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Associated Press, Published March 19 2013

In Ohio case, social media a double-edged sword

NEW YORK – In sentencing two high school football players to juvenile jail terms for raping a drunken girl, Judge Thomas Lipps issued a cautionary note to children and parents, urging them to reconsider “how you record things on the social media so prevalent today.”

And certainly the countless texts, the photos and the tweets, not to mention a vile YouTube video that referred to the assault in the crudest terms, were regrettable and revolting – a means not only of intimidating the 16-year-old victim but also of victimizing her over and over again.

But they also made the convictions possible and shed light on a type of case that often stays in the shadows. And, experts say, the social media component of the Steubenville, Ohio, case may help educate young people who remain shockingly ignorant about the definition of sexual assault.

“What happens in basements and at drunken parties used to stay there,” says Ric Simmons, professor at the Ohio State Moritz College of Law. But the huge role that social media played in the Ohio case, and the vast amount of evidence it created, he says, “brings these things out into the open. People are starting to talk about it, and people are starting to realize how the law treats this kind of behavior.”

Of course, teenagers on social media is not new. Nor is the use of social media by prosecutors to gather evidence.

But the Ohio case, in which Trent Mays and Ma’Lik Richmond were found guilty of raping their victim twice with their hands, first in a car and then in a basement, attracted attention not only because of the crime’s callousness but also the shocking and equally callous manner in which it was documented.

But perhaps nothing speaks to the social media component as much as the way the victim herself gradually learned the details the next day: via text exchanges, forwarded photos, even watching the video.

And yet, says Balkam and other experts, “the social media aspect of this case is truly a double-edged sword. The video, the tweets, the texts – they provided this extraordinary evidence trail that you couldn’t run away from. They allowed activists to keep hunting for more evidence, to push prosecutors. Without it, do you think the case would have been brought?”

Of course, the most horrible crime was the rape. Educators and counselors say they are saddened, though not totally shocked, that some of the teens were unaware of what constitutes a sex crime. Evan Westlake, who took the video of the rape, testified: “It wasn’t violent. I didn’t know exactly what rape was. I always pictured it was someone forcing themselves on someone.”

A sexuality educator in New York says this provides a key opportunity. “Clearly we have boys and girls who haven’t had an education in sexual assault,” says Kirsten deFur. “We need to teach them, for example, that consent is crucial at every step. And that if someone is drunk or unconscious, that person is unable to give consent.”

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