The sexual assault case that made the small city of Steubenville, Ohio, the center of national attention has ended in a well-deserved conviction for the two defendants. It has also shed a spotlight on some disturbing "boys will be boys" attitudes toward sex and consent that still infect our culture. But the Steubenville story and the response to it should also remind us that a noble cause, such as defending victims, can generate zealotry rife with its own potential dangers.
There is no question that the defendants Trent Mays, 17, and Ma'Lik Richmond, 16, committed sexual acts on a 16-year-old girl so severely intoxicated as to be barely conscious at times -- and that consent is not possible under such circumstances. This was supported by ample evidence, including eyewitness' statements and text messages from at least one of the young men.
The reaction to the case of many Steubenville residents who blamed the girl and sympathized with the boys -- star players on the high school football team -- points both to lingering sexism (a "loose" woman is seen as fair game) and the ugly side of athlete worship. The fact that other teenagers witnessed the acts and did not interfere -- and even took photos and videos that were disseminated online -- is equally troubling.
The verdict by Juvenile Court Judge Thomas Lipps sent a strong message that this is unacceptable conduct. In another welcome move, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine has announced an investigation targeting other teens and adults who may been involved in a cover-up.
But many of the activists who championed the victim in the online media have engaged in their own problematic conduct, which the verdict does not justify. Though they exposed real problems, they also circulated unsubstantiated claims about the victim being deliberately set up for gang rape, and about other alleged multiple assailants and accomplices.
Likewise, many feminist activists and bloggers who have made Steubenville the latest emblem of America's "rape culture" have often promoted their own brand of sexism, in which any man or boy accused of a sex crime is presumed guilty. The unfortunate truth is that -- particularly in cases involving young, reckless, intoxicated people -- the facts can be very difficult to sort out. Incapacitation clearly rules out consent; but if every person who has sex when his or her judgment is alcohol-impaired is a victim, millions of men and women alike should be behind bars. To treat only men and boys as responsible while under the influence is not only unfair to them, it's patronizing toward women and girls.
The mix of sexual politics and online vigilantism can lead to a lynch-mob mentality that gravely undermines the presumption of innocence -- a cornerstone of justice that some feminist crusaders openly scorn. A few years ago, Wendy Murphy, a former sex crimes prosecutor and law professor at the New England School of Law, declared, "I'm really tired of people suggesting that you're somehow un-American if you don't respect the presumption of innocence, because you know what that sounds like to a victim? Presumption you're a liar."
As it happens, Murphy was talking about an accusation of rape against members of the Duke University lacrosse team that was later exposed as a hoax -- after three young men spent a year fighting false charges and being stigmatized as rapists. Today, the ubiquity of social media could make such wrongful accusations even more damaging.
Thanks to the women's movement, we have seen major gains in the treatment of rape victims. Yet even in the 1970s, pioneering feminist legal scholar Vivian Berger, now a Columbia University emerita law professor, cautioned against "sacrificing legitimate rights of the accused person on the altar of Women's Liberation." It is a warning we should heed.