Outing rapists on Facebook

After hearing about recent rapes on her campus, American University student Chloe
Rubenstein (a sexual assault survivor herself) posted the following message to Facebook:

“ATTENTION WOMEN,” she wrote, before identifying two
American university students by name and calling them rapists. She went
on: “we should all be aware! Stay away at all costs. They are predators
and will show no remorse for anyone. If you have been effected by
either one of these sickos please feel free to talk to me. With enough
help we can take them down!”

I’ll say up front that Rubenstein’s story, which Amanda Hess describes
in more detail, is kind of confusing. I don’t get whether she saw an
assault in progress, or she just heard about it. I also definitely don’t condone the last line of
Rubenstein’s posting — “[t]ake them down!!” — because it seems to advocate violence against these men.

Setting aside her specific case, though, I do think the hypothetical is interesting: Let’s say you know (for sure)
the identity of a person who raped your friend. You know your school’s
sexual assault policy is terrible, and you know your friend is
unwilling to go through the additional trauma of filing charges with
police. You also know that this rapist is hanging out and going to
parties on campus, and will have many opportunities to do to other
women what he did to your friend. What would you do?

There some are compelling reasons for doing what Rubenstein did:

1. The system fails women. Again and again. Campus and law-enforcement response to sexual assault is often inadequate at best, traumatic at worst. And schools are reluctant to treat acquaintance rapes (aka the majority of
rapes) as crimes worthy of
alerting all students about. These system failures essentially give offenders license to
rape again.

2. Women already share this type of information informally — and have since long
before Facebook. Women in a particular industry warn each other about which bosses are
sexist and which coworkers are harassers. We discuss previous relationship violence we
have experienced and caution friends against dating those men. We are often each other’s best support and resource.

3. Rapists are likely to be repeat offenders.
This was Rubenstein’s primary motivation for making the Facebook posting: “I felt like
I needed to warn everyone else about these guys,” she said. The comments
at Jezebel (where Amanda’s post was reposted) are full of women’s
stories of being raped by an acquaintance who went on to rape other
women.

I believe these arguments make a strong case for alerting your friends and spreading the word in private settings, but not for making public statements accusing rapists. Facebook, though it may feel like a space for you and your closest friends, is very much a public venue, especially given its recent privacy changes and glitches. There are obviously legal considerations. In posting the accused rapists’ names to her nearly 1,000 Facebook friends, Rubenstein is jeopardizing any potential criminal investigation and reducing the chance that these men could be brought to justice.

Rubenstein eventually took the posting down:

“I don’t clear my status because I’m scared,” she wrote on
Facebook. “I clear it for legal reasons and because my message reached
968 people. If you or someone you know has been raped or sexually
assaulted and needs a safe place to talk about how they feel or what
can be done, please contact me. No Fear. No Secrets. 2010.”

Indeed, women sharing information in safe places is a key way we respond to the failure of campus policies and the justice system. But Facebook is definitely not one of those safe places.

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32 Comments

  1. cattrack2
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    Its a free country and she’s free to say what she wants. For her sake I hope she’s right because she’d be liable for slander/libel if she’s not. I certainly feel sorry for anyone who might be falsely accused but its a free country whaddya gonna do? And if she’s right maybe she helps someone avoid being raped.

  2. Comrade Kevin
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    As much as I find guidelines often needlessly restrictive, I think it might worthwhile for someone to write out what does and does not constitute a safe space.
    I don’t doubt at all Ms. Rubenstein’s story, but we live in a society where, theoretically, one is innocent before proven guilty. Moreover, rape is such an explosive allegation that it could lead to counter charges of libel and defamation of character. I don’t doubt Ms. Rubenstein’s motives, but I agree with Ann. Using Facebook to accuse others of a felony offense might be the best avenue.

  3. Comrade Kevin
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    Might NOT be, rather.

  4. supremepizza
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    Accusing someone of rape on Facebook is no different than a paper alleging someone is a rapist.
    I did read Hess’ post a couple of days ago tho, and I agree that in this case its not exactly clear if Rubinstein witnessed something or is just relaying hearsay.

  5. NapoleonInRags
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    This is a terrible idea.
    You WILL (not might) be sued for defamation of character for making such allegations.
    The headline for this post is also potentially misleading. Posting on facebook that someone is a rapist is an accusation. It is not “outing” someone unless that person has already been convicted of the crime (in which case it would probably be unnecessary but could spread awareness if the convicted rapist were free and circulating in a community that was unaware of that fact).
    A very good practical reason not to do this, in case you think that raising awareness selflessly trumps your own desire not to be litigated against,is the one noted by Ann in the original post: In the case mentioned here, this accusation, being spread to nearly 1000 people, will give defense attorneys a fool proof case for bias. They will claim that their client was convicted in the court of public opinion before they even entered the court room – and that is very, very bad for rape victims, especially given the already low conviction rates.
    So please, anyone who is thinking of doing something like this, consider the potential damage that it could do to you as well as to victims.

  6. genericjanedoe
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    I tried to find more info on this…but fizzled out while trying. Is this applicable to individuals too, or just official publications?

  7. Lissla Lissar
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    For the sake of argument, how would we define knowing “for sure” that someone is guilty?

  8. feminismforever
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    Are you asking if slander/libel laws apply to individuals? If so, yes, as long as the information is “published.” Posting on FB would certainly qualify.

  9. makomk
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    Don’t forget that whether someone’s claim is believed or not will inevitably depend on how well-liked and influential they are, so the influential will have the power to make false claims at will whereas the non-influential will have their actual rapes ignored (especially if they’re against someone more well-liked). I suspect someone from the BDSM community will probably be able to give you some idea how this all ends; I hear they have big rumour-mongering and clique problems due to the safety issues involved.

  10. MishaKitty
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    One example would obviously be if they raped YOU.
    When I posted on the Community about my rapist trying to “friend” me on Facebook one person suggested I post on his wall outing him as my rapist. I declined because unfortunately I know all too well about how people will turn on the rapist’s accuser (as it happened to me when I outed him in real life) and start harrassing them and calling them a liar and a whore. And I didn’t want to deal with that added stress so I just ignored his request and blocked him.

  11. Mithras
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    I don’t understand this part of Ann’s argument:

    Rubenstein is jeopardizing any potential criminal investigation and reducing the chance that these men could be brought to justice.

    You agree and say it would give defense attorneys a “fool proof case for bias”. Bias among whom? There are lots of cases in which the police or the District Attorney go on TV and declare that a defendant did certain criminal acts. That’s a lot more exposure from a source that more people would find credible, and that doesn’t taint a trial. The potential jurors are interviewed, and as soon as the judge finds 12 people who aren’t biased, the trial proceeds.
    A better objection, I think, is that if Rubenstein were sued for defamation, her defense would have to include claiming that her statements were true – and the only way to prove that is to put the victims on the stand, which is presumably what they wanted to avoid doing in the first place. In effect, she would be forcing them to go through the additional trauma they wanted to avoid.

  12. espvivisection
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    My biggest problem is that (a) this isn’t the first campus this has happened at (http://jezebel.com/344706/morgan-shaw+fox-is-a-piece-of-shit-rapist) and in NEITHER case was it the actual victim who took to the internet to make accusations. In both the American case and the Lewis & Clark case, other students took the power away from someone who had already been tripped of her power and made her rape a public issue WITHOUT HER PRIOR KNOWLEDGE OR CONSENT.
    In a world that systematically disempowers women in general, and victims of sexual assault and intimate partner violence in particular, how does this help those survivors take control of their lives back? How does this honor their right to make their own decisions about what has happened to them? The least we should be able to offer a survivor is control over her own outcome, her own story.

  13. Honeybee
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    THIS. By posting you actually massively reduce the chances of the person ever being punished, presumably the opposite of your intention.
    In fact you pretty much guarantee they will get away with it.

  14. Honeybee
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    I would say if it happened to you personally or you personally witnessed the rape.
    Anything else is heresay no matter how sure you are the person is telling the truth.

  15. MishaKitty
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    “WITHOUT HER PRIOR KNOWLEDGE OR CONSENT.”
    This for me is a big issue. Are they also outing the rape survivor? That’s a problem and definitely NOT okay. If I want to tell my story about who raped me that’s one thing, but other people going around telling people about me being raped, that’s another. I understand the main goal is to protect and warn other women from predators but still.

  16. supremepizza
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    Two things, 1) there’s a public safety issue to confront here; and 2) the poster (as newspapers do) should never release the name of the victim(s). So I think you can make the charge thereby trying to keep others safe, while also protecting the victim.

  17. supremepizza
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    Here’s the issue. Say, the DA chooses to call witnesses and/or other victims who’ve been raped by this guy. A savvy defense attorney will try to paint these people as “sympathy witnesses”. That is, they only came forward as witnesses because they wanted to help their friend. That’s a real issue & it could work with a jury.
    That said, its not very different than what would happen when these same friends find out about the rape in the NY Post instead of Facebook. You may have made the DA’s job a little more difficult, but you’ve also potentially saved someone from being raped.

  18. middlechild
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

    This might be a stupid question, but I ask it in interest–if you think someone is dangerous and will hurt someone else sooner than later, what IS a safe place? A school official? What is a “safe place” when you want someone investigated or dealt with in a timely manor? A residential assistant?
    Obviously…I agree with all the conflicts raised by accusing someone of rape when you have no hard proof other than your word.
    What happens when others come forward and say, “Good, I’m not alone–yes, s/he assaulted me, too”?

  19. middlechild
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    That’s what I was going to add.
    I can definitely understand the desire to spread the word (even if I was too scared or unsure to actually DO it) if I thought I saw someone being raped. On Jezebel, their post said the (alleged?) victim seemed grateful to the Facebook poster.
    I would feel the need to label the rapist b/c I anticipated he would hurt someone else sooner than later, but not the victim.

  20. attentat
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    I might be wrong, IANAL, but I think that in the US you have to prove (by “preponderance of evidence,” ie, 51% certainty) that the person who slandered you KNEW that what they said was false.

  21. misssquirrelygirl
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

    But in a world were most date rapists “get away with it” are we really telling rape victims that they have NO recourse at all?

  22. lindgren51
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    In this case it sounds to me like you have to fight fire with fire.

  23. Anonymous
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

    One of the aspects of libel law that is the reverse of criminal law is that you are guilty (of the libel or slander) until proven innocent. That is, the onus/burden of proof is the other way around from criminal justice: it’s on the defendant instead of the plaintiff. That means if the rapists don’t get charged, or if they are charged but cleared, no matter how many women they have raped, if these women won’t come forward, or do but don’t get vindicated, technically whoever accuses them is guilty of libel. This is probably because libel itself is considered an accusation and the punishment is the destruction of someone’s reputation, with ensuing material damages. In other words: it could end up costing the women who posted this quite a lot.

  24. Laurenms
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

    I’ve really appreciated reading the commentary on this situation. My university has struggled in the last year with several VERY prominent campus men who have assaulted a few women on campus. Several of us involved with sexual assault prevention/education/awareness on campus have considered finding some way to ‘out’ them as perps, but haven’t really found a good way to do it that is tactful. I struggle because I would LOOOVVVEE to out these guys to the public because I know how big their reach is and how much influence they have on campus. However, for me, it isn’t worth the backlash we (the activists and the survivors) would face for openly scorning these very well-know, well-liked, and well-respected men. It’s been tricky and disappointing. Universities don’t deal with assault well at all, but I haven’t yet figured out how students can change that.

  25. allegra
    Posted May 8, 2010 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    So … what does constitute a safe space for this? There pretty much isn’t one. The only way you’d be able to do anything in this situation is verbally, telling (mostly) people you already trusted the rapist’s identity, which would be little help to potential victims. As much as I’m uncomfortable with vigilante justice, the rate at which rape goes unpunished is absurdly high, and that probably won’t change until we have an entire sea change in our sexual culture.
    I still do think it’s important, though, for victims to press charges. At least you can scare the guy. I of course wouldn’t volunteer anyone, and I can’t say for sure if I would do so myself, depending on the situation, since I’ve never been a victim, but I think I would try my damndest. Of course, I can just imagine all kinds of horrible scenarios: I’d be drunk, etc., which would ruin my “innocence” right there. It’s too bad that we instill in women that the moment they’re doing something “morally” naughty (though, ahem, perfectly legal) like drinking, they deserve whatever happens to them.

  26. allegra
    Posted May 8, 2010 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    Do we know that the other women had not verbally OKed this?

  27. GREGORYABUTLER10031
    Posted May 8, 2010 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    Let’s not let the fear of a lawsuit scare folks out of using an effective technique to isolate and identify rapists.
    Mass circulation newspapers – which are read by hundreds of thousands of people – accuse folks of crimes All The Time, and they don’t get sued.
    Granted they use words like “alleged”, or they put quotation marks around “rapist”, but it amounts to the same thing.
    Remember, in the eyes of the judicial system you are innocent until proven guilty – the court of public opinion is in no way bound by that constitutional requirement.
    There is no reason in the world why folks shouldn’t out rapists on facebook or twitter or myspace or on a blog or wherever else – if you want to be safe, you can use words like “alleged” or put quotation marks around “rapist”, but frankly, somebody needs to sound the alarm.

  28. bubblejet
    Posted May 8, 2010 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

    This reminds me of the Rape List at Brown University 20 years ago:
    http://www.browndailyherald.com/2.12258/rape-list-serving-the-brown-community-since-1991-1.1684598
    Personally I have mixed feelings on the subject. As a current Brown student, I know I definitely feel safer because of programs and policies that were started in response to the list.
    I also went to a private all-women’s college where it only took a simple anonymous form to have non-students banned from entering the campus. During orientation, the campus police urged us to add all our ex-boyfriends to the list “just in case”. I didn’t think it was a fair policy, but I knew a lot of students who felt much safer because of it.

  29. bartelbe
    Posted May 10, 2010 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    Americans and vigilante justice. Rape and sexual assault are criminal matter. Which should be dealt with by a criminal court, not by universities and certainly not by Facebook. Can you not see the danger in this? I know that in the land of feminists no false accusations are ever made and women are all saints that would never use an accusation to get back at a man or take revenge. In the real world this does happen.
    If men face false accusations through the legal system, with the risk of an innocent man going to jail, not to mention perjury charges for a false accuser. How many false accusations would be made to university authorities or through Facebook?
    One last pleasant thought to leave you with. If this trend continues, there will be someone accused of rape through social networking who will be driven to suicide or attacked. In that case that person’s blood will be on the hands of all the people who think that outing people on facebook is a good idea. Because of the danger of witch hunts and mob justice these matters should be left to the courts. If you don’t get that there is something seriously wrong with you.

  30. aletheia_shortwave
    Posted May 12, 2010 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    I’m really not sure I understand why fear of legal repercussions justifies not discussing the event publicly. Specifically, Ann, you say,
    In posting the accused rapists’ names to her nearly 1,000 Facebook friends, Rubenstein is jeopardizing any potential criminal investigation and reducing the chance that these men could be brought to justice.
    Correct me if I’m wrong, but the truth of a claim is a defense against accusations of slander. In this case, we have women as a whole whose community, despite great strides made (by forums like this website!), has been fragmented by patriarchy. Silencing is an integral part of slut-shaming, prude-shaming, and rape-victim shaming. It seems egregiously irresponsible to suggest that fear of legal repercussions should cause the de facto response to these opportunities to be silence. Where do you draw the line? Do murders merit similar treatment? What about hate crimes? Would it make sense to say those criminal investigations would be “jeopardized” by people speaking publicly about the event?
    This exact thing recently happened to me on the Feministing community post about benefactor-type relationships. Because of legal pressure, your website was asked to take down my post, which mentioned a man who raped me by name in an attempt to warn a girl who may very well have been registering on the exact same website where I met this man. Silencing me on that front because his lawyers threatened us does not seem to be the best possible outcome — it seems hugely irresponsible and denying an already extremely fragmented community (people who are considered “sluts” or “whores,” as well as sex workers) one of the few networking avenues available. And that post was, indeed, the only opportunity I have had to talk with like-minded feminists about my experiences. Although it is very important that I mention in this specific situation, there was very little Feministing could do without having the entire website shut down indefinitely –especially before I had legal representation.

  31. aletheia_shortwave
    Posted May 12, 2010 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    It’s certainly clear that the problem of false-rape accusations is a serious potentially widespread problem, but I think the idea that women are likely to do that on a regular basis is unfounded. I also think that, even when women are falsely accusing someone of rape, there is usually going to be an emotionally abusive element going on — one that is, obviously, highly likely to go both ways in a given dynamic. But the fact that it’s mutual does not mean that the abusive dynamic itself was not propagated or at least influenced by patriarchy and does not mean that a feminist lens wouldn’t be beneficial.
    If the judicial system were fair, accused rapists would only be punished if they committed rape. However, we are facing a situation where unfortunately we do need to broaden the range of people who are found guilty of rape because we are facing a situation in which rapists are systematically under-punished. Reputations and talk of that reputation is not, however much damage might be done by it, on par with actually being raped. I don’t think the pain of being socially accused of rape, unless it results in the equally offensive “prison-rape” or “revenge-rape” style retaliation, can come close to the pain of actually being raped. We can’t legislate away someone’s right to say that they have been raped if they believe they have been raped, even if it turns out that that belief is the result of psychological disturbance and not an actual event of assault. To do so is to drag down the crime of rape into the same mud that a poorly-handled rape-accusation or “slander” case would be in in the case of a false accusation, and this time, for a far worse crime than slander.
    Why aren’t you asking about false accusations of domestic violence, or theft, or fraud, with the same vitriol? What about false accusation of crimes that don’t disproportionately affect women?

  32. makomk
    Posted May 12, 2010 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    Mass circulation newspapers – which are read by hundreds of thousands of people – accuse folks of crimes All The Time, and they don’t get sued.
    Not if they’ve got any sense they don’t, at least unless they’ve got really solid evidence. Normally they report that people have been arrested for crimes, or charged with them, or are in court over them – but not that they actually committed them, not until the trial’s over and they’ve been found guilty.

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