The Lessons of the Maryville Rape Case

Viewing it solely through the lens of gender politics obscures the real issues and ultimately endangers justice.


Maryville, Mo., has become the latest battleground in the culture war over rape. A Kansas City Star report on a troubling tale in which two popular high school athletes charged with sexual offenses against a 14-year-old girl went free while the girl and her family were shunned and harassed has ignited a storm of outrage. As a result, the case is now being reexamined, with a special prosecutor appointed to investigate. Those of us who have criticized the radical zealotry of the feminist war on "rape culture" must acknowledge that in this instance, the activists are likely helping a good cause. But viewing the Maryville story solely through the lens of gender politics obscures the real issues—and ultimately endangers justice.

Some have dubbed Maryville "another Steubenville," referring to the recent Ohio case dogged by the perception that local authorities were shielding popular young jocks from accountability for rape. But that belief, as Ariel Levy's New Yorker article last August made clear, was based on fiction far more than fact (the prosecution of the two perpetrators was always firmly on track). In Maryville, the grounds for such claims seem far more solid. Felony charges against Matthew Barnett, accused of assaulting the girl when she was incapacitated after being plied with liquor, and Jordan Zech, who allegedly filmed the act with a cellphone, were dropped despite evidence that the county sheriff believes warranted prosecution.

The facts as recounted in The Star are indeed shocking. After the alleged assault, the girl—Daisy Coleman, who has publicly identified herself—was dumped on the porch of her house clad in T-shirt and sweatpants in the freezing cold, and found barely conscious by her mother, Melinda. (While Daisy had certainly behaved recklessly, sneaking away from a sleepover with a 13-year-old friend to party with older boys, this is no excuse for the boys' actions.) The misdemeanor endangerment charge was also eventually dropped—due, prosecutor Robert Rice claims, to Daisy and Melinda's lack of cooperation. The backlash against the Colemans—Daisy and her brother were taunted at school and in the social media, Melinda lost her job at a veterinary clinic—eventually caused the family to move.

Writing in The Nation, lawyer and feminist blogger Jill Filipovic uses the case to blast a 1999 Supreme Court ruling striking down a portion of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which would have allowed victims of "gender-based violence" to sue in federal court for a civil rights remedy. To Filipovic, Daisy Coleman is clearly a victim not only of injustice but of entrenched misogyny.

But is it that simple? A few caveats are in order. 

First, Maryville residents who believe there was a miscarriage of justice in this case blame small-town politics and favoritism, not sexism. Both boys are from powerful local families; Barnett is the grandson of a prominent politician. The mother of Daisy's 13-year-old friend, who was also coerced into unwanted sex at the party (with the perpetrator sentenced as a juvenile), has said that if one of her sons had been the offender, he would have been locked up for years. The Colemans' status as relative outsiders in Maryville played a role as well; the second girl, according to her mother, received much more sympathy.

Second, we do not yet know the full story. Sheriff Darren White, whom the Kansas City Star depicted as favorable to the Colemans' side, has harshly criticized Melinda Coleman in an interview with CBS News' Crimesider web edition and disputed much of her account, asserting that the charges were dismissed because of her and Daisy's uncooperative attitude. Is White covering for the local "good ole boys" or telling the truth? Perhaps the investigation will tell. Both White and Coleman's former boss also assert that Coleman's firing had nothing to do with the scandal and preceded the alleged sexual assault.

Which brings us to a third caveat: It is, at this point, an alleged assault. While Daisy Coleman's severely intoxicated state that night is not in doubt, there are conflicting accounts of when she reached such a state. New York criminal defense attorney Joseph DiBenedetto has rightly taken heat for his remark on Fox News, "What did she expect to happen at 1 a.m. in the morning after sneaking out?" (though he may have been trying to say that a girl sneaking out at night to party with boys is likely doing it with sexual intent, not "asking" to be raped). But DiBenedetto had a point—however uncomfortable—when he noted that a teenager caught in a compromising situation has a motive to lie about rape; it is a fairly typical rape-hoax scenario. The evidence reported so far strongly suggests that Coleman was assaulted; but, once again, we do not yet know all the facts. The mere fact that she has reiterated her claims on a feminist website does not—as New York magazine blogger Kat Stoeffel seems to think—prove their veracity. (Stoeffel uncritically repeats Coleman's assertion that she had no romantic interest in Barnett and saw him only as her older brother's friend; but in fact, her brother has said that he was bothered by Daisy's texting relationship with the older boy and tried to stop it.)

All that said, Daisy Coleman deserves a fair hearing from the justice system; on that score, the activists are absolutely right. But will they ever be satisfied with any outcome not in the accuser's favor? In her Nation article, Filipovic laments that if the special prosecutor does not reinstate the charges, Coleman will have little legal recourse without VAWA's civil rights provision. Thus, a decision not to greenlight the case will still be seen as a failure of justice—even though the prosecutor, Jean Peters Baker, not only has a reputation for scrupulous fairness but has held the post of victims' advocate and serves on the board of an anti-sexual assault organization. 

Meanwhile, in their focus on misogyny and violence against women, the activists show a troubling disregard for male victims. Last summer, The Denver Post ran a lengthy report on a disturbing incident in Norwood, Colo.: a 13-year-old boy on the high school wrestling team was bound with duct tape and sodomized with a pencil in a brutal hazing ritual. When the boy and his father—the school principal—reported the assault, much of the town turned against them and backed the attackers (two of whom were the wrestling coach's sons). The boy was mercilessly bullied, and there was a clamor for the principal's dismissal. Eventually, the perpetrators pleaded guilty to minor charges and were sentenced to probation, community service, and modest fines; the boy's family, like the Colemans, left town.

While the story got some attention, it did not galvanize outrage or activism. The masked avengers from Anonymous, quick to descend on Maryville and Steubenville alike, went nowhere near Norwood.

Another story of a vicious sexual assault on a male teen—in Homer, Alaska—has been ignored except in the local media. In September 2012, a boy who passed out at a party after drinking heavily was subjected to increasingly abusive "pranks" and finally violated with a beer bottle while dozens of boys and girls watched. The victim ended up at the hospital requiring medical attention; Homer High School football player Joseph Resetarits and his older brother Anthony, captured on camera committing the assault, were arrested. A year later the case languishes in pretrial, with bail restrictions on the defendants relaxed to facilitate their employment. Activist wrath has been notoriously missing.

There is certainly room for advocacy for victims of sex crimes—victims who, to this day, often face lingering prejudices, especially if they are viewed as partly culpable. But such activism will do more harm than good if it remains wedded to an ideology focused on female victimhood and rooted in a blend of radical feminism and paternalistic chivalry. To have a genuinely positive effect, advocacy against sexual assault must advocate for all victims regardless of gender and recognize the legitimate rights of defendants.

This article originally appeared on Real Clear Politics.