just about everything you do know about the case from TV and the Internet was wrong."

Well, no.

Levy's piece is a thoughtful and at times controversial examination of how rumor, Internet vigilantism, the ambiguities of consent and the cultural biases and blind spots engendered by rape culture shaped the narrative around the sexual assault of an unconscious 15-year-old girl at the hands of two high school football players. While she questions how some of the facts were misrepresented early on in the case (a phenomenon not unique to sexual assault cases or the social media age) and the motivations behind some of the individuals leading the online campaign for accountability, Levy's extensive reporting uncovers the same facts reached during the trial. Namely, that Trent Mays and Ma'lik Richmond penetrated a teenage girl who couldn't consent to such an act. That a rape occurred that night.

Levy also goes to great lengths to communicate that rape culture is not "an empty term or imaginary phenomenon," and that the persistence of sexual violence against women and girls "would be impossible without a culture that enables it: a value system in which women are currency, and sex is something that men get -- or take -- from them."

Cohen seems to have missed both points -- or willfully ignored them to advance a ridiculous and deeply misogynistic column that connects Levy's reporting to Miley Cyrus' performance at last week's Video Music Awards. Cyrus' performance, Cohen says, celebrated "sexual exploitation" and encouraged "a teenage culture that has set the women’s movement back on its heels."

The thrust of Cohen's argument is that Cyrus' explicitly sexual performance is the reason that men like Mays and Richmond rape unconscious teenagers, then boast about it online. Which is to say, Cohen seems to agree with Mays' defense lawyers that Steunbenville's young victim, in her willingness to drink to excess and follow Mays and Richmond from one party to the next, was "asking for it."

More than just that, Cohen is unwilling to concede, despite a jury's conviction, that a rape even occurred that August night in Steubenville. He bemoans the "arrest of the innocent," and calls the rape "manhandling." He says Mays and Richmond "treated the young woman as dirt" and "sexually mistreated" her. But he won't say that they raped her. Because, as he notes early on, the "so-called Steubenville Rape" was not a "rape involving intercourse."

Which brings us back to rape culture. And the tendency to lay the blame for violence committed against women at the feet of those women. Cyrus' performance did contribute to a cultural view of black women's bodies as objects to be prodded and sexualized, which, in an important way -- though not in the way suggested by Cohen -- does contribute to a culture of violence against women of color.

But rubbing a foam finger against one's crotch, being vulgar and crassly sexual, drinking too much, walking home alone late at night -- or any number of other reasons men like Cohen would blame women for the violence committed against them -- are not the problem here.

Rapists are the problem. Someone may want to teach Cohen that.


By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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Rape Rape Apologists Richard Cohen Sexual Assault Sexual Violence Steubenville Rape Case