Gang-rape threat isn’t ‘free speech’
By EDWARD ACHORN The Providence Journal
The Internet has undeniably helped spread information of great use to a free society and, in many cases, permitted more robust debate on issues than was once possible. But powerful tools can be used for evil purposes as well as good. As everyone knows, the Internet has also opened up the sewers and permitted cowards, bullies, liars, child molesters and character assassins to crawl out.
Behavior that once would have merited a swift response from society, perhaps jail time, perhaps a salutary punch in the nose is now indulged in without fear of retribution. Language that was once unimaginable in public discourse is the common currency of the Web, and our culture gets progressively coarser and cruder as this becomes accepted. Just ask the brave women who led the fight to make prostitution illegal in Rhode Island, showing compassion for children coerced into the sex trade and for young Asian women brought here as virtual slaves and cruelly compelled to suffer.
Donna Hughes, a women’s-studies professor at the University of Rhode Island, and Melanie Shapiro, a law student at Roger Williams University Law School, are finding themselves libeled, verbally attacked with sexual smears and threatened with rape by low-life “johns” in retaliation for their efforts.
Can nothing be done about this? Are there any decent people left in society who will stand up and protect women against such abuse? You have to wonder. I have seen the Internet attacks on these women and they are sickening. I would fiercely defend the right of anyone including these characters to discuss the merits of the state’s joining the rest of America in making prostitution illegal. But nobody should smear, libel and threaten.
As Ms. Hughes says: “They are entitled to their view of the change in the law. The comments . . . cross a line, though, in my opinion.”“I think it is unfortunate that they have resorted to such low-level comments, but I am really concerned about the women in the brothels who have to encounter men like these. It shows you what kind of men they have to face,” Ms. Shapiro said.
On one prostitution forum, some low-life has chosen the screen name of “Donna Hughes” and pretends to be the professor. I quote these (with the permission of the real Ms. Hughes and Ms. Shapiro) only to help Rhode Islanders understand what is going on.
“It is my sincere hope that tons and tons of women will be caught, sentenced to prison and converted to lesbianism,” the phony “Donna Hughes” states in one post. “I will not rest until all the Asian women learn heterosexual sex is wrong!” the fake “professor” states in another. The phony also takes aim at state Rep. Joanne Giannini (D.-Providence), who led the fight in the General Assembly to close Rhode Island’s prostitution loophole. “I tried to turn out JoAnne Giannini but she wants to stay with her cop husband.” Some of the members of this forum, not the brightest lights, seem to believe that these messages are really coming from Professor Hughes.“ ‘Heterosexual sex is wrong’? Where would ‘Donna’ be if her parents felt that way?” asks one. “If you believe that ‘heterosexual sex is wrong’ then you must be a lesbian. . . . Get real go [engage in a sex act] and realize what you are missing.”
Another poster writes: “I bet that Shapiro ‘female dog’ can [engage in a sexual act] like a champ!” And those are some of the less vicious ones. Much of the banter cannot get within a mile of being printed in a newspaper.
One coward wrote this of Professor Hughes: “What this chic [sic] needs is for all of us to line her up against the wall and show her what we think of her rhetoric one at a time.” Is an undisguised threat of gang rape really protected speech? Is stealing someone’s name to libel her? Not in my book. Such language is not an attempt to debate an issue but to intimidate, punish and humiliate people and dehumanize women by treating them as rape objects for practicing their rights as good citizens, entering the political arena in Rhode Island and peacefully seeking change.
Are there no law officers willing to investigate this? Are there no lawyers willing to belly up to the bar and take on a libel and intimidation lawsuit on a contingency-fee basis?
If such treatment of women is deemed perfectly legal, fine and dandy, is there another way to make it clear to the perpetrators that society frowns on their conduct? When I was growing up, boys were taught that real men stand up for women and insist that they be treated with respect. That sounds old-fashioned, I admit. But must Rhode Islanders accept that, in the age of Internet sleaze, women should expect to be attacked this way in a public forum if they are unwilling to shut up and go away?
This Rhode Islander, for one, will never accept that.
Edward Achorn is The Journal’s deputy editorial-pages editor.