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.
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David Blunkett compares Labour membership to failed revolution “from Ukraine to Egypt”

The Labour peer and former home secretary says new members need a “meaningful political education”, and accuses unions of neglecting their “historic balance”.

There are three sorts of opposition. There’s the civil society opposition, with people campaigning in their own specific areas, people who’ve got an interest group or are delivering social enterprise or a charity. I don’t think we should underestimate that because we're going to have to hang on to it as part of the renewal of civil society.

The second is the opposition formally, within the House of Commons: those who have agreed to serve as the formal shadow ministerial teams. Because of what I’d describe as the turmoil over the last two years, they’ve either not been able to be impressive – ie. they’re trying very hard but they don't have the coherent leadership or backing to do it – or they’ve got completely different interests to what it is they’re supposed to be doing, and therefore they’re not engaged with the main task.

Then there’s the third, which is the informal opposition – Labour linked sometimes to the Lib Dems and the SNP in Parliament on the opposition benches as a whole. They’re not doing a bad job with the informal opposition. People getting on with their work on select committees, the departmental committees beginning to shape policy that they can hopefully feed to the National Executive Committee, depending on the make-up of the National Executive Committee following this year’s conference. That embryo development of coherent policy thinking will be the seed-bed for the future.

I lived through, worked through, and was integrally involved with, what happened in the early Eighties, so I know it well. And people were in despair after the ‘83 election. Although it took us a long time to pull round, we did. It’s one reason why so many people, quite rightly in my view, don't want to repeat the split of 1931 or the split of 1981.

So they are endeavouring to stay in to argue to have some vision of a better tomorrow, and to persuade those of goodwill who have joined the party – who genuinely believe in a social movement and in extra-parliamentary non-violent activity, which I respect entirely – to persuade them that they’ll only be effective if they can link up with a functioning political process at national level, and at townhall and county level as well.

In other words, to learn the lessons of what’s happened across the world recently as well as in the past, from the Ukraine to Egypt, that if the groundswell doesn’t connect to a functioning party leadership, then, with the best will in the world, it’s not going to achieve its overall goals.

How do we engage with meaningful political education within the broader Labour party and trade union movement, with the substantially increased rank-and-file membership, without being patronising – and without setting up an alternative to Momentum, which would allow Momentum to justify its existence as a party within a party?

That's the challenge of the next two years. It's not just about someone with a vision, who’s charismatic, has leadership qualities, coming forward, that in itself won’t resolve the challenge because this isn't primarily, exclusively about Jeremy Corbyn. This is about the project being entirely on the wrong trajectory.

A lot depends on what the trade unions do. They command effectively the majority on the National Executive Committee. They command the key votes at party conference. And they command the message and resources that go out on the policy or programmes. It’s not just down to personality and who wins the General Secretary of Unite; it’s what the other unions are doing to actually provide their historic balance, because they always have – until now – provided a ballast, foundation, for the Labour party, through thick and thin. And over the last two years, that historic role has diminished considerably, and they seem to just be drifting.

I don’t think anybody should expect there to be a party leadership challenge any time soon. It may be that Jeremy Corbyn might be persuaded at some point to stand down. I was against the challenge against him last year anyway, purely because there wasn't a prepared candidate, there wasn't a policy platform, and there hadn’t been a recruitment drive to back it up.

People shouldn’t expect there to be some sort of white charger out there who will bring an immediate and quick end to the pain we’re going through. I think it’s going to be a readjustment, with people coming to conclusions in the next two years that might lead the party to be in a position to fight a credible general election in 2020. I’ve every intention of laying down some good red wine and still being alive to drink it when the Labour party is elected back to power.

David Blunkett is a Labour peer and former home secretary and education secretary.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition