The Steubenville trial is over, but what drove a group of teenagers to “live-blog” a rape?

For many people, the internet doesn’t just confirm your existence: it is your existence.

When the high school American football players Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond were arrested on suspicion of rape in Steubenville, Ohio, last August, the international media barely reacted. Locally, however, what happened on the evening of 11 August last year and early the next morning was all anyone could talk about. That night, a “rape crew” of local footballers allegedly dragged a drunk and unconscious 16-year-old girl from party to party while assaulting and urinating on her.

“Jane Doe” awoke the next day with no memory of those events. There were rumours that photographs existed of the assault and the level of gossip and conjecture prompted the crime blogger Alexandria Goddard to undertake some internet sleuthing. What she found has disgusted the world: the documentation of a horrific crime by its perpetrators and their friends, posted on the internet for anyone to see.

“The case that social media won”, the headlines proclaimed, after Mays and Richmond were handed guilty verdicts on 17 March. The media love a good Twitter hook – how things play out online is an angle that fascinates us as we try to come to terms with the technological mediation of our lives. But there was more to it. Talk of a cover-up or conspiracy is seductive. However, in this instance, it was the hero worship of the local football team – now believed by most people in Steubenville to be an overblown and destructive force in the town – that bred a culture of silence surrounding the rape. Many of the teenagers who were present that night refused to talk to the police and the victim found herself alienated from her classmates, threatened, disparaged online and under immense pressure to retract the allegations.

That a survivor of a sexual assault should be subjected to public shaming and mockery is sadly unsurprising; victim-blaming is a common occurrence in societies that excuse and normalise rape. Doe’s clothing, her inebriated state, her previous sexual conduct and her decision to go to the party alone were all used as “evidence” to suggest that what had happened was not rape.

The now-infamous Instagram photograph that Goddard uncovered told another story. It showed Doe unconscious, being dangled like an animal by two men holding her by her arms and legs. Since the convictions, we have learned that another photograph was taken using a mobile phone, this time showing the young woman lying naked on the floor at the party with the semen of one of the defendants on her chest. Perhaps most heartbreaking in all the evidence was the text message that Doe sent to a friend: “I wasn’t being a slut. They were taking advantage of me.” As though, looking at those pictures, you could imagine it being any other way.

More disturbing still was the knowledge that these photographs were taken at all – and the lack of shame or remorse in taking them. In the tweets and texts that surfaced, thanks to the work of Goddard and the hacker collective Anonymous, the defendants and their classmates repeatedly used the word “rape” and referred to the victim as “dead” and “sloppy”. A video has emerged in which partygoers laugh about what happened. That the young men knew the nature of their crime and could even name it yet still felt it acceptable to boast about it on the internet was the worst aspect of the case.

Anonymous claimed that its decision to publicise potential evidence was motivated by a commitment to truth and justice, but there is another possible narrative, which reflects the preferential position in the social hierarchy given to high school athletes, the popularity contests that are so dominated by egotism and machismo. Mays and Richmond may have believed themselves above the law but the computer geeks are now the ones with the power. In other words, jocks may win at sports but they will never win on the internet.

These young men and their classmates are not the first to take the decision to “live-blog” a rape and they will probably not be the last. Their actions have exposed the darker side of the sense of male entitlement that has been fostered by a whole town. They are rape culture writ large.

Internet posts, photographs and text messages made up the bulk of the evidence, so understandably the news coverage has focused on social media as the trial’s driving force. Yet to describe it as a “trial by internet” that “unfolded online” is to misunderstand the ways in which young people have come to use technology and how they perceive it. The texts and tweets were not separate from the sex crime but an extension of it. They were the crime itself.

Rather than seeing the web as a witness to their lives, standing outside the action, as many of the older generation would, younger people consider it a component of their lived experience. The internet doesn’t just confirm your existence: it is your existence. This goes some way towards explaining the teenagers’ lack of understanding as far as the permanence and public nature of the Steubenville social media updates are concerned; they were intended to be “of the moment”. Indeed, they are that moment.

At times, the internet, rather than being accessible to everyone, can instinctively feel personal. It may look as though such posts come from a need to disseminate, but the act of “sharing” is a subjective one that sends a highly individualistic message: “Here is me, doing this, now.” It is a statement of agency. Doe did not have that luxury, because those men destroyed it. While those around her snapped away and pinged their tweets out into the ether, she was nowhere. Her voice was muffled.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is one half of the Vagenda Magazine. She blogs for the New Statesman at The V Spot. 

The town of Steubenville in Ohio. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog and is co-author of The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media.

This article first appeared in the 25 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After God

Photo: Getty
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The beggar used to be friendly – now he was ranting at everyone

What was I doing, dismissing him with maximal curtness – and not caring?

The first beggar was walking but still wretched. Probably in his early twenties, clearly ravaged by more than just alcohol, he made a beeline for me, as if he had an appointment. He was not to know that I was in a mood from hell, though the look on my face would have told him, if he’d been in any kind of state to register it.

“Excuse me, have you got 10p for…”

“No.” And I walked on.

Why? I am almost invariably a soft touch for this kind of thing. But as I said, I was in the foulest of tempers.

Also, this was East Finchley. For those who do not know London, East Finchley is a northern suburb, which at one end hosts the wealthiest street in the country – the Bishops Avenue, where multimillionaires tear down houses and erect new ones even uglier than those they have replaced – and at the other end a typically seedy, dull collection of terraced houses.

The main supermarket is Budgens, a name so ungainly that it could only have belonged to a real person, either too proud or unimaginative to think of something else.

But what, I asked myself, was someone this wretched doing in East Finchley? And what was I doing, dismissing him with maximal curtness – and not caring?

The second beggar, further up the street, I met the next day: much older and clearly mad, rather than chemically poisoned. He asked how I was doing.

“Not so well, as it happens,” I replied.

“Would you like me to say a prayer for you?”

“Why not?” I said, and he placed a clenched fist to my forehead and made a brief incantation, something like an exorcism, and then kissed the large white plastic crucifix hanging from his neck.

I half-expected to feel a jolt of faith, some kind of divine restructuring. This time I gave him money: a pound coin and a 50p coin. But then later I thought: why didn’t I give him more? I’d been doing some tidying earlier and had retrieved a heavy pocketful of change; I could have given him a generous handful.

The third beggar was in Shepherd’s Bush. I knew him from the days when I lived there: a skinny, middle-aged guy who would occasionally stop and rant in a friendly way at me, just sane enough not to ignore. That was ten years ago. Now he was raging at everyone, accusing the teenagers queueing in the kebab shop of being batty boys and saying “bloodclaat” a lot. (Batty boy: homosexual. Bloodclaat: tampon.)

The people he was addressing knew perfectly well what he was saying. They shrugged it off. I got on the bus; so did he, and the whole bus knew about it. There was nothing friendly in him now, and I wondered through which hole in the increasingly threadbare welfare safety net he had been allowed to slip.

That’s it, I thought. I’m getting out of London, its pampered core oblivious to the surrounding anguish. The world in a nutshell. Luckily, my great friend S— had asked if I could cat-sit for her in Brighton. I know her cat, and I know Brighton. Also, I know about a dozen people there who I keep meaning to see, so why not? London was making me ill, and possibly a bad person. So S— invited me down a couple of days before she was due to go on her holidays, and I took the first train I could.

And now I find myself sitting on a sunlounger in a tiny backyard, in a charming house just abutting the North Laine, and the mood is palpably different to the capital’s. It is like a city ought to be: compact, diverse and funky. There is no reek of High Capitalism. It is healthily decadent. It would appear to be full of people who have rejected the idea of London. It still has an enormous number of beggars, but more people were dropping money for them than I ever saw do so in W1, W12 or N2.

So this is what it’s like to fall out of love with the city of one’s birth. What most surprised me was the speed and force with which it happened. I’d made my mind up over a nice lunch that my friend N— was buying me, to cheer me up.

“Don’t you have to stay in London? You know, for book launches and things like that?”

“I don’t go to fucking book launches any more,” I said. I was taken aback by the vigour of my reply. I’m only here for ten days but I have plenty of people to see and dozens of memories, all good, to bump into. I’m already feeling better. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem