Women Are Using Social Media as a Megaphone to Confront Nightlife's Rape Problem
In late July, two young women used Facebook to talk about being assaulted in popular New York City nightspots. Yet the outcomes suggest there are limits to social media as a platform for social justice.
Illustration by Jenny Yuen
In late July, two women logged onto Facebook to talk about being assaulted in popular New York City nightspots. Pepper Ellett and Mary,* who are 25 and 30 respectively, have never met—but their stories are grim foils for each other, echoing and contrasting in uncanny and significant ways. Both posts went viral, yet the outcomes of these women speaking up on Facebook suggest there are limits to social media as a platform for social justice.
In her post, Mary describes being attacked by an ex-boyfriend at Bossa Nova Civic Club, a popular hangout for Brooklyn's underground electronic music crowd. Across the East River, Pepper claims she was raped in the bathroom by a then-employee of Happy Ending, a former massage parlor that's now a scene-y club and restaurant on the Lower East Side.
By refusing to let their allegations get lost in a haze of strobe lights and fog machines, Pepper and Mary have ignited the same debates about rape culture that are tearing up national headlines. These incidents, which allegedly took place in the after-dark sanctuaries where New York's music and art scenes converge, have also raised nightlife-specific questions—such as how these communities should respond to accusations of assault, and to what extent bars and clubs should be held responsible.
Mary* published her Facebook post on Monday, July 27. New York magazine dropped its cover story on Bill Cosby's many sexual assault accusers the night before, which she directly cites as a trigger to share her own. Mary's anger is palpable from the first sentences: "Fuck every last one of you who continues to support him or provide him safe harbor in your midst. I'm done hiding from him and his bullshit supporters."
In a publicly-accessible Google Doc linked in the Facebook post, Mary claims that during their year-long relationship, she was abused by a Brooklyn musician who goes by Frank Midnite (full disclosure: I've hung out with Frank at several music events, and consider him an acquaintance). One night in September 2014, Mary says Frank attacked her at Bossa Nova, then choked her against a tree outside the bar while scratching and punching her repeatedly. "For weeks I had to make excuses about what had happened to me," she writes. "On one occasion he brought a bruise cream over and applied it to my body, trying to 'erase' the evidence of what he had done." Photos of her injuries are included, although it's unclear when they were taken. (Frank declined to speak with THUMP on-the-record.)
Less than eight hours later, Bossa Nova released a statement on its Facebook page: Frank was banned, pending "hard, irrefutable evidence" disproving the allegations. Female leaders in the electronic music community, such as Frankie Hutchinson, co-founder of the feminist techno collective Discwoman, praised this move. "Very relieved that our fave establishment is taking women's safety so seriously, a refreshing change. Think it's way more important to ensure the safety of women than to wait around and see if someone's guilty or not," Hutchinson wrote in a comment.
Others criticized the club's presumption of guilt, with some women wondering if the ban would apply to other men who have been accused of violence. According to owner John Barclay, the simple answer is "yes." "Although we are not a private investigation firm, if anyone brings an unsavory claim regarding this type of behavior to our attention, and it appears to be factual, we ban the person," he told THUMP. "Better safe than sorry."
The next day, Frank denied the allegations through his own Facebook post, calling them "exaggerated... to the point of telling lies." But the damage to his reputation had been done. Commenters called him a rapist and abuser in an article about Frank in New York, his tracks on YouTube, and the Facebook page for Bright Future Sounds, one of Frank's alternate musical aliases. A video interview with him made by a third party on YouTube was taken down. Social media profiles were created under his name—Twitter account @frankmidnite's bio simply reads: "I beat women." A profile picture on his public page was changed to a derivation of a common meme: "Keep Calm Because I'm Innocent."
In the weeks following Mary's post, many members of the music community shared their takes on social media. On his Facebook, New York-based DJ, producer and creative director @LILINTERNET (who has worked with Skrillex, Diplo, Beyonce, and others) remarked, "ABOUT THE ABUSE SCANDAL THATS TAKING FACEBOOK BY STORM: I DON'T KNOW [FRANK]. HE SEEMS SOCIOPATHIC FROM MY BASIC HOBBYIST DSM-V READING POINT OF VIEW." Questioning the likelihood of Frank's denial, @LILINTERNET added, "WHEN YOU THINK ABOUT IT RATIONALLY, THERE'S LIKE A 0.1% CHANCE THIS GUY IS TELLING THE TRUTH. [sic]"
On Starwave, a prominent Facebook group for female musicians and artists, the Google Doc was posted twice by separate members. One said she'd known Frank since she was 17 years old, and that "everyone should be aware of this and keep their friends safe." Two other women remarked that Frank had hit them up. One said he'd asked to meet up during her trip to New York. "I'M SO GLAD I DIDN'T," she wrote.
Following these allegations, Frank was banned from other spaces in Bushwick. Event organizer Darcey Leonard confirmed with THUMP that House of Screwball, a production company she co-runs, banned him from their Circus of Dreams events at Bizarre bar, as well as the Tarot Society Gallery and Reading Room. "The ban is permanent," Leonard said.
Over private Facebook messages, a local DJ named Lolo Haha encouraged ten other prominent promoters and musicians to refrain from booking or admitting Frank unless he entered an "accountability process" to regain their trust. Lolo Haha told THUMP that he hopes this accountability process will help his community heal from divisive effects of this incident. "The reality is that this person is not the only one making sexual assault occur. This is happening across the country," he said. When pressed on why ostracizing Frank was a necessary step towards accountability, Lolo Haha paused. "I think I jumped really quickly to be reactive."
Before she published her Facebook post, Mary had circulated the Google Doc for the previous seven months, sending it to women involved with Frank and posting it on Tumblr and Facebook comment threads. That's how she found out about Susan* and Kat, two other women with similar allegations against Frank. Text messages between the women are included in the Google Doc as a disturbing coda.
THUMP reached out to Susan and Kat, who elaborated on their texts. Susan said she woke up at a mutual friend's house in Santa Cruz in 2010 to Frank touching and rubbing himself on her. He did not stop despite her protests, so she decided to drive home inebriated.
Kat claimed that in January 2015, she visited Frank's place in Brooklyn while on a cocktail of acid, cocaine, and "enough alcohol to knock out a young horse." "He suggested I come over to his place to warm up and get sober before I walked back to where I was sleeping that night," Kat told THUMP. "He took me inside, [and] smoked me out so that I could 'relax.' Before I knew it, he lifted up my skirt, tore a hole in my tights, and proceeded to have sex with me. I protested best I could but I was at that point largely immobile. I never would have had sex with him had I been sober."
I've gone for being raped before, and even when I was doing everything 'right,' the police did nothing but make me relive the trauma. Why would I try again under more 'scandalous' circumstances?
Asked if she went to the police, Kat replied, "Fuck no. I've gone for being raped before, and even when I was doing everything 'right,' the police did nothing but make me relive the trauma. Why would I try again under more 'scandalous' circumstances?"
Kat's reluctance is hardly unusual. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network), only 32 percent of rapes are brought to the police, making it one of the most under-reported crimes. However, a New York Times report from June with the headline "In Grim Rape Statistics, Signs of Progress" suggested that more victims are coming forward due to decreasing social stigma. This year in New York City, reported rapes rose by eight percent and sexual assaults by 18 percent. However, Liz Roberts, the deputy chairwoman of Safe Horizon, the largest victims' service agency in the city, told the Times that she had "no reason to believe there is more sexual assault than was happening last year at this time," because of other factors, like a lack of change in the number of calls to the organization's hotline. Additionally, in crime-ridden neighborhoods like Brownsville, reported rapes have nearly doubled even though murder and gun violence rates have gone down. This suggests, said the Times, that the efforts of advocacy groups, rape crisis centers, and universities are changing the culture of silence.
Helping more women come forward is exactly what motivated 25-year-old Pepper Ellet to publish her Facebook post on Friday, July 31, five days after Mary's. "I would be doing a disservice to other women if I were to keep quiet," Pepper wrote. "Remaining silent about these issues is... what keeps the majority of people believing that these are isolated abstract incidents, not an epidemic that we all take part in and are affected by every day of our lives."
While Mary highlighted the name of her alleged abuser, his multiple musical aliases and even a collaborator-friend, Pepper couldn't call out the man she has accused of raping her in the bathroom of Happy Ending. Over the phone, Pepper told THUMP that she believes she was drugged, and all she remembers is "having my pants down, peeing, and realizing that there was someone in the bathroom in me. He told me to suck his dick, and I said no. I remember feeling like I was being held against my will, then I blacked out." She only found out the employee's name later when her father called the club, and co-owner Oliver Stumm (who is part of a DJ duo and runs a label called A Touch of Class) said that he had been fired on the spot after management reviewed security footage. (Stumm did not respond to a request for comment.)
You know regrettable sex is not the same as rape.
Pepper used her post to spread little-known information about the resources available to victims of sexual assault in New York State, including state-covered medical expenses. She also described the ordeal of reporting a rape. According to the same New York Times article, the NYPD recently made efforts to streamline the process, but Pepper's experience suggests that the current protocol is still lacking. After she was questioned "like a criminal" over ten hours by three rounds of officers, and "watched as my rape kit was clumsily handled, negligently being tossed around by a policeman," Pepper said an officer insinuated that she was a "party girl," telling her, "You know regrettable sex is not the same as rape." At the end of the ten-hour process, Pepper was left with little information on how to follow up with her case. When I spoke with her a week after she'd written her post, Pepper still hadn't been able to get in touch with her investigator. The NYPD confirmed with THUMP separately that her case is open and actively being investigated by the Manhattan Special Victims Squad.
Pepper was also reeling from news that Happy Ending had CCTV video showing her kissing and embracing the accused before the alleged rape—footage that a representative from the club told the New York Post indicated a "90 percent chance it was consensual behavior." (The rep was subsequently fired.) "To hear that was really shocking," said Pepper. "I don't think I could pick the guy out. It's still strange to me that because there was video footage of him holding my hand that it doesn't constitute as stranger rape anymore."
"I recognize that you can be amorous towards someone, and they take it beyond the boundaries of consent," said Maurice Sercarz, a criminal defense attorney at Sercarz and Riopelle and Adjunct Professor of Law at Fordham University School of Law. "If there is forcible compulsion, that's a very serious case of rape notwithstanding what happened minutes before."
Still, Sercarz noted that bringing a rape case to trial is a complicated endeavour, because district attorney offices tend to act on cases only when they feel likely to succeed in getting a conviction. "A decision not to bring a case, or by a grand jury not to indict, may not be a verdict on the woman's conduct," Sercarz added, drawing a comparison to recent cases where grand juries decided not to prosecute police officers for brutality against minorities. "It might simply be that the requisite standard of proof cannot be met. It doesn't mean that the victim did anything wrong."
"Our justice system hinges on victims having to prove they are victims," said Leslie Dinkins, a clinical social worker who has worked with domestic abusers and victims in Atlanta for more than a decade. This system has resulted in just two percent of accused rapists getting convicted and serving time, according to RAINN.
Perhaps the reason why we expect so much from victims is because of our own fears, posited Dinkins. She called this the "delusion of safety," a term originating from Gavin de Becker, author of The Gift of Fear and a leading expert on violent behavior. "If we don't blame victims, we have to acknowledge that there are more abusers than we want to believe there are," Dinkins said. "We don't want to believe victims because we don't want to believe that we've been duped—or that we are unsafe."
On the phone, Pepper sounded shaky as she told me, "I'm barely keeping my head above water right now. People are telling me to prove it. My vagina is torn, my cervix is inflamed, there were bruises all over my body that were photographed. This isn't an episode of Law and Order SVU—this is my life." She took a deep breath. "I don't regret posting what I did on Facebook because it's allowed other people to tell their [rape] stories and feel empowered. But maybe I should've done it later."
Shortly after we hung up, Happy Ending released an edited version of that CCTV video, calling it "Cameras Don't Lie—Happy Ending's Response to Pepper Ellett On The Night Of Alleged Rape." It was accompanied by a statement comparing Pepper's version of events to what we see in the video: her talking to, embracing, and dancing with the accused before and after they enter the bathroom.
The video was taken down later that day, and Happy Ending co-owner Max Levai sent THUMP a statement over email apologizing for their "communications failures." "The comments made by both my partner in Happy Ending and my former communications representative in recent days were unfortunate. They are not reflective of how seriously I take this situation," Levai said.
Happy Ending's defensive response stands in contrast to Bossa Nova's decision to side with the alleged victim. Yet their wildly disparate reactions testify to the ambiguous responsibilities of nightlife establishments when these incidents arise. Bars and clubs are not required by law to report incidents of assault, and an NYPD spokesperson told Gothamist that Happy Ending didn't have the responsibility to turn over their employee.
Still, many bars and clubs take steps towards creating safe spaces for their patrons. "The danger is if they fail to report the crime, the next day, week, or year, if the employee assaulted someone else, that would be evidence that the store bears a measure of civil liability," said Sercarz. Plus, these incidents are just bad for business. Happy Ending, which was already vandalized with a "Woman Beater" sign back in May when co-owner Teddy Perweiler was arrested for assaulting his then-girlfriend Julia Fox in the club, was apparently empty in the days following Pepper's Facebook post, according to a Jezebel reporter.
In July, many of Brooklyn's top bars and clubs teamed up with the NYPD to launch a safety campaign called #OutSmartBK. According to a campaign spokeswoman, the project was launched as a "non-alarming way" to tackle a rise in crime in the North Brooklyn area, and got started when the Commanding Officer of the 90th Precinct, Deputy Inspector Mark DiPaolo, approached BBAR co-chair and operator of The Woods David Rosen about reaching out to nightlife's young demographic. The campaign was supplemented by weekly events and contests, but its chief medium for spreading safety tips was online—specifically, Instagram.
"Social media has become a powerful avenue for advocacy and sharing of experiences for quite a number of sexual violence survivors," said Chauntel Gerdes, a social worker affiliated with #OutsmartBK who is also a leader at Project Envision, a coalition that has teamed up with social services organization New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault to help bars and clubs address sexual violence in nightlife. Gerdes is currently developing a training program to help bar staff prevent violence using a curriculum informed by their peers, including promoters, venue owners, and DJs.
Gerdes also pointed to websites like the Anti-Violence Project, Collective Action for Safe Spaces in DC, Hollaback!, and Callisto, which have created new avenues for survivors to document and report their assaults with more transparency and confidentiality. But she cautioned against viewing these online forums, or the social media discourse of survivors, as a panacea for the deeply-rooted issues surrounding sexual assault in nightlife.
I want to address the larger systemic problem because what happened to me is not an aberration. What are the conditions that produce such a prevalent issue?
The proliferation of social media is already changing how victims speak up about rape, and how society responds to these accusations. Already, the technology has functioned like a megaphone for both Pepper and Mary, allowing both women to draw attention to issues they care deeply about trying to fix, while simultaneously warning other women about their accused perpetrators. "I want to address the larger systemic problem because what happened to me is not an aberration. What are the conditions that produce such a prevalent issue? What needs to happen in order for those conditions to change?" wrote Pepper in her Facebook post—which Mary later shared on her own wall with a comment: "YES. SPEAK UP. Let's end this."
At the same time, there are persistent problems surrounding assault in nightlife that the Internet's immediacy can't solve—and in Pepper's case, with Happy Ending attempting to "debunk" her version of events, could even make more complicated. Without a clear framework for accountability, bars and clubs are caught at the junction between their business, legal, and moral responsibilities, pulled between dissimilar and sometimes conflicting interests. The ubiquitous presence of drugs and alcohol in these environments often blur the lines of consent, making these cases even more difficult to bring to trial. When women like Mary and Pepper are propelled to social media to take ownership of their victimhood, it is also because of a sense that speaking out is the most powerful thing to do in a culture where there are few other viable recourses. Perhaps, as Dinkins posits, "it is important to take this responsibility off their shoulders and place it more squarely on our communities."
*Names have been changed
A previous version of this article misstated that Frank Midnite changed the profile picture on his public page. This change was actually made by a third party. We also misstated that Mary is in her twenties—she recently turned 30. We regret both errors.
Michelle Lhooq is THUMP's Features Editor. Follow her on Twitter.