Credit: chrisjts on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-ND 2.0).
(WOMENSENEWS)–The gang rape of an unconscious 16-year-old in Steubenville, Ohio, by football players who called themselves the “rape crew” made big news recently after an Internet-based activist organization known as Anonymous used social media to call attention to it.
Anonymous leaked a shocking videotape showing young men joking about how the victim was used as a virtual penis pin cushion. One found it hilarious that the victim was so unconscious she was “deader than Trayvon Martin.” Another laughed about how she was “so raped her pussy is about as dry as the sun right now.”
Given that athletes commit a disproportionate number of sexual offenses, while also disproportionately avoiding punishment, incontestable videotapes like this help the public accept that seemingly nice young men are capable of very bad things.
The Steubenville story itself is horribly familiar. Multiple-offender rapes of unconscious teens are reported with a fair amount of frequency at the high school and college levels, and those in charge often let perpetrators off the hook because it’s not easy to prove the charges when the victim has no memory of what happened.
That may all start to change, however, as more and more young people carry phones that can also shoot videotapes and rape drugs leave longer-lasting footprints. While these drugs dissipate quickly in the blood, a growing number of labs can test for drugs in a victim’s hair even several months after the crime to determine not only what type of drug was used, but also when it was ingested.
Because victims can gather their own evidence and groups like Anonymous can facilitate protests and generate news, the public has unprecedented opportunities to hold government officials accountable when they decline, unjustly, to file charges.
Rape-law reform efforts of the 1970s saw women marching to their state legislatures demanding statutory changes such as “rape-shield” laws to prevent a victim’s past sex life from being used against her at trial, and ending the exemption for marital rape. As scholars such as Stephen Schulhofer have noted, these statutory “band-aids” did little to produce more just results in court or deter sexual violence in society.
That’s because they did nothing to change law enforcement systems that retained unchecked discretion to file charges only in certain types of cases involving certain types of victims. Such unbridled discretion continues to perpetuate dangerous ideas about what “real rape” is, leading to unfair acquittals by jurors raised to believe that no matter what the law says, “real rape” is defined by the cases deemed worthy of prosecution.
Protesters in the Steubenville case took a far more effective approach to reform by avoiding the legislature altogether and taking to the Internet to mobilize people and demand justice. Through the liberated medium of cyberspace, millions were able to watch the shocking video of men laughing on videotape about the gang rape of an unconscious female teen. Among those who were reportedly involved–but face no charges–are the son of a prosecutor and a star football player who has since moved on to more athletic stardom at Ohio State University
Only two men from the “rape crew” have been charged and they face only misdemeanor offenses in juvenile court. No one has yet been charged with rape.
Outraged advocates not only found support on the Internet, they also spawned mainstream news coverage that ramped up the pressure on government officials.
In turn, more activism followed, as when the group Ultraviolet learned of the story and rented a mobile billboard to tour around Steubenville with an enormous sign demanding that Ohio’s Attorney General Mike Dewine take legal action against all the men involved. The billboard carried nearly 70,000 names of people who signed a petition demanding prosecution of the perpetrators.
The powerful public response to Steubenville marks an important moment in anti-rape activism and stands in stark contrast to the silence of established groups such as the National Organization for Women (NOW) and various anti-rape groups such as RAINN and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. None of these well-known women’s rights and anti-rape groups have said or done anything to protest the Steubenville case.
Online groups such as Anonymous will continue to gain traction on injustice in rape cases because they open up the issue to a wider audience that lacks significant status with mainstream news. By providing a place for people to come together across political and ideological lines, Anonymous can build constituencies and voting blocs to either support or criticize public officials based on their records and discretionary decision-making on issues and cases involving violence against women.
No surprise that some see this burgeoning power as a threat. One audacious columnist recently questioned whether public oversight in rape cases is good for democracy.
Writing for the Boston Globe, Cathy Young described the success of Anonymous in the Steubenville matter as a dangerous kind of vigilantism and warned the public to be more skeptical of rape allegations because she knows of a few instances where people made false reports.
Mind you, Young said nothing about being skeptical of all businessmen because of Bernie Madoff or being skeptical of all athletes because of Lance Armstrong and Manti T’eo.
Nor did she suggest being suspicious of newspaper columnists despite several scandals involving plagiarism and outright false storytelling in prestigious publications including the Washington Post and The New York Times.
Young’s near obsession with the myth of the lying rape victim is a tired tune. Our legal system has a profoundly more serious problem with police and prosecutors not dealing responsibly with rape, which is why studies from 1993 through 2011 consistently find that only 2 percent of rapists spend even one day behind bars. These data, alone, justify exactly the kind of cyber-democracy Anonymous seeks to promote.
The public and groups such as Anonymous have a right and a duty to hold the government accountable for injustice, especially when the mainstream media stays silent. With hope, protesters will continue to mount pressure on officials in the Steubenville case and if justice is still not served, the victim should consider filing a Title IX complaint with the Department of Education against the Steubenville School Department for failing to take action against the students involved, as well as a complaint against the police and prosecutors with the Department of Justice for failing to file appropriate criminal charges. Both federal agencies exist to protect against gender discrimination by government officials, an important example of which is the unjust failure to provide legal redress to victims of sexual assault.
Whether we call it vigilantism or democracy in action, activism in support of openness and accountability in police and prosecutorial decision-making is just what we need right now to get out of a do-nothing legal rut that gives perpetrators a pass while victims are retraumatized by a seemingly indifferent society.
The timing of the release of the blockbuster film “Les Miserables” is fitting: “Can you hear the people ping-pinging the songs of angry men (and women) . . . “
Wendy Murphy is an adjunct law professor at New England Law/Boston where she has taught a seminar on sexual violence for more than a decade. A lawyer and impact litigator whose work led to the issuance of new Title IX guidance, Murphy is a former prosecutor who specializes in criminal justice policy, constitutional rights and the representation of victimized women and children. Her first hardcover book, “And Justice For Some,” came out in paperback last year.
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