On Aug. 12, 2012 after a Steubenville, Ohio pre-season football party, a young girl was taken from house to house and sexually assaulted by the boys who said they would take care of her. Sexual assault is not unusual; the U.S. Department of Justice estimates that approximately one in six college-aged women are assaulted annually. The reason so few of these assaults are reported is that the cases frequently come to down to the dehumanizing, “he said, she said” paradigm that was even, on some networks, the framing device of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony at Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings.
What makes this story unusual is that it wasn’t a case of he said/she said. It was a case of “she said/he said/he said/he said/he said... ” The assault was essentially live tweeted by the 17-year-old guys who anticipated it, observed it, and then recounted it again after the fact until the assault had gone viral around the town of Steubenville.
A few days later, when the police seized cellphones from key suspects on the high school football field, they had 400,000 text messages to sift through. Suddenly the reality of teens with cellphones who send, on average, 128 texts a day intersected with a potential crime. It seemed like in the online realm, where bullying reigns, where it's easy to be virtually cruel, carnal and vitriolic, that somewhere they forgot that they were now describing an actual crime being committed on a real human being.
The trove of documentation and evidence gives us a window into rape culture unlike anything we have ever had. Everyone involved had a cellphone. What seemed like innocent plans for a “banger” party night blared out on Twitter and Facebook among a chosen clique of students quickly devolved into bragging, slut-shaming, victim-blaming tweets, comments and posts. The rape was played out as a big joke and those who were not in the room during the assault shared photographs, made videos joking about it, and disseminated the news and jokes as fast and far as they could. The teens thought Twitter was private, and they thought rape was funny. Nearly everyone participating online was reinforcing the norm that girls are “sloppy” “bitches” and “hoes” and that “training” (slang for gang-rape) is the logical outcome for girls who go out with football players. And what they deserve.
We live in a culture where the online discourse is course, crude and violent, where there is no line below which trolls will not cross. Usually these trolls are anonymous, people the victim doesn’t know. Does the freedom of the screen enable a desensitization to actual violence? Why was the first instinct to pick up a phone to document, share or capture a sexual assault or act of violence, and not to interrupt it?
Once the story broke, the adults joined in on the local talk radio and chat forums, piling on with opinions and victim-blaming, routinely calling the teen victim “a whore.” If women are routinely discussed in subhuman terms, how do they learn to see one who is unconscious as befitting humane treatment? Those in the room during the sexual assault took photos and laughed. No one helped the victim. They documented to expand their social currency, in a culture that encourages toxic masculinity and real world violence.
As I have screened the documentary Roll Red Roll across the country at film festivals over the last year, some in the audience are unwilling to consider that our sons, our brothers or otherwise “good kids” could be so devoid of empathy. But if online violence and bullying runs rampant, doesn’t it blur the understanding of the impact of real-world violence? When everything is a big joke, and the teachers, coaches and parents are not modeling alternative behaviors, how do kids understand, really understand, that rape isn’t something to “get away with,” but something truly wrong that irrevocably changes both the perpetrator and the victim?
Thanks in large part to this trove of documentation, convictions were handed down. But the text messages that were read out in the court room, flippantly describing a rape in real time, shouldn’t have just sparked looks of shock and disgust on parents’ faces, they need to spark a national reckoning.
How we talk about women, people of color, or the LBGTQ community online matters. Dehumanizing language matters. Because our brains are hard-wired not to hurt other humans. To hurt them we must dehumanize them first. How do we start? We classify them as less-than. And we start on Twitter.