In sentencing two high school football players to juvenile jail terms for raping a drunken girl, Judge Thomas Lipps issued a cautionary note to children and parents, urging them to reconsider “how you record things on the social media so prevalent today.”
Certainly the countless texts, photos and tweets, not to mention a YouTube video that referred to the assault in the crudest terms, were revolting — a means not only of intimidating the 16-year-old victim, but also of victimizing her over and over again.
But they also made the convictions possible and shed light on a type of case that often stays in the shadows. And, experts say, the social media component of the Steubenville case might help educate young people who remain ignorant about sexual assault.
“What happens in basements and at drunken parties used to stay there,” said Ric Simmons, professor at the Ohio State Moritz College of Law. But the huge role that social media played, and the vast amount of evidence it created, he said, “brings these things out into the open. People are starting to talk about it, and people are starting to realize how the law treats this kind of behavior.”
This case, in which Trent Mays and Ma’Lik Richmond were found guilty of raping their victim twice with their hands, attracted attention not only because of the crime’s callousness, but also the manner in which it was documented.
Mays tweeted a photo of the girl naked and passed out. A friend made a video of one of the assaults, then deleted it. That YouTube video showed a group of friends joking about it.
But perhaps nothing speaks to the social media component as much as the way the victim herself gradually learned the details the next day: via text exchanges, forwarded photos, even watching the video.
“OMG please tell me this isn’t [expletive] true,” the girl texted a male friend.
“Imagine how horrible for the victim, waking up and hearing about what happened via text and Twitter, and then how quickly it all spread, through the school and the community,” said Stephen Balkam, CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute. “… We’re talking about a reverberation that will last, frankly, the rest of her life.”
And yet, said Balkam, “the social media aspect of this case is truly a double-edged sword. The video, the tweets, the texts — they provided this extraordinary evidence trail that you couldn’t run away from. … Without it, do you think the case would have been brought?”
He plans to use the case in events for kids and their parents about staying safe online. “It used to be that we tried to protect kids from accessing porn online,” he said. “Now, kids themselves are creating the very content that we were trying to keep them away from.”
Educators and counselors say they are saddened, though not totally shocked, that some of the teens were unaware of what constitutes a sex crime. Evan Westlake, who took the video of the rape, testified: “It wasn’t violent. I didn’t know exactly what rape was. I always pictured it was someone forcing themselves on someone.”
A sexuality educator in New York said this provides a key opportunity. “Clearly we have boys and girls who haven’t had an education in sexual assault,” said Kirsten deFur. “We need to teach them, for example, that consent is crucial at every step. And that if someone is drunk or unconscious, that person is unable to give consent.”
Another disturbing aspect, to many, is the extent to which peer pressure appears to have affected the teens’ responsibility as bystanders — either actual or virtual. Prosecutors are continuing to investigate people — teens, adults, coaches — who may have failed to report a crime.
Teenagers interviewed by the Associated Press in several cities said they hoped they would have the strength to report their friends, but weren’t sure they would. “I wouldn’t know whom to report to,” said Jasmine Flores, 18, a high school junior in Madison, Wis.
She said many teenagers are reluctant to be tattletales: “If you are that person’s friend, you don’t want to get that person in trouble.”
Flores, though, is certain about one thing: What the Steubenville defendants did was terribly wrong. “I didn’t think people were capable of something like that,” she said. And that went for the online sharing, as well.
“They think they’re anonymous,” Flores said. “Or they’re not even thinking. It’s ‘Oh, everybody needs to know about what we’re doing. We’re so cool.’ ”
Julian Juarez, 16, of El Paso, Texas, said he uses Facebook “every day, every hour.” And he often encounters unseemly content on social media. “Every day I see things that are inappropriate, like people that post pictures of themselves almost naked,” he said. “They just want to be cool, I guess.”
Wanting to be cool, wanting to be liked, mixed with heavy doses of alcohol: That’s what struck Dana Edell, who heads SPARK, a group seeking to prevent the sexualization of girls, when she watched the YouTube video. “All those boys were egging each other on, trying to make each other laugh,” she said.
Edell argues that what happened in Steubenville occurs across the country. “What made this case unique is how it was documented,” she said.
And so, as much as it’s horrifying to speak of a silver lining, Edell is hoping the case has one.
“I hope it’s really raising awareness of how dangerous what these boys did was, and all the other teenagers — including girls — who stood by and did nothing,” she said. “The fact that there was confusion about whether what they were doing is right or wrong is tragic. And so the fact that the boys were convicted of rape and will serve time is hopefully a wake-up call. It’s unfortunate that it took a tragedy to wake us up. But it’s become a national conversation.”
A conversation in which, at least at the trial, the victim’s mother seemed to have, memorably, the last word.
“You were your own accuser,” she said, “through the social media that you chose to publish your criminal conduct on.”