As a straight white dude living a fairly middle-class existence, who is fortunate to have no firsthand experience with rape, it’s been pretty easy for me to live my life without giving it much thought. I spend almost no energy thinking about the safest route to take when walking home, or what might happen to my drink if I step away from it, or who I should or shouldn’t accept a ride home with.
I’m not bragging, though. It turns out that even a guy like me is susceptible to some of the side-effects of living in a culture that treats every reported rape as a cause to throw two trials in the court of public opinion: One in which there’s someone who may or may not be guilty of rape, and one in which there’s someone who may or may not be guilty of lying.
That’s how the story has shaken out in the case of Ryan Romo, an 18-year-old star baseball prospect from the ritzy Dallas neighborhood of Highland Park (where George W. and Laura Bush lived before W. farted into the Texas Governor’s Mansion and then the White House). Here’s what we know for sure: After a Ghostland Observatory concert in Dallas a few weeks ago, Romo gave a girl -- younger than seventeen -- a ride home from the show; two days later, she filed charges for sexual assault.
Here’s what else we know for sure: Shortly after those charges were filed, the Dallas edition of a Texas-based media site called CultureMap ran a story with the headline, “Is this Highland Park baseball star a rapist?” In the story, the author -- CultureMap Dallas’ managing editor, Claire St. Amant -- speculates that perhaps the girl in question is lying about what happened (“Kids are supposed to mess up. They lie. They cheat. They get caught. They grow up. But throw a sex act in the mix, and childish ways are all but left behind,” she writes).
The story doesn’t cite any details of the case that make questioning this girl’s story a logical progression, nor does it explain what motive she might have to lie except that “kids are supposed to.” It does end with the sentence, ““If it's a case of impulsive teenage decisions, remorse and guilt, then no one suffers more than 18-year-old Ryan Romo.”
If that’s not the case, of course -- and we have no reason to suspect that this girl is lying -- then we know one person who suffers more than Ryan Romo, for sure. It’s the one who was raped in the back of an SUV by an older boy and who subsequently watched as grown-ups with legitimate jobs in the press decided to speculate wildly on whether or not she was a liar.
I paid close attention to the way the case of Ryan Romo and the girl who accused him of raping her was reported by CultureMap because I’ve been a regular columnist, on a freelance basis, to the outlet’s Austin and Houston editions since March 2011. I’ve worked with good people within the company during that time, and I’d never met or interacted with anyone at the Dallas edition. I was proud of the work I’d done -- and until Claire St. Amant’s editorial ran, I had been happy to have my name associated with CultureMap.
But the downside of having your name associated with someone else’s is that your name is associated with the fucked up things that they do, too. And speculating about whether a teenager who has filed rape charges is a liar, when you have no facts in the case to report, is a textbook example of a fucked up thing to do.
I don’t give a whole lot of thought to whatever my “personal brand” as a writer is, but if I had to pinpoint it, “Guy with enough credibility to call out people who say or do fucked up things” would be a fair approximation of what I’m going for. At the time the post about Ryan Romo went live on CultureMap, my face was on the main page of the site, which meant that it’d be reasonable for people to associate me with that post –- unless I said something.
I keep a personal blog on Tumblr, and I posted a clarification explaining both that I had nothing to do with the post about Ryan Romo, and that I recognized it as a fucked-up thing.
When you’re a dude who identifies as a feminist, it’s really easy to be harsh when you’re picking on an easy target –- to really lay into, like, Ben Roethlisberger or Chris Brown –- and to quietly fall back on your privilege when things are a little closer to home. I didn’t want to be that sort of guy, so it was important to me to make my post very clear, and use the same language I’d have used if we were talking about Todd Akin. “I’m really disappointed in CultureMap’s choice to publish such offensive -- and stupid! -- bullshit,” I wrote. That way, people who knew me from my work with CultureMap would not have to wonder if I was secretly cool with treating people who say they’ve been raped as probable liars, as long as the person saying it also wrote me checks.
After about a week, though, I got an email from my editors at the Austin edition of CultureMap. The Dallas higher-ups had found the post on Tumblr. They asked me to meet them for coffee, at which point they explained to me that the company wanted me to take the post down.
Like most writers, being told that I’m not allowed to say something is the quickest way to make me defend having said it, and I told them that I couldn’t take it down. They told me that the company was upset, and they wouldn’t be able to work with me if I didn’t. I reached out to Claire St. Amant directly to discuss what both of us had written, didn’t hear anything back, and wrote off my relationship with CultureMap.
Obviously, I’m not a victim here (“No one suffers more than freelance writer Dan Solomon!”), but this whole experience was eye opening for me. CultureMap is a not-insignificant player in Texas media, and the idea that a company would let go of someone they’ve worked with for a long time for saying, “Speculating about whether a girl who files rape charges is a liar without reporting any information that leads to that conclusion is irresponsible!” while so steadfastly defending the article that does the speculating was a surprise.
All I’m losing is a little bit of work, but that’s mostly a function of the privileges that I enjoy as a dude who is rather unlikely to be raped. No one accuses me of being too emotionally invested in this case to see it properly; no one suspects that I identify too strongly with the girl who filed the charges against Romo; no one can call me anything over this that can ruin my life or make me hate myself.
The girl in Highland Park who accepted the ride home from Ryan Romo, though? She doesn’t have those privileges. I don’t have any idea what happened in the back of Romo’s SUV, but I also know that there are 96 comments on the CultureMap post, and a bunch of those people are pretty sure that they know: “The girl’s a complete liar,” one reads. “Her mother was probably livid at her for coming in so late at night and she claimed rape to get out of trouble.”
I don’t know if the person who posted that comment lives in Highland Park, but I do know that plenty of people who do live in the same community as Romo and the girl in question will have read that story on CultureMap. And when they do –- when Romo’s friends, or people invested in defending him and his family (his father is the CEO of the Dallas-based restaurant chain Eatzi’s), or classmates of the girl who are inclined to treat her like a slut and a liar for whatever reason, read the unfounded, unsourced speculation on a seemingly-legitimate media outlet –- they’ll feel completely validated in hurling accusations toward the girl every day. I honestly can’t imagine how unpleasant it’s been for her in the hallways the past few weeks.
Given that CultureMap and Claire St. Amant never had any reason to speculate that this was “a case of impulsive teenage decisions, remorse, and guilt” except that it was theoretically possible to do so, it’s pretty obvious that, of all the people who “no one suffers more than” as a result of her column, Ryan Romo isn’t even on the list.
And making the point that people with jobs like mine and St. Amant’s have no business speculating like that is well worth losing some steady work over.