Steubenville Rape Trial: Social Media Exposes Victim to Further Hate and Violence


An unfortunate by-product of many rape prosecutions is what is commonly referred to as the "second rape."  In addition to the financial and emotional costs that victims suffer, there is what Lee Madigan and Nancy Gamble described as "a new, more disturbing twist to rape if one becomes aware that women who report a rape are again raped by a system composed of well-intentioned people who are nevertheless blinded by the myths of centuries." These well-intentioned people-healthcare professionals, mental health personnel, police, judges, prosecutors, and others who all mean well, but often and unintentionally force the victim either to once again feel powerless or to relive the trauma.  For example, prosecutors who fail to pursue a rape case after interviewing a victim risk making her feel "even more helpless and powerless than she already feels."

While I dislike the terminology — indeed, there is only one true rape, the seriousness of which should never be diminished — we now live in a society in which survivors of sexual assault face an endless barrage of social media attacks, or what I call the "third rape." As the Steubenville rape trial has so tragically shown, easy access to information and an even easier ability to give an opinion has placed new burdens on victims of sexual violence.

USA Today has already reported on some of the positive effects that social media has had on the Steubenville rape trial, finding that text messages, photos, and videos created and distributed during and after the sexual assault incriminated the two defendants.  Such evidence may well also be used to determine whether others may be criminally prosecuted for obstruction of justice or failing to report suspected child abuse. But while social media provided key incriminatory evidence — and likewise could provide important exculpatory evidence in another case — it can also be used to engage in this "third rape."

On the same day that the two defendants were convicted, two girls in Ohio were arrested after posting threatening comments on Facebook and Twitter. One girl tweeted "You ripped my family apart, you made my cousin cry, so when I see you it’s gone be a homicide." Upon arresting these suspects, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said, "These arrests, I hope, will end the harassment of the victim ... We are simply not going to tolerate this. Enough is enough." Threats of homicide, no matter their form, can and should be prosecuted.

However, while threats of violence are impermissible in our society, unpopular speech remains free. Incredibly, BuzzFeed, hardly known for its investigative reporting, has pulled together a list of "23 People Who Think The Steubenville Rape Victim Is To Blame." Some of the social media comments on that list include include: "I honestly feel sorry for the boys in that Steubenville Trial. That whore was asking for it," "How can u press charges against som1 just bcuz your child was willngly behaving like a drunk whore?? Lives hav been destroyed," "Lol @ this Ohio high school 'rape'. This b*tch was clearly drunk and a slut. Own up to your mistakes, b*tch," and "That’s a shame. The b*tch got what she deserved." 

Such statements not only further rape culture, but continue where the "second rape" left off. Each tweet and Facebook post reintroduce the feelings of violation and trauma. And while such hate is always horrible, it is especially harmful in this moment. 

Indeed, as Time has reported, "The social and emotional support that [the victim] does or does not receive now, experts say, could help determine whether she will be resilient or suffer lasting psychological damage." Survivors of sexual assault can develop post-traumatic stress disorder, rape trauma syndrome, or some other aggregate collection of mental and emotional harms. At the very least, "social rejection and victim-blaming can potentially cancel out the resilience provided by support." According to Edna Foa, a professor of clinical psychology in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania and a leading expert on trauma, "People saying things like 'Get over it' or 'Maybe you had something to do with it' — that we find to be a really negative predictor [of recovery]."

And so, while there will always be those who blame the victim and call survivors of rape "whores," "bitches," or "sluts," we must be vigilant as a society and reject this "third rape" through social media. Such hate may be protected as free speech, but that does not mean that we should be a silent majority. If we ever hope to seriously confront a culture of sexual violence, we must speak up for what is right and support those most vulnerable in our society.