Note to readers: This article and its corresponding links discuss rape, victim blaming, “slut” shaming, and rape culture generally.


Image from Youth Vector
Image from Youth Vector

The disturbing events in Steubenville, Ohio have spurred some insightful reporting and analysis (collected by Lisa Wade at Sociological Images) that, one would hope, raise awareness about rape culture.  As a social scientist that studies social media, I am particularly interested in how privacy and connectivity have been framed within the context of the case. I cannot help but notice the sloppiness with which many reporters write about the “dangerous mix of alcohol, sex and social media that many teens navigate nowadays.”  Studying the role of social media in everyday life may appear as trivial or superficial: something fun or novel to study. But Steubenville shows us exactly why writers and scholars need to understand social media better.

First I want to acknowledge the wider discursive field of rape culture that Steubenville sits in and is a part of.  Many of the comments have been unthinking and callous examples of the pervasiveness of victim blaming and “slut” shaming in the United States. Rape culture is like some kind of subterranean fungus: It becomes visible in small blooms of sad and disturbing victim blaming, but the majority of the organism lies unseen underground and in the dark. Vast networks of misogyny and power fantasies connect seemingly unrelated utterances of “Those athletes had such a bright future!” And “Well that’s what you get for getting so drunk.” Rape culture goes far beyond the act of non-consensual sex. Men and women alike participate in this culture for a variety of reasons that are not immediately and presently about any particular action. As Amanda Marcotte writes:

Claiming that it’s the victim’s fault for tempting men with her drinking/sexual activity/mini-skirt means telling yourself that as long as you aren’t as “slutty” as the victim, you’ll be OK. Most importantly, in communities like Steubenville where the tide is against the victim, playing along and hating on the victim is a demonstration of loyalty to the sexist culture. It can make a woman more popular, which in turn can also make her feel more protected from rapists.

119The whole case is shot through with evidence of our augmented society. Pictures were posted to Instagram, videos were uploaded to YouTube, and the victim reportedly pieced together the night through Twitter, Facebook and text messaging. Anonymous drew national attention to the case and still remains a big part of the news story. When the story turns to the role of social media and the Internet in general, news outlets go from shallow analysis to deeply vexing misattributions of blame and power. The media defaults to what Nathan Fisk (@nwfisk) has called “the frame of ‘inescapable’ technologies.” On top of the victim blaming (but also independent of it) is a basic assumption that youth online are incapable of controlling their exposure, the boundaries of their privacy, or the subsequent social action that takes place offline. While Stuebenville goes far beyond “bullying” Nathan’s insights are still germane:

In the Internet safety arena, digital dualist frames do not simply draw distinctions between online and offline social life – they are used to blame existing social problems on the social technologies that make them visible in new ways. Bullying, predation and exposure to “inappropriate content” have been seen as problems long before the widespread adoption of the Internet and information technologies by kids, and yet all of these problems appear as “new” or, at best, made worse by information technologies.

This is really one of the biggest dangers of digital dualism and misunderstanding digitally mediated social action: national conversations about rape culture, or bullying, or just about anything are hobbled if not totally halted by inane or misguided attempts at understanding this seemingly new cyber-whatever. It’s the same old rape culture it ever was, and yet the conversation begins anew. At best, we see some careful reporting about social media being a “double-edged sword” but there is never an acknowledgment that very similar underlying social dynamics have been around for a long time. At its worst, digital dualism makes us lose sight of a problem because it appears to us as something new and unknown. Blaming the mini skirt turns into blaming some amorphous “culture of over-sharing.” Blame is shifted away from the responsible parties and is distributed across various human and nonhuman actors to the point that the perpetrator loses agency and thus guilt.

 Follow David on Twitter: @Da_Banks