There is a scene in Roll Red Roll — the documentary that examines the culture surrounding the 2012 Steubenville, Ohio rape case — that quickly establishes the ways in which the town's citizens protected and in many ways enabled the teenage boys who were eventually convicted of raping a 16-year-old girl on the night of August 12, 2012. It takes place in a donut shop; the man behind the counter tells filmmaker Nancy Schwartzman that he takes a word like “rape” very seriously. But you get the sense that his discomfort has more to do with one person accusing another person of rape than the details of the survivor’s story.
He isn't alone in the sentiment, either. Two teen girls tell the cameras that any girl who was drunk — as the victim, who is only known as Jane Doe, was the night she was assaulted by Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond — should take responsibility for putting herself in such a position. The blatant victim-blaming is staggering to watch, but frustratingly, isn’t surprising; it also serves as a sobering reminder that for many people, the impulse is not to believe survivors, especially when the attackers are people in power. And in some towns in the United States, few people are more powerful than the high school football players.
“I used to live in Steubenville, where the high school football players are treated like NFL players,” Alexandria Goddard, the writer who served as the initial whistleblower for the case, tells MTV News. As the documentary explains, she had been reading a local newspaper one day, when she noticed something was amiss. A small article detailing the allegations made against Mays and Richmond seemed too short for the severity of the crime levied against them: the rape of a minor.
“I thought that there was a lot more to the story and that the local media was probably not giving it the coverage that it needed because it was that football team,” she remembers now. “I went out to the football website, I pulled the team roster, and just started going through social media.” What she found was an incriminating trail of social media posts from the boys and their friends that turned one girl’s nightmare into a punchline. She posted screenshots on her blog; that post opened the floodgates for attention first from the vigilante group Anonymous, and later by the New Yorker and other national outlets. The story went viral, not least of all because here was proof that rape culture still laughs in the face of sexual assault, 140 characters at a time.
The Steubenville story could have been a cautionary tale, if it wasn’t for Goddard sounding the alarm. By many accounts, the girl was drunk at a high school party on a summer night — drunk enough to puke on the sidewalk, too drunk to walk, too drunk to consent to anything, let alone sex. People at the party saw that she was drunk, but did not intervene when Mays and Richardson took her to another party, and later to another location. When she woke up, she had no memory of what happened. No one had stepped in. No one had stopped her attackers. Most people were more invested in protecting the rapists, rather than the survivor.
“What I thought was so important about what Alex did, is that what she uncovered and knew was important was that cultural piece of it,” Schwartzman explains. “So while some of those [social media posts and] texts aren't necessarily criminal evidence, they're evidence of this larger culture where rape is tolerated and joked about and thought of as no big deal. Law enforcement might not think a tweet is a piece of criminal evidence. But Alex made sure that stuff doesn't get deleted or disappeared.”
It was that culture that Schwartzman wanted to interrogate in Roll Red Roll, which is now in select theaters after hitting the festival circuit in 2018. The film uses footage from police interviews with teens who were at the party, as well as conversations with Goddard and parents and students within the Steubenville community, to illustrate the ways in which attitudes in the town have and haven’t changed in the years since Mays and Richmond were convicted of rape.
“This is a larger conversation that we need to have about how these young men are talking about women," Schwartzman says. "Where is the empathy? Why is it acceptable and tolerated? So that's what inspired me to keep looking and keep digging.”
Roll Red Roll isn’t an easy film to watch, regardless of how well-known the case is now. Among its artifacts is a minutes-long YouTube in which one Steubenville High student talks almost gleefully about the rape with a group of his peers; only one other boy in the video tells him to knock it off.
“Once I started fanning out into people who were involved, into their friend network, into their family network, it became more and more disheartening,” Goddard recalls. “First, we have kids that are talking about this for hours, all night, as this was going on. And not one person stepped forward. Instead they laughed at her and continue to spread it on social media. And it was not just the kids, it's parents and other adults and teachers from the school who were trash-talking her and saying really horrible things. It changed me.”
Both Goddard and Schwartzman are survivors themselves, and they grappled with how much information to show, and when to hold back. When she first posted the screenshots, Goddard pixelated and blurred the body of Jane Doe, even though larger media outlets were not giving her such privacy. And now, as the film rolls out into theaters in New York and Los Angeles, as well as at private screenings across the country, Schwartzman is leveling with the fact that the film would likely trigger other survivors.
“If they don't want to watch it, that's totally fine,” she says. Instead, she asks that they prioritize their own self-care, and to lean on friends and allies to help. “This film, because it's so visceral, was really designed to engage, to shock guys out of their comfort zone,” she adds. “It’s saying, ‘This is the language and you’ve been around it and you have teammates that speak this way and you know guys in your fraternity speak this way and it's ugly, right?’”
The film — shot in 2017, right before the Harvey Weinstein allegations exploded the ways we talk about sexual assault and compounded upon movements like Tarana Burke’s Me Too — feels prescient. It’s also easy to forget that even 10 years ago, large swaths of society were willfully ignorant to the realities that many people, and especially women, faced every day: that one in six women will be the target of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, that many of those women will be attacked before they turn 18, that the vast majority of rapes are never reported. Hopefully, those numbers will change, though it may be too soon to tell just yet.
For her part, Goddard has already felt one wave of change: “Back in 2012 when this first broke, I did not have many men allies to talk about this with,” she notes. “I feel like today, there are so many more men who are more than willing to step up to the plate and say publicly, 'This is wrong, what can we do to correct this? How can we make change?' Just over the last seven years and with all the ugly things that have happened, men are more OK with the fact that, yeah, they need to step up, they have to do something too.”
“Maybe five years ago a film about rape would have been relegated as a women's issue. Now I feel like people are like, 'Oh my gosh, this is an American epidemic,'” Schwartzman adds. “This is a cultural issue. This is how boys are being socialized and this is a problem. I see a tremendous willingness to address rape culture that wasn't there before.”
While Steubenville serves as the backdrop for Roll Red Roll, it’s far from the only town where rape culture abounds. “This is not unusual,” Schwartzman stresses. “I went to high school outside of Philadelphia. We did not have football, but we definitely had rape culture.” She remembers the “rich kids” preying on freshmen in particular, and that male and female classmates alike often contributed to victim-shaming. To that end, she hopes the film serves as yet another wakeup call, especially to those people who might not realize the ways in which they’re still enabling rape culture to thrive.
“Just because this is a culture we inherited doesn't mean we have to continue it,” she adds. “We really have to change the system and we can't change it if we don't see it.”