The shocking story of the alleged sexual assault on an intoxicated 16-year-old girl at a party in Steubenville, Ohio, has mobilized activists who see it as an example of a misogynist, rape-enabling culture. The details of the case are troubling and repugnant. But the activist backlash has its own ugly aspects that show the dark side of zealotry for a noble cause.
Two high school football stars have been charged in the attack, in which the girl was apparently stripped and molested while unconscious or near-unconscious while other teens looked on. The day after the party, images and messages related to the incident showed up on the Internet.
The case was thrust into the national spotlight after crime blogger Alexandria Goddard began to criticize the authorities’ inadequate response and an online activist group known as Anonymous took up the cause. Goddard and Anonymous exposed some disturbing social media material, including a 12-minute video of a football team member making nasty jokes about the “dead girl,” apparently during or shortly after the assaults.
Some people in the football-idolizing small town sided with the boys and faulted the girl. The head coach testified as a character witness for the defendants and did not discipline players who posted offensive messages and photos.
Such attitudes, rooted partly in sexism (boys will be boys, so it’s up to girls to avoid compromising situations) and partly in athlete worship, must be confronted. Whether or not there were legal grounds to charge any other boys, public shaming is a fitting punishment for those who flaunt their lack of human decency.
But public shaming can turn into a lynch-mob mentality. The crusading websites have publicized uncorroborated claims about wrongdoing and possible crimes by other players. At one point, Anonymous hijacked the email of a football team supporter; the activists assert that his messages contain “possible child porn” and that he may have paid players to assault girls and take pictures. The proof? His e-mail includes a photo of a young woman supposedly resembling Savannah Dietrich, a high school student who recently went public about being assaulted by two lacrosse players while passed out at a party (in Louisville, Ky., 350 miles from Steubenville — not Louisville, Ohio, as Anonymous claims).
Online vigilantism can become the mirror image of online sexual misconduct — as irresponsible and as damaging. Likewise, the well-intentioned feminist crusade against rape can become as sexist as traditional victim-blaming, with the tables turned and males presumed guilty.
At the Steubenville rallies, many women shared their experiences of sexual victimization and their fear of being disbelieved and stigmatized. These are wrenching stories. But in such an atmosphere, the zeal to support women makes it impossible to question any claim. A woman who had unwanted sex because she lacked the nerve to say no or because her judgment was impaired by alcohol may get as much sympathy as someone who was physically forced or assaulted while incapacitated. The very idea of false charges seems blasphemous.
Yet there are known cases in which the very passions generated by such rallies led to hoaxes. In 2000 at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, a student’s report of being assaulted near an anti-rape protest turned out to be a fabrication. At a Take Back the Night event in Princeton in 1989, a young woman gave a shattering account of being brutally raped by a fellow student and watching him go free with a one-year suspension. After the authorities denied that she had ever reported a rape and the alleged assailant brought a sexual harassment complaint, the woman admitted she had made up the story while caught up in the rally’s emotion.
While anti-rape crusaders deny anti-male bias, they can take a startlingly cavalier view of false charges (sometimes even suggesting that wrongly accused men can benefit from the experience). And there is other evidence that the battle against “the rape culture” can degenerate into a hate culture. At a Steubenville rally on Jan. 5, a speaker bragged about threatening her 9-year-old son with sexual mutilation and slow death if he ever committed rape. When a pro-woman event encourages such vicious emotional abuse of a male child, a good cause has gone badly wrong.