Reports emerged on Monday that Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B Entertainment, has purchased the rights to a Rolling Stone article about the Steubenville rape case. The upcoming project will reportedly focus on the “hacktivist” group Anonymous, which helped make the sexual assault in the tiny Ohio town into a national story. The protagonist will be the hacker at the center of the case, Deric Losutter, who faces more jail time than the rapists themselves do.
It’s certainly a compelling story. Losutter, who was known as “KYAnonymous” throughout his role with the Steubenville case, has a colorful background. According to the profile, he first got his start in vigilantism by sticking up for a kid with a bad lung who had been dangerously punched in the chest by a bully; not long after that, he stabbed his mom’s boyfriend after discovering him beating her. And he’s a sympathetic character; many people are outraged that the criminal justice system doesn’t punish rape more harshly than hacking.
But considering the cultural legacy of Steubenville, this may not be the right story to tell about the sexual assault case that shook a nation.
After two Steubenville high school football players were convicted of sexually assaulting a young girl at a party, and it appeared that some authority figures in the small town may have initially helped cover up the crime to preserve the boys’ reputations, it opened a national conversation about consent, victim-blaming, and rape culture. For sexual assault prevention advocates, the national attention to Steubenville represented something of a shift. Rather than being relegated to the feminist blogosphere, these issues were suddenly splashed across mainstream media outlets across the country. Americans started to connect the dots about what it means for a society to fail to take rape seriously.
To be sure, Anonymous helped contribute to that media attention. It was the group’s first high-profile “white knight op,” the term for campaigns coming to the assistance of rape victims whose cases appear to have been mishandled by the local authorities. Some women’s health advocates believe this type of intervention does more harm than good. But even outside of the larger debate over whether or not Anonymous’ vigilantism helps victims, sexual assault is an issue that doesn’t really need more protagonists.
In a culture where rape survivors’ voices are often ignored, and women’s stories about their own lived experiences of sexual violence and oppression are constantly brought into question, it’s discouraging to envision a movie about one of the most famous rape cases in the country that places a “white knight” at the center. Although it’s likely not the intention of Plan B Entertainment, that framing choice ends up further obscuring the real women who are victimized by sexual assault.
The events that unfolded in Steubenville — which were first detailed in the New York Times before Anonymous got involved — are now infamous. But they tend to overshadow the victim herself. In fact, with an outsized focus on the social media posts leaked by Anonymous, some people have suggested that the lasting takeaway from Steubenville is a message about exhibiting caution when putting things online, not about making sure young people don’t violate someone else’s consent. That isn’t exactly a victim-centered approach.
Telling stories about rape survivors is certainly often tricky for the media. Victims typically aren’t identified without their consent, so it’s much easier to focus on other public aspects of a sexual assault case — the accused rapists, the town’s residents, the Anonymous activists — than it is to figure out how to tell a respectful story about the victim themselves. And it’s perhaps more compelling to relay a dramatic saga about a small town ripped apart or a vigilante oppressed by the justice system.
But it’s disconcerting that the myths about rape victims, as well as the high-profile coverage of false rape allegations, vastly outweigh the space for thoughtful, honest consideration of survivors’ personal stories. And it’s even more problematic when sexual assault cases become interesting only when they involve an outside intervention to legitimize a woman’s abuse. There are plenty of victims across the country who need society to believe them even when they don’t have the weight of Anonymous behind them.
“Women don’t need to be avenged by ‘white knights.’ We need the knowledge and the legal resources to vindicate our rights ourselves,” an RH Reality Check piece on the subject concludes. Those stories might not sell big at the box office, but they’re the ones we need — ones that aren’t necessarily about saviors, but rather about the significant failures of the criminal justice system.