Female Anger About #rapeculture:
The #Steubenville Verdict
by Rose de Fremery


This past Sunday, news of the Steubenville verdict, in which two Ohio high school football stars were found guilty of raping a 16-year-old-girl last August, broke online as I was headed home to New York from the SXSW Festival in Austin. Waiting for a connecting flight in Dallas, I saw my Twitter stream erupt in a series of breaking news alerts and miniature 140-character opinion pieces opining on the repercussions associated with the decision.

Amidst all of this, I saw female anger boiling over. Even women who I rarely see commenting about social issues online were compelled to voice their strong feelings over how Jane Doe had been treated with such a callous and profound lack of humanity (“like a toy,” as the prosecutor had said during the trial). Then, as CNN began covering the story, the news channel was roundly criticized for sympathetically focusing on how the two convicted teenage rapists, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, would fare in the future. A Change.org petition quickly arose calling on CNN to apologize for its insensitive coverage. It currently has over 270,000 signatures.

Social media’s role in the Steubenville case has itself received significant media coverage. Yes, the sickening texts, tweets and video footage (many of them screengrabbed and archived by a blogger who found herself at the center of the Steubenville firestorm shortly afterward) surrounding the rape played a role in bringing the young woman’s attackers to justice. Given the fact that she apparently had little to no memory of what happened to her, this evidence was a critical factor in filling in the blanks of what took place. But considering the extreme humiliation she likely feels knowing not only that she was raped but that (a) others in her community were joking about it in public before she even learned what happened and then (b) the world at large saw photos and videos of her violation, the existence of this evidence is very much a double-edged sword and cuts both ways. Hopefully Jane Doe can heal with the good care and support of those who love her, but she can never erase the memory or the digital trail of her rape.

In some ways, though, this is in fact nothing new. I’m an alumna of South Hadley High School in Western Massachusetts, where Irish teenager Phoebe Prince was relentlessly bullied and slut-shamed by classmates via text message and horrific Facebook posts until and even after taking her own life in January of 2010. I can tell you that the wounds in that community still not have healed three years later. The conversation there is by no means over, as no doubt will be the case for Steubenville years from now.

The men I follow on Twitter have been, for the most part, quite silent compared to their female counterparts in the wake of the Steubenville verdict. I’m not sure of their reasons for staying quiet, but this has been one of the rare moments I’ve seen my timeline so clearly divided by gender. Even in 2013, American society (and, I would argue, Internet culture) still harbors serious discomfort with female anger and this was a rare instance when I saw that dynamic playing out online, with the women basically yelling enough and the men staying out of the conversation. I did see men posting messages in support of the Steubenville verdict on Facebook a couple of days after it had been announced, perhaps taking time to weigh in with their own opinions until they felt more comfortable. I doubt these same dynamics would ever play out the same way in real life, however, where I’d argue women’s expressions of anger are even less socially acceptable than they are online (which isn’t saying much—Adria Richards was fired from her job this week for tweeting a complaint about what she viewed as brogrammer behavior at a tech conference she was attending).

What needs to happen now, in order to bring an end to #rapeculture, is a productive, open and honest dialogue—both online and offline—between women and men about how to stop rape. I think this moving letter from Huffington Post blogger Magda Pescenye to her young sons is a good example of how that dialogue can and should happen. It’s clear in the social era that it’s no longer possible for rape to live in the shadows the way it once did, which is essentially a good thing. Let’s take the logical next step and talk together about how to stop it once and for all.

Rose de Fremery is Managing Editor of The Social Media Monthly.