Resisting the Silencing of Discussions of Rape Culture: On Deric Lostutter, Steubenville, and Surveillance

Outrage sparked across the feminist and progressive Internet last week when it was revealed that 26-year-old Deric Lostutter, the Kentucky-based hacktivist that spearheaded KnightSec, the subgroup of Anonymous that made a brazen call for justice in the Steubenville case, was raided in April 2013 by the FBI in connection with the hacking of the Steubenville football team’s website, RollRedRoll.com. If convicted, he could face up to ten years in prison, a more extreme sentence than the measly one- and two-year sentences doled out to the Steubenville rapists. That rage also catalyzed into an Ultraviolet petition demanding that the Department of Justice drop their charges against Lostutter.

Deric Lostutter maintains he wasn’t directly connected with the hacking of the website. By then, the power of Anonymous had been unleashed. (One of the advantages of its decentralized nature is the ability to divide their energy across several initiatives.) However, Lostutter was largely responsible for bringing the case to national attention. Based on information he was forwarded by Michelle McKee, Lostutter created the now-infamous video issuing an ultimatum to the guilty members of the football team to step forward before January 1, 2013, threatening to publish their names, addresses, and social security numbers otherwise. The video, which collated documentation from that night, including tweets, Instagram photos, and videos, was picked up by the mainstream media, and its wide circulation sparked national outrage about the case and eventually led to the prosecution of the rapists. The video resonated with many because they clearly demonstrated the collusion of an entire town in protecting the football team’s reputation, no matter how abhorrent their actions. As Gawker writer Adrian Chen observed, “Shadowy hackers threatening the town from cyberspace was an almost too-perfect escalation.”

In an interview with Josh Harkinson, a reporter for Mother Jones, Lostutter states the FBI raid was a deliberate campaign by authority figures in Steubenville who “want to make an example of me, saying, ‘You don’t fucking come after us. Don’t question us.’” His pending prosecution brings up important questions for feminist activism, which increasingly uses the Internet as a tool of mobilization, archivization, and as an awareness-raising tool of how entrenched sexism remains in our culture. (For instance, projects like Mansplained, Hollaback! and the Everyday Sexism Project are great resources illustrating the pervasiveness of rape culture and the devaluation of female judgment and experiences.) Indeed, much of the power of online activism is in its collective nature – by a critical mass of feminists submitting their own stories, they coalesce into one powerful, telling narrative about our cultural priorities. This is a tension Chen articulates in his article as well:

The video wasn’t forensic evidence of a crime, but of the attitude that could allow something like the rape to happen over and over again. When people talk about how Anonymous “exposed” Steubenville, they can’t mean the facts of this case, which were utterly botched by KnightSec and its allies. What they mean is that Anonymous exposed how sexual assault is a bigger issue than bad people doing bad things. That it is enabled and even celebrated by a culture that tells young men it’s OK to laugh off a horrific rape as harmless late-night debauchery, to be Instagrammed and tweeted about, then expects the rest of us to feel bad for the perpetrators when they’re punished.

Being actively silenced is a phenomenon feminist activists on the Internet (as well as those who oppose rape culture, like Lostutter) are all too commonly faced with. Whether via graphic rape threats,  hacking personal accounts, or doxxing, which emboldens misogynists to escalate their attacks to phone calls and stalking, the cumulative effect is to force alternative perspectives offline and simultaneously limit the discourses on what is politically possible for marginalized groups. While white male voices speaking about Internet culture would have us believe their experiences on the Internet represent a universalized narrative where everyone’s voices are equally amplified, in actuality, those who critique the dominant culture’s mode of functioning are disproportionately targeted for harassment. In her article for New Statesman, feminist journalist Laurie Penny explicitly links viral rape to a state that actively squelches any attempts to point out its gross inequities. She writes, “This is how the surveillance state works, and it’s also how patriarchy works. The message is: don’t tell. Don’t ever tell. The people who have power, whether that’s the state or the boys on the football team, are allowed to know what you’re up to, constantly, intimately, and they can and will punish you for it, but if you turn the tables and show the world how power is abused, you can expect to be fucked with, and fast.”

Ultimately, the DoJ’s decision to prosecute Lostutter sends a chilling message to both Internet hacktivists and feminists who stood against the injustice wrought in Steubenville and beyond. It suggests that the “correct” cultural response to rape is apathy and inaction. Lostutter, for his part, is continuing to push back against the charges. As of this writing, the defense fund has collected ten percent of its goal of $500,000. Feminist writers and activists on the Internet also realize that the need to carve an alternative narrative where rape culture is always, unmistakably, an outrage, is too urgent and necessary to cease.

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