Savannah Dietrich was raped. The rapists took photographs and circulated them at her school - but in a plea bargain, she was told that she was not allowed to tell people what had happened. She posted the names of her attackers on social media sites, risking a jail sentence and a fine. But is this justice?
Savannah is 16 years old. And she has to live with knowing that not only was she sexually assaulted while drunk, but that photographs of that assault have been circulated at her school, may exist online, and that her assailants got away with what she calls 'a slap on the wrist'. She was let down by the courts, as so many victims of rape are, and so she decided to seek justice in a way that is both more old-fashioned and more tech-savvy - naming and shaming, albeit online.
Both the court judgement, and her response to it raise serious issues for feminists, online activists and for freedom of speech. First, the judge made the decision to gag Savannah. The problem is, the assailants are also minors. The law protects minors, even those guilty of sex-related offenses. Should this be changed? I'm not sure. But the judge who sat this case is no fly-by-night. She was a social worker, working with abused and troubled kids, who put herself through law school. While there are a lot of problems with misogynist judges, I'm not sure that misogyny was the root cause here. So how did she end up giving two rapists a slap on the wrist?
The problem lies with the US court system. And how those who can afford private lawyers have a huge advantage over those who rely on court-appointed public prosecutors, people like Savannah. Public prosecutors, who are elected officials, are generally over-worked, and are more likely to put time in to cases that will win them some renown or possibly those that will help with their campaign in other ways. Savannah's case seemed unlikely to do either. With her assailants being minors, the case seemed unlikely to draw any publicity (the irony!), so when the private lawyers suggested a plea bargain, it would have been hard for the public prosecutor to find any reason to turn it down – and rape is notoriously difficult to prosecute. The judge would then have had little option but to accept the watered down plea bargain, and to issue the gag order. And Savannah, outraged, had to turn to the online community for justice.
The mechanics of this are peculiarly American. But the end result, a woman finding that there is no justice for rapists in the system, is practically universal. The confrontational Western-style court-room is not delivering justice for women, not just in rape, but in domestic violence and other crimes of power where men abuse women. It hasn't worked ever. Perhaps what's needed is to focus our outrage for Savannah on coming up with creative solutions that approach male violence against women in a radically different manner.