The Maryville rape case: social media hurt Daisy Coleman - now it is helping her

Daisy Coleman is the latest in a series of girls to report that they were sexually assaulted and cyberbullied on social media. But we can't blame Twitter and Facebook for the existence of rape culture - and with #justice4daisy, they might have helped end

footprints in the snow.
Daisy Coleman was found outside her house in the snow. Photo: Getty

“My whole life since January 8, 2012, has been a long, reckless winter."

So wrote Daisy Coleman, who was the victim of a brutal sexual assault which left her for dead at 14 years old.

“I lost all faith in religion and humanity. I saw myself as ugly, inside and out . . . people encouraged me to kill myself.”

It is uniquely upsetting to hear a child describe her life this way. Coleman remains a schoolgirl, one whose family was hounded out of Maryville, Missouri, after making an accusation of sexual assault against two popular boys from powerful families. In the following months, cyber-bullying campaigns against Daisy ensued; her mother lost her job; the family home was mysteriously burnt down. Despite what happened that night apparently having been filmed on one of the boy’s iPhones, charges against both were dropped.

What is so familiar about this case? The iPhone, the arrogance, the narrative of irresponsibly drunken girls versus the sports-playing boys-being-boys from ‘good families’, the cyber-harassment, the people in high places (prosecutor Jane Hanlin in Steubenville, and Republican State Representative Rex Barnett in Maryville) who were accused of using their influence in a small town to protect the guilty. If we needed further proof that rape culture exists, this would be it.

Why would anyone film an assault unless they were so confident they would get off scot-free that even the incontrovertible truth could not touch them? That’s certainly what we wondered at Steubenville, when trophy pictures of the girl involved, carried by her wrists and ankles, were distributed around social media websites. That’s what we should wonder now, when claims abound that a boy filmed his friend sexually assaulting Daisy Coleman in Maryville. It’s especially appropriate that just prior to the alleged attack, Coleman says the Maryville boys gave her an alcoholic drink out of what they termed ‘the bitch cup’. Less than an hour later, she was discarded like a dog in the snow outside her house, completely unconscious. When her mother found her, she had frostbite.

It was like I fell into a dark abyss. No light anywhere. Just dark, dense silence -- and cold. That's all I could ever remember from that night. Apparently, I was there for not even an entire hour before they discarded me in the snow.

Waking up was a complete blur. I had to be carried into my mother's bedroom, in complete and total confusion. I was freezing and sick and bruised, my hair in icy chunks weighted against me. When my mom gave me a bath, she saw that I was hurt down in my privates.

We all knew something wasn't right. Something had gone wrong in the night.

There can be little doubt that cases like these are aggravated by the use of modern technology. The stories of teenagers Rehteah Parsons and Audrie Potts are particularly haunting. Both girls were sexually assaulted by their classmates at parties while inebriated, and subsequently endured months of relentless cyber-bullying. They both eventually killed themselves. “It’s a perfect storm of technology and hormones,” lawyer Lori Andrews, director of the Institute for Science, Law and Technology in Chicago, told Rolling Stone magazine. But the reality just isn’t as simple as that.

Steubenville and Maryville failed to take rape seriously from the outset. But the social media proof of their ambivalence towards rape culture piqued the interest of the hacktivist vigilante group whose members call themselves Anonymous. "Anonymous will not sit idly by and watch a group of young men who turn to rape as a game or sport get the pass," a computerised voice announced on a YouTube video addressing the citizens of Steubenville. Hackings followed; Twitter trends came together. Pressure was put on those who mistakenly believed they still lived in a world where such incidents could be conveniently swept under the carpet. Those who were most powerful in suppressing rape reports had underestimated the power of social media. Now, Anonymous have turned their attention to Maryville.

“Since Anonymous has gotten involved, everything has changed. #justice4Daisy has trended on the Internet, and pressure has come down hard on the authorities who thought they could hide what really happened,” wrote Daisy Coleman in her most recent article for XOJane. Without the power of such a group behind her, she would never have had the confidence to speak out – and her case against the boys who allegedly assaulted her would never have been reopened. While the rise of vigilantism should give us pause, it is clear that the social media has helped Coleman as much as it has been used to shame her. The medium itself is not to blame.

Blaming rape, its surrounding culture and the deaths of harassed young girls on the existence of the internet and social media is lazy reasoning. A bad attitude towards these crimes is persistent, undeniable and as old as the crimes themselves; the internet sometimes magnifies what’s festering in society, but it hardly ever creates it.

Ultimately, Twitter doesn’t kill people: rapists do.