A frank discussion on social media, morality and rape. 

 

One of the emergent horrors of social media is the inadequacies it reveals in our culture, transmitting coded signifiers from distant strangers whom we can only interpret as types that give structure where direct experience with a person can't.

As this network of fragmentary data spreads, a feedback loop is created where types amplify themselves, offering users the relief of disembodiment, of being able to claim a self by projecting traits drawn from the communal ether. The logic of these roles is very often intimately connected to the most troubled parts of our culture, the parts that are so disturbed we had tried to go on as if they weren't there.

Earlier this month, a 17 year-old Canadian student, Rehtaeh Parsons, committed suicideafter photos of an alleged rape at a party she had attended were circulated online. The alleged rape occurred in 2011 and, according to Parsons' mother, she had fallen into a depression, which become unbearable when a photo of the night was shared among her classmates, leading to further harassment and castigation. 

 

As social media has given the means of self-publishing to everyone, the cruel dishonesties of our culture are becoming impossible to not see.

 

A horrifying number of similar stories have emerged in recent months, with a 15-year-old San Jose student committing suicide after feeling her life had been "ruined" when photos of an alleged rape at a party were posted online. In Connecticut two 18-year-old high school students were arrested for the alleged statutory rape of a local 13-year-old, after which the girl was subject to an intense period of harassment over Twitter. Most famously, a group of high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio posted pictures of their raping a fellow student to Twitter, a crime for which two of the boys were convicted last month.

"I realize I was doing wrong by drinking and partying," Ma'Lik Richmond, one of the Steubenville convicts, said in an interview with 20/20. "But I didn't rape anybody. I didn't witness a rape going on. If I had thought somebody was being raped, I would have stopped it."

As social media has given the means of self-publishing to everyone, the cruel dishonesties of our culture are becoming impossible to not see, as individual crimes are unwittingly recorded under the sheltering logic of a legal and social system that makes them possible.

The American legal system creates a mesh of obscuring rules that make it overwhelmingly difficult to prosecute rape cases, with less than half of all rapes being reported to the police and only 3 percent of rapists ever serving prison time. Worse still, 31 states in America have statutes whereby a rapist can sue his victim for custody and child visitation rights in the event that she might become pregnant.

Meanwhile, the number of untested rape kits in America has been estimated between 400,000 and 500,000. Women who are able to get rape cases to go to trial are often subject to onerous standards of what establishes consent, such as in a Connecticut case last year where a rape conviction was overturned because of the absence of "biting, kicking, scratching, screeching, groaning or gesturing" from the victim.

If young men like Ma'Lik Richmond cannot see the distinction between sex and rape, it is in large part because our legal system does not have a coherent way of distinguishing between them. If consent could be argued to have been given based on the absence of kicking and biting, then it is only natural that someone could post a picture of himself raping another person while honestly thinking it isn’t rape, or that he is a rapist.

 

These violent ruptures in morality become more visible in social media, and the intensity of victim-blaming taken up by the hectoring teens running wild into the vacuum of legal precedent can feel worse still, with one's control over identity lost to a sneering mob.

The increased visibility has a paralyzing effect in that it reveals not just isolated cases of criminal violence, but also the vastness of the problem. Social media leaves us both more self-aware and more despondent in the face of that awareness, reminding us that for all the ways we have of documenting and reporting on the details of a victim's suffering, we have no shared language for discussing its cause.

Young men like Richmond are not the anomaly, but the norm, people whose standards of sex have been weaponized from the social pressures on boys to dominate and compete with one another in everything, compounded by legal standards that consent is implicit and depersonalized.

Social media gives us a long babbling corridor of people making typecast claims about who they and their peers are, which can begin to seem like a nightmare. This is not because the claims are true, but because we know by instinct all our protestations to the contrary—I am not a slut, I did not consent, that was not sex—are likely to go unrecognized by cops, courts, and classmates.

That was just as true without Facebook and Twitter. But with social media, the depths of our cultural undoing becomes unavoidable. It is an issue we can no longer pretend isn't there. 

Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.