Future Sex: The Google Problems of Rapists

In August of 2011, Savannah Dietrich went to a party. She drank too much and passed out. While she was unconscious, two young men sexually assaulted her, photographing themselves as they did it; they then used the Internet to send these pictures to...

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Jul 26 2012, 2:00pm

In August of 2011, Savannah Dietrich went to a party. She drank too much and passed out. While she was unconscious, two young men sexually assaulted her, photographing themselves as they did it; they then used the Internet to send these pictures to their friends. Dietrich's response to the attack was, statistically speaking, unusual in that she brought charges against her attackers. Both young men pled guilty to felony sexual abuse and misdemeanor voyeurism charges, receiving what Dietrich called “a slap on the wrist” as punishment for sexually assaulting her.

Judge Dee McDonald ordered no one to speak about the proceedings or the actual attack. To put it another way, the judge essentially forbade Dietrich from talking about her own rape. Savannah ignored the judge's instructions and tweeted the names of her two attackers this week, stating, “There you go, lock me up. I'm not protecting anyone that made my life a living Hell.” Lawyers for the defense responded by filing a motion to hold Dietrich in contempt of court for violating the judge's orders, which they have since withdrawn (no doubt influenced by the outpouring of Internet support for Dietrich after the news broke).

In the age of the Internet – that is to say in an age where every indiscretion, however minor or horrifying, can live forever in virtual space – whose rights were being upheld in this situation? It is sex crimes in particular that have been most publicized on the Internet. Almost all sex offenders must register with a public, searchable database, updating their addresses when they move and being required to live at least 1,000 feet away from churches, schools, and playgrounds. You can often set up an alert with your state's registry to be alerted when a sex offender moves into your zip code.

I called the state of Kentucky's Sex Offender Registry to find out if minors convicted of felony sex crimes are required to register with Kentucky’s database. Apparently, if a minor is convicted as a “youthful offender,” they can be compelled to register despite being underage at the time of the criminal offense. If they are convicted as a “juvenile offender” they are not required to register. Because Dietrich's rapists were tried in juvenile court — and because David Mejia, an attorney for one of the young men, reported that their motion to hold Dietrich in contempt was an effort to enforce the law that protects juvenile actions from disclosure – I strongly suspect that the specifics of the plea deal classified the boys as juvenile offenders. The details of the young men's plea deal have not been made public.

What makes this particular case even more interesting is the fact that the attackers actually used the Internet to further victimize Dietrich. Photos of her assault were disseminated over the Internet following the attack and it's likely that they still exist. No one can ever assure that these photos are deleted. More importantly, no one can ever un-rape Savannah Dietrich.

Like other acts of vigilante, social-media-fuelled justice, Dietrich's actions assure that the names of her rapists will be available to anyone with a search engine. In 2008, female students at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon started a Facebook group named, "Morgan Shaw-Fox Is A Piece Of Shit Rapist," in response to a then-unreported sexual assault on their campus. Today, if you Google his name, the rape allegations are the fifth search result.

Chris Klein, an attorney for one of the young men, said publicizing their names may create problems for them in the future. And that's the point. There is a sector of society that believes that publicizing the names of sexual predators denies them of their rights and future opportunities. But this point of view only reflects the relative flippancy with which our culture views rape itself. It's only when individual survivors of sexual assault and our society as a whole can hold rapists accountable for their actions that we can begin to confront the prevalance of sexual assault.

The Internet is proving to be an important means for survivors of sexual assault to reaffirm their own narratives and to hold sex criminals responsible for their actions. An entire cultural structure and, subsequently, the very court system in which she sought justice put pressure on Savannah Dietrich to stay silent about her rape. I’m so glad she didn’t.

Follow Kelly Bourdet on Twitter: @kellybourdet.

Future Sex explores how technology affects our personal relationships and how drugs and medications influence our sexuality. Previously on Future Sex: Should You Sext?.