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.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
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This is the new front in the battle to control women’s bodies

By defining all of us as “pre-pregnant”, women are afforded all the blame – but none of the control.

For several weeks, YouTube has been reminding me to hurry up and have a baby. In a moment of guilt over all the newspapers I read online for free, I turned off my ad-blocking software and now I can’t play a simple death metal album without having to sit through 30 seconds of sensible women with long, soft hair trying to sell me pregnancy tests. I half expect one of them to tap her watch and remind me that I shouldn’t be wasting my best fertile years writing about socialism on the internet.

My partner, meanwhile, gets shown advertisements for useful software; my male housemate is offered tomato sauce, which forms 90 per cent of his diet. At first, I wondered if the gods of Google knew something I didn’t. But I suspect that the algorithm is less imaginative than I have been giving it credit for – indeed, I suspect that what Google thinks it knows about me is that I’m a woman in my late twenties, so, whatever my other interests might be, I ought to be getting myself knocked up some time soon.

The technology is new but the assumptions are ancient. Women are meant to make babies, regardless of the alternative plans we might have. In the 21st century, governments and world health authorities are similarly unimaginative about women’s lives and choices. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently published guidelines suggesting that any woman who “could get pregnant” should refrain from drinking alcohol. The phrase implies that this includes any woman who menstruates and is not on the Pill – which is, in effect, everyone, as the Pill is not a foolproof method of contraception. So all females capable of conceiving should treat themselves and be treated by the health system as “pre-pregnant” – regardless of whether they plan to get pregnant any time soon, or whether they have sex with men in the first place. Boys will be boys, after all, so women ought to take precautions: think of it as rape insurance.

The medical evidence for moderate drinking as a clear threat to pregnancy is not solidly proven, but the CDC claims that it just wants to provide the best information for women “and their partners”. That’s a chilling little addition. Shouldn’t it be enough for women to decide whether they have that second gin? Are their partners supposed to exercise control over what they do and do not drink? How? By ordering them not to go to the pub? By confiscating their money and keeping tabs on where they go?

This is the logic of domestic abuse. With more than 18,000 women murdered by their intimate partners since 2003, domestic violence is a greater threat to life and health in the US than foetal alcohol poisoning – but that appears not to matter to the CDC.

Most people with a working uterus can get pregnant and some of them don’t self-define as women. But the advice being delivered at the highest levels is clearly aimed at women and that, in itself, tells us a great deal about the reasoning behind this sort of social control. It’s all about controlling women’s bodies before, during and after pregnancy. Almost every ideological facet of our societies is geared towards that end – from product placement and public health advice to explicit laws forcing women to carry pregnancies to term and jailing them if they fail to deliver the healthy babies the state requires of them.

Men’s sexual and reproductive health is never subject to this sort of policing. In South America, where the zika virus is suspected of having caused thousands of birth defects, women are being advised not to “get pregnant”. This is couched in language that gives women all of the blame and none of the control. Just like in the US, reproductive warnings are not aimed at men – even though Brazil, El Salvador and the US are extremely religious countries, so you would think that the number of miraculous virgin births would surely have been noticed.

Men are not being advised to avoid impregnating women, because the idea of a state placing restrictions on men’s sexual behaviour, however violent or reckless, is simply outside the framework of political possibility. It is supposed to be women’s responsibility to control whether they get pregnant – but in Brazil and El Salvador, which are among the countries where zika is most rampant, women often don’t get to make any serious choice in that most intimate of matters. Because of endemic rape and sexual violence, combined with some of the strictest abortion laws in the world, women are routinely forced to give birth against their will.

El Salvador is not the only country that locks up women for having miscarriages. The spread of regressive “personhood” laws across the United States has led to many women being threatened with jail for manslaughter when they miscarry – even as attacks on abortion rights make it harder than ever for American women to choose when and how they become pregnant, especially if they are poor.

Imagine that you have a friend in her early twenties whose partner gave her a helpful list of what she should and should not eat, drink and otherwise insert into various highly personal orifices, just in case she happened to get pregnant. Imagine that this partner backed his suggestions up with the threat of physical force. Imagine that he routinely reminded your friend that her potential to create life was more important than the life she was living, denied her access to medical care and threatened to lock her up if she miscarried. You would be telling your friend to get the hell out of that abusive relationship. You would be calling around the local shelters to find her an emergency refuge. But there is no refuge for a woman when the basic apparatus of power in her country is abusive. When society puts social control above women’s autonomy, there is nowhere for them to escape.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle