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

“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.

 
Daisy Coleman was found outside her house in the snow. Photo: Getty
Holly Baxter is a freelance journalist who writes regularly for The Guardian and The New Statesman. She is also one half of The Vagenda and releases a book on the media in May 2014.
Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.