The XX Factor

Rape, Lawsuits, Anonymous Leaks: What’s Going On in Steubenville, Ohio?

A rape case involving the high school football team has divided Steubenville, Ohio, and raised questions about online vigilante justice.

Photo by Rick Gershon/Getty Images

Brought to national attention last month by an excellent piece in the New York Times, the unfolding rape case in Steubenville, Ohio is a mess. At first, it seemed like a straightforward instance of acquaintance rape, perhaps a little more brutal than most but sadly of the kind that happens on a daily basis in this country: Two young men, both on the Steubenville High School football team, discovered an extremely drunk 16-year-old girl at a party and allegedly carried her around with them all night as their own personal rape toy, repeatedly sexually assaulting her. The alleged rapists, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, have been charged and are awaiting trial. In the meantime, the case has grown complex, with allegations of cover-ups and corruption and hacktivist group Anonymous now getting involved. I have thoughts on the Anonymous role, but first, here’s a rundown of where the story stands now. 

The alleged crime: Witnesses, some also on the football team, testified at a probable cause hearing that Mays and Richmond spent most of the night of Aug. 11 standing over, directing, transporting, and otherwise controlling the blacked-out drunk victim, who they carried to three separate parties. According to the New York Times, witnesses claim that Mays and Richmond tried to coerce the victim into oral sex, exposed her naked body as a joke to other partygoers, penetrated her digitally, and exposed themselves to her. Other Steubenville students on Twitter and YouTube say they witnessed even worse violations, including urinating on the victim and anal rape, though these are not official statements. (And sadly, these students were more delighted than upset by what they allegedly saw.) While it appears that multiple students taped and photographed the alleged assault, officials claim they haven’t been able to turn up much in the way of evidence, because the evidence has been deleted. 

The local reaction: Even though, as the New York Times discovered, many members of the community and especially the football coach have been extremely defensive about the alleged rape and fallout, at least one former Steubenville resident decided to speak up. Alexandria Goddard has used her crime blog Prinnified to air the dissenting local opinion that this case is just another example of how the special status of the football program protects players from having to take full responsibility for their actions. Of particular outrage to Goddard is the fact that many other players besides Mays and Richmond appeared to have participated in the alleged assault to some extent, taking pictures and videos, but aren’t facing any legal repercussions. Early to cover the case, Goddard has backed this claim up by posting screenshots of now-deleted photos and videos of the night. She was sued for defamation by student Cody Saltsman, who left an ugly online history celebrating the alleged assault, including a photo on Instagram of the alleged victim being tossed about by her alleged assailants. The case was dismissed with prejudice in late December, and Saltsman publicly apologized to the victim and her family for his online actions.

Anonymous gets involved: Convinced that the case isn’t being taken seriously enough by the community or the justice system, online activists under the banner of Anonymous have now started a local leaks page to release information gathered on people they believe are involved in covering up the full extent of the alleged assault. They’ve organized “Operation Roll Red Roll” to hack the private information of people they think have been involved in the crime and/or what they deem to be the cover-up, and started dumping incriminating info online Jan. 1. They’ve also organized at least one protest demanding that the football coach lose his job.

The Atlantic Wire has a good rundown of the various Anonymous accusations and leaks, including very serious allegations about extensive justice system corruption and a 12 minute video of a Steubenville student who claims to have witnessed some of the assault and takes extreme pleasure in the alleged rape, laughing about how the victim appeared “dead,” and asserting that the victim has been anally raped. At one point, the student scolds another young man for checking up on the victim, which suggests very strongly that this video was taking place during or right after the alleged assault.

Anonymous has been vital in getting out at least some of the evidence of the assault to the media. As the group shows no signs of slowing down the hacking, this is a story that could very well develop further. But the role Anonymous now plays in this case is certainly hard to reconcile, morally.

As some initial gleeful Twitter responses from students to the alleged rape demonstrate, one reason rape continues is that communities not only don’t hold perpetrators responsible, but close ranks to defend or even celebrate them. By stepping in and holding people accountable, Anonymous stands a very good chance of taking action that actually does something to stop rape. But: This type of online vigilante justice is potentially invading the privacy of or defaming innocent Steubenville residents, and even if everything published is true, there are very serious legal limits to the Anonymous strategy. Not all of the leaked allegations are attached to Twitter or YouTube accounts—many of the most serious cover-up claims, which we won’t reprint here, are at this point only rumor. The allegations will infuriate you, but they don’t rise to the level of real evidence that can be used to truly hold responsible those who participate in sex crimes.