Violation by virtual rape

Helen Birch on the repercussions of a test case in cyberspace history Does putting fantasies on the Internet make him a rapist?
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Last year, the American lawyer and anti-pornography campaigner Catherine Mackinnon fired a salvo on to the sexual battlefield with the claim that the American reviews of her controversial book Only Words were "one of the more amazing gang rapes of late". Now, some sections of the American press are upping the ante still further by using an even more emotive term, "cyberrape", to describe the actions of Jake Baker, a 20-year-old American student.

In a case that will stretch the limits of civil liberties legislation, test the jurisdiction of law enforcement agencies and fatten the wallets of numerous lawyers, that spans national borders, takes in sex, violence and a new technological realm, Mr Baker yesterday became the first individual to stand trial for a "cybersex" crime: accused of using the Internet to transmit obscene material that may pose a threat to a person's life.

Since 9 February, Baker has been in jail for posting a story, called Pamela's Ordeal, on an Internet message board. In it, he fantasises about sodomising, raping and torturing a student at the University of Michigan: "Torture is foreplay, rape is romance, snuff [killing] is climax," he wrote. The woman in question had been in a Japanese class he took the previous semester, but he had never spoken to her.

The FBI was alerted to the story - one of three that Mr Baker had posted on an open message board called " stories" - by a fellow Internet surfer in Moscow, who was also a graduate of the University of Michigan. When the FBI opened other files in the compartment, it found messages sent by Mr Baker to another user in Ontario, which described his desire to put these fantasies into practice. "Just thinking about it any more doesn't do the trick," he wrote. "I need to do it."

Mr Baker argues that he was exercising his right to free speech. He claims that the violence he depicted was due to the stress he was suffering over a student loan and raging hormones. He says he named the student because she was an attractive young woman and he needed a name for his story. The court, however, believes Mr Baker poses enough of a threat to be denied his liberty and refused bail pending trial for interstate transmission of a threat, an offence that carries a five-year sentence.

Mr Baker is clearly a sicko fantasist, but in that he is no different from other Internet surfers who routinely browse or feed material into the compartment, where violent fantasies float free of the censor. But unlike them, Mr Baker was foolish enough to sign his work and get caught. The other difference is that the protagonist of his pornographic tale knows of his fantasies, probably feels at best uncomfortable, at worst violated. But does that make Jake Baker a rapist?

Millions of women have suffered the pain and indignity of rape, had the courage to report it, faced cross-examination by hostile, credulous lawyers, the humiliation of reliving each moment before a courtroom full of strangers, been told they asked for it, they provoked it, that they are lying. For them this glib use of the term rape to describe "virtual" (ie, not real) acts of violence by a man on a woman via computer, must feel like a kick in the guts.

For the women who have fought to gain official recognition of the effects of rape, cyberrape is a violation of language; it wrenches meaning away from the word. Cyberrape takes Ms Mackinnon's shrill polemic, that reading language which describes acts of violence is no different from the experience of violence itself, to its logical conclusion.

The Baker case has resonances for all of us. It throws up questions not only about how and if we must police cyberspace, but of what this new, expanding technological universe really means.

When Jake Baker said he wanted to rape and kill a female student whom he had simply spotted in a class, and who did not know of his existence, was he merely expressing his fantasies aloud, engaging in idle banter, just as you and I do in private? Is using the Internet to discuss ideas and fantasies, however repellent, the same thing as publishing and disseminating them?

Mr Baker's attorney says that the compartment where Baker "posted his fiction is in reality nothing more than words floating in space". For its predominantly male users, the forum is a little more than that. Like all the Internet message boards, it works as a subculture in which normal rules of propriety, etiquette, style and even morality do not operate. Jake Baker knew that, but, like a conventional pornographer, prefaced his story with a warning: "The following story contains some sick stuff. You have been warned."

And so have we. Cyberspace may well be the final frontier where the battle over fantasy, language and sexual politics is fought.