Of all the deeply disturbing revelations to emerge from the recent investigation into a Penn State fraternity’s secret Facebook page, perhaps none was quite so alarming as this: At least 144 people knew about the page, where Kappa Delta Rho brothers posted pictures of nude, unconscious women without their knowledge. Of those 144 people, 143 just rolled with it.
If you attend Penn State right now, there’s a fair chance you passed them on the quad or saw them in class. They probably wore Penn State hoodies and fund-raised at Thon. The fact that such ordinary people are capable of such casual cruelty should, frankly, boggle the mind.
And yet, it’s exactly these ordinary, everyday people who commit this kind of crime.
“It’s individual guys [taking the photos], but it’s not an individual problem,” says Cindy Southworth, the executive vice president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence — a nonprofit that, among other things, advises Facebook and Twitter on their abuse policies.
It’s no coincidence that Southworth’s organization is active in the fight against revenge porn and other types of so-called nonconsensual pornography: Revenge porn is increasingly seen as a tool, and a variant, of domestic violence, and they share a number of frightening commonalities. Both affect huge swaths of mainstream society, more or less immune to demographic factors like education or age or poverty. Both spring from the same psychological wells of power-seeking and misogyny.
And while we tend to project both domestic violence and revenge porn on distant, demonized villains (think your Hunter Moores and your Craig Brittains), that grossly minimizes the real issue. In reality, the abusers are numerous — according to one national survey, one in 10 people have been threatened with revenge porn by an ex — and they don’t look particularly amoral or abusive or villainous. They’re your neighbors, your co-workers, your classmates, your friends. As one Kappa Delta Rho brother insisted in an interview with Philadelphia magazine: “I’m a good guy.” (Italics mine.)
But how are “good guys” capable of this?
Incidentally, psychologists and public health researchers have been trying to answer that question, in the context of intimate-partner violence, for quite a long time. Intimate-partner violence occurs in every country and culture in the world, pretty much irrespective of demographic factors like age, education or poverty. The unusual situation has prompted biologists to question whether brain chemistry is a factor, and economists to ask whether unemployment rates or income levels may play a role.
The most widely accepted model, however, reached a simpler conclusion: Intimate-partner violence is a display of power — moderated by individual character and characteristics, sure, but also incubated by cultures that privilege men.
Mainstream America is just such a culture, Southworth points out: Even “good guys” learn from childhood that “throwing like a girl” is bad, and that the man in a relationship always “wears the pants.” Throw all those “good guys” together in a frat house where they’re afforded limitless social capital and strippers for parties, and they’re basically inoculated against standard morality.
“Male-only organizations like fraternities reinforce the idea that women are objects designed for male consumption,” said Mary Anne Franks, the legislative director at the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative. “Cases like this one make this painfully obvious.”
And yet, this isn’t merely the problem of Greek life, nor of Penn State or universities more generally. If violence against women is perpetuated by the culture it exists in, then these 143 “good guys” had a whole lot of oxygen on which to feed.
To this day, disseminating another person’s intimate photos is only illegal in 15 states. (And even then, the statutes are weak: In Pennsylvania, for instance, revenge porn is only a crime if it’s done to harass an intimate partner, specifically.)
There’s a sense, magnified by events like “the Fappening” and sites like the defunct Is Anyone Up or the still-very-active Anon-IB.ch, that whenever a woman is naked she’s automatically on public display. In December, charges were dropped against a man who was taking upskirt photos of nonconsenting women, possibly with the intention of posting them online. Last July, a photo of a raped 16-year-old girl went viral, only the most recent of a string of tragic stories involving nonconsensual images and underage girls. But no big deal, the retweeters insisted. They were just kidding.
That echoed the defense the anonymous KDR member made to Philly mag: It wasn’t “malicious;” the group was “funny.”
“It’s like, there’s literally sites like that that millions of people access, whether it’s totalfratmove.com or any of the other thousands of sites that post, you know, pictures of girls … and things like that,” he said. “I mean, you could go on any one of hundreds and thousands of different sites to access the same kind of stuff and obviously a lot worse and a lot more explicit.”
As an ethical justification, it holds no water, but KDR brothers aren’t the only ones deploying it. On the anonymous message board Yik Yak, students repeatedly defended the frat’s behavior as normal, boring, nothing out of the ordinary — “boys will be boys,” essentially.
And ultimately, advocates say, that “boys will be boys” attitude is the one, critical keystone they need to change. It’s disheartening, in light of other victories the anti-revenge porn movement has claimed recently: three prominent revenge-porn site operators have been convicted of crimes, or settled charges, in the past three months; Reddit, Twitter and Facebook just passed policies to ban revenge porn on their sites; a California congresswoman just promised to introduce federal legislation soon.
But as Franks, of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, told The Washington Post earlier this year, “We know that the rise of ‘revenge porn’ won’t really stop until society expresses its unequivocal condemnation for this activity.”
Alas, changing social norms is a slow, uphill and incremental process, lacking the clear next-steps and press release-ready victories of something like lobbying Reddit or legislating an anti-revenge porn law. NNEDV has fought domestic violence for 25 years, and one in four American women are still victimized.
Southworth, who is herself a Penn State alumna, thinks the school, at least, could take steps to change campus norms. She hopes her alma mater will bring in a group like A Call to Men or Men Can Stop Rape to speak to students, particularly at fraternities. It might also help if the school’s sorority council didn’t instruct women to stay silent.
“It shouldn’t take legislation or press attention or a lawsuit to prevent this,” Southworth said. “The moment someone posted a photo of a woman to this Facebook group, one of his frat brothers should have said: ‘Absolutely not, we’re not doing this.’”
And yet only one, of more than 100, ultimately did.
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