The Problem with Torrington Is the Problem with Rape, Not Twitter

Everyone can agree that it's sickening: Students at a Connecticut high school continue to blame the victim on social media, even as the star athletes and accused rapists sit in prison. But does blaming the problem with rape culture on the new problems of the Internet ignore the cruel way rape victims have been treated in the past? Torrington, it seems, is about to find out.

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Everyone can agree that it's sickening: Students at Torrington High School in Connecticut have reacted to the alleged rape by two of its football players of two 13-year-old Torrington Middle School students by taking to Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram with words like "snitch" and "whores," with photos showing support for the Red Raiders' star receiver and defensive back at what was supposed to be a dodgeball tournament seeking reconciliation.

But it's the reaction to the reaction that remains confounding: Parents and educators in the town of 36,000 in northwest Connecticut continue to struggle, as they have since Edgar Gonzalez and Joan Toribio were arrested in February, with how to confront its rape culture as attention grows, with how to stop a bunch of kids on social media from blaming the victims. Now comes a long story in today's New York Times, searching for answers — all of which appear to center on "generational divide" between adults who "don't believe in Twitter" and children turned rape apologists "just to get a reaction."

But does blaming the problem with rape culture on the new problems of the Internet ignore the cruel way rape victims have been treated in the past? Torrington, it seems, is about to find out.

Educators in Denial

A total of four boys at Torrington High — two 17-year-olds, and the 18-year-old Gonzalez and Joan Toribio — are facing felony charges for second-degree sexual assault involving 13-year-old girls, girls not old enough to legally give consent in Connecticut. Gonzalez did not appear at a pre-trial hearing Friday, reports The Register Citizen, but will return to court from jail next month, when his attorney could seek to lower his bond. And according to a warrant obtained by The Republican American of Waterbury, Connecticut one of the boys had multiple encounters with the underage girl.

Meanwhile, at Torrington High, it turns out the controversial Instagram photo (at right) where players flashed Gonzalez's football jersey number — 21 — was taken at a charity event that the school principal thought would "appeal to her students' better natures. This is just one many new nuggets of context that the Times's Vivan Yee attempts to bring to the "helpless" efforts in light of the #FreeEdgar meme, a "defiant Twitter hashtag that has come to stand for everything the teenagers believe is wrong with the arrests — and everything outsiders believe is wrong with the town."

And, yes, the teenagers remain defiant. Even after the Register Citizen collected a series of tweets it said were from Torrington High's students — including "statutory rape is a victimless crime" and "You destroyed two people's life" (sic) — the Times's Yee digs up another epithet to add to the list from Torrington's vicious Twitter trail:

Young girls acting like whores there’s no punishment for that ... young men acting like boys is a sentence.

Yee also spoke to one unnamed sophomore outside Torrington High, who told her that "[t]he chick, she should get in trouble, too.... It's probably a regular thing she does. It wouldn't surprise me."

So where are the adults? Torrington High's principal, Joanne Creedon, has asked students to quit the social media smearing, and it appears the school is re-thinking its bullying policy, reports NBC Connecticut's Tosin Fakile. But those moves have largely been ineffective, particularly because of a lack of understanding of social media, its prevalence and its power, from the top-down.

The Times reports that local school-board chair Kenneth Traub, in response to a community "aghast at the posts" and frustrated that students didn't understand the definition of rape in Connecticut, moved to "convene a community forum on sexual assault, with members of the Police Department and sexual assault counselors." But Traub, in an interview with the Times, doesn't seem to understand the very "ghastly" posts that are so confounding the grown-ups in Torrington:

"I put no weight in any comments made online," he said. "I don't believe in Twitter. I don't believe in Facebook. I don't think that 13-year-olds should spend as much time online as they do."

But they do. And they are. And they are spending their time saying some sickening things. Here's another Torrington adult — the head of the local sexual assault victims crisis center, no less — interviewed by the Times for her take on a "generational divide" she doesn't seem to understand:

"It's not completely uncharted territory, but it's new," Ms. Spiegel said. "A while back it was Myspace, and then it was Facebook, and then it was sexting, and now it's Twitter."

In an interview with the Times's Al Baker last month, school superintendent assistant Debrah Pollutro threw up her arms when it came to solutions for dealing with the online bullying of possible rape victims:

"Parents are asking us, 'What are we going to do about online bullying?' " Ms. Pollutro said. "And I tell them, 'There's nothing we can do; there’s no police, no protection whatsoever governing the World Wide Web.'"

Clearly, the responsible parties in Torrington need some Twitter and Facebook training. But the larger implications aren't that their kids are spending too much time "posting" things. Their kids, in increasing numbers, seem to have an inclination to blame the victims — and that's a culture that's been around a lot longer than Twitter. That's a culture that only gets exacerbated by retweets heard 'round the world. And while adult ignorance as an excuse not to police it is one thing, it's worth looking at the roots of victim shaming in high schools of American past.

A History of Shaming

(Photo by Dan Hulshizer/AP)

It is the tweet that still echoes in Torrington, nearly two months after the sexual episodes, which on Friday were confirmed as multiple incidents. And the contents may be illicit — "sticking up for a girl who wanted the D and then snitched? have a seat, pleaseeee" — but the sentiment is hardly new. Students coming to the defense of star athletes and quickly (and publicly) castigating the victim, well, they weren't all born in Connecticut. They didn't all come from Steubenville, Ohio. Or Duke University.

One of the more instructive intersections of sports, school, and rape remains the 1989 episode of the Glen Ridge High School football team in New Jersey. And even though it didn't start with them either, there was no Facebook back then, as there was even during the Duke lacrosse case. Four members of the Glen Ridge team (pictured above) were accused of raping a 17-year-old girl with a broomstick and bat. Kevin Scherzer, his twin brother Kyle, and Christopher Archer were found guilty of aggravated assault, and Bryant Grober was convicted on a third-degree conspiracy charge. But from the start, the victim was described as "mildly retarded"; she reportedly had an IQ of 64. If you look back at that case, you'll find quotes from locals calling the girl "flirtatious and open," and you'll find a defense of the boys: "I know them well enough to know they wouldn't make someone do something against their will." And in Bernard Lefkowitz's book about the Glen Ridge case, Our Guys, one of the Glen Ridge residents interviewed said something eerily familiar these days: "It's such a tragedy.... They're such nice boys and this will scar them forever."

That quote reads nearly the same as what CNN's Poppy Harlow said about the Steubenville athletes after they were convicted last month on juvenile rape charges, saying that the convicted rapists "had promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart." And "a girl who wanted the D" in Torrington, well, that isn't unlike the defense lawyers in Steubenville saying that the 16-year-old victim in that case wanted to leave with the quarterback. And saying the Glen Ridge victim was "flirtatious and open" is a much more polite version of Torrington students tweeting that "statutory rape is victim-less crime." It is a cycle of shame, with or without social media, with or without cable-news trucks — rape culture, it seems can only be blamed on the people who create it, even if the technological enablers (and the stupid parents) make it worse. As a grand jury prepares to convene in Steubenville, and the school system in Torrington considers discipline ahead of a May trial, perhaps the confounded principle people on the ground will stop looking for answers in the margins of a "generational divide" — and start finding solutions from inside their hearts.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.