The (Sad) Upside to Rapists Posting on Facebook

Photo: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images

A week ago, Chicago prosecutors announced that they will try three teenage boys as adults in the December aggravated sexual assault of a 12-year-old girl. At the heart of their case, the Chicago Sun-Times reported, is a video of the rape posted to Facebook by suspect Scandale Fritz, 16, in which the victim can be heard asking the boys to stop as they flash a gun and shout gang slogans. “Kenneth Brown, 15 and Justin Applewhite, 16, then sexually assaulted the girl while Fritz videotaped the rape,” the Sun-Times wrote. “Fritz was identified in the video because at one point he turned the camera towards his face.”

If this account of brazen social-media bragging is inducing flashbacks, you’re not alone. Noting the similarity to the Steubenville and Rehtaeh Parsons cases, Salon declared Facebook rape posts “a horrifying new trend” that adds insult to the injury survivors face. “Yet again, it wasn’t enough to just do something awful,” Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote. “It had to be documented; it had to become a trophy to be shown off.”

The ordeal of reporting one’s rape is often compared to “being raped again” and Facebook-shared cases horrify for similar reasons, forcing the survivor to relive the violation before a growing audience. The silver lining, if one can call it that, is that it usually leads to justice being served. Rehtaeh Parsons’s parents believe she would not have committed suicide if she had only been raped once, in private, but nor would her case have been reopened after Anonymous’s intervention. The trail of digital evidence surrounding these crimes helps prosecutors build cases (as it has in non-sexual crimes) and — maybe more important — lays bare the power dynamics of rape. These dynamics predate Facebook and are at play in attacks that go un-Instagrammed, but are often clouded by judgments about teenage drinking, rowdy boys, and regretful sluts.

When Steubenville prosecutors read the text messages obtained in the investigation, the Internet lynch-mob character assassination fell away, and two stark figures emerged. On one side, a teenage boy, confident that he would not be held accountable for the way he behaved toward a girl: “[Coach] Saccoccia was joking about it so I’m not that worried.” On the other, a teenage girl, shocked that others had stood by while she was treated like an object: “You couldn’t have told them to stop or anything?”

The sense of entitlement that allowed Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays not to care about their victim’s capacity to consent is the same entitlement that allowed them to act without concern for her privacy. Delivering a guilty verdict, Steubenville judge Thomas Lipps urged teenagers to think more carefully about how they use social media, and when Mays apologized to the victim after the guilty verdict was read, he said “no pictures should have been sent around, let alone have been taken” — not “you shouldn’t have been raped.” It was insufficient, as far as apologies go, but it suggests the pictures aren’t so much a distinct abuse as the purest expression of the original one.

If the four young men who allegedly raped Rehtaeh Parsons while she was vomiting vodka cared enough to consider how sending around photos would humiliate her, they wouldn’t have committed the photographed act in the first place. The existence of a video in the Chicago case suggests the victim was a means to an end, proof of the boys’ ability and willingness to dominate another person (even someone as defenseless as a 12-year-old). These grim documentaries affirm that sexual assault is a tool for control and power, not an unfortunate imbalance of desire that leaves once-pure victims defiled. In the case of rape, the injury is the insult.

It’s odd that the callous (and foolish, from a criminal-justice perspective) social-media behavior present in these cases seems to incite more sympathy than the corporeal violation, but in a time when rape prosecutions threaten to devolve into he-said-she-said, photos and videos are damning proof of a motive more malicious than drunken desire. Even people who don’t selfie or sext seem to appreciate that there is no skirt so short it says, “I want you to exploit my most vulnerable moment for the entertainment of your friends.” If it helps change the conversation about rape from desire and regret to one of power and control, I hope rapists continue to embrace social media.