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Cohen: A case of teen culture run amok

Miley Cyrus twerked. I had to look up the word since my indefatigable spell checker had no idea what I meant.

I discovered from Wikipedia that twerking “involves a person, usually a woman, shaking her hips in an up-and-down bouncing motion, causing the dancer to shake, 'wobble' and 'jiggle.' " That's precisely what Cyrus did at the recent MTV Video Music Awards and for which she was amply and justifiably criticized. She's a cheap act, no doubt about it, but for me her performance was an opportunity to discuss one of the summer's most arresting pieces of journalism — a long New Yorker account of what became known as the Steubenville Rape. Cyrus should read it.

The first thing you should know about the so-called Steubenville Rape is that this was not a rape involving intercourse. The next thing you should know is that there weren't many young men involved, just two — and they stood trial and were convicted. The next thing you should know is that just about everything you do know about the case from TV and the Internet was wrong. One medium fed the other, a vicious circle of rumor, innuendo and just plain lies. It made for marvelous television.

The New Yorker piece was done by Ariel Levy, a gifted writer. When I finished her story, I felt somewhat disconcerted — unhappily immersed in a teenage culture that was stupid, dirty and so incredibly and obliviously misogynistic that I felt like a visitor to a foreign country. That country, such as it is, exists on the Internet — in emails and tweets and Facebook, which formed itself into a digital lynch mob that demanded the arrest of the innocent for a crime — gang rape — that had not been committed. It also turned the victim into a reviled public figure — her name and picture (passed out, drunk) available with a Google query.

And yet what indisputably did happen is troubling enough. A teenage girl, stone-drunk, was stripped and manhandled. She was photographed and the picture passed around. Obviously, she was sexually mistreated. And while many people knew about all of this, no one did anything about it. The girl was dehumanized. As Levy put it, "The teens seemed largely unaware that they'd been involved in a crime.” She quoted the Jefferson County prosecutor, Jane Hanlin: “They don't think that what they've seen is a rape in the classic sense. And if you were to interview a thousand teenagers before this case started and said, 'Is it illegal to take a video of another teenager naked?,' I would be astonished if you could find even one who said yes.”

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