Photo Caption: The alleged public sexual assault uptown early Saturday has drawn headlines from big social media/news sites.
A public sex act that reportedly took place between a man and woman on South Court Street in uptown Athens early Saturday morning is now under investigation as a possible sexual assault by the man on the woman.
The case has been made more complicated for Athens Police by the fact that the apparent oral sex act by the man on the woman was captured in videos and still photos, which within a very short time circulated widely on social media such as and Instagram and Twitter. This in turn triggered a blizzard of reactions, some prurient, but many of them strongly negative, from those who saw the images. Most or all of the images have since been taken down by those who posted them, though they were in circulation long enough that copies are widely available.
Athens Police Chief Tom Pyle said Wednesday that alleged rape cases are often complex to investigate, and that the social media uproar surrounding this one hasn't made it any easier.
"It's produced a level of complexity that we don't usually have," he said. His department's main goal at this point, he said, is to try to figure out whether the woman gave consent to the sex; if she was very intoxicated at the time, she might have been legally unable to consent.
"Consent is the main issue here," he said.
The incident has already caught the attention of TV news in Columbus, and has also made it onto such online outlets as Buzzfeed, a social-media news outlet with international reach, which focuses on high-interest "viral" stories on social media. A news story based on local press coverage also ran on the website Business Insider. The headline for the latter piece read, "Ohio University Police Chief Criticizes Crowd for Filming Apparent Sexual Assault Instead of Stopping It."
Athens Police, as of Wednesday morning, were gathering evidence to try to determine whether there's probable cause to think a crime was committed when the man seen in the photos performed oral sex on the woman, as she leaned up against the wall of the Chase Bank building on South Court Street, sometime between 1 a.m. and 6 a.m. Saturday - OU Homecoming Weekend.
After the images made it onto social media, the 20-year-old woman reported the incident to police around 6:30 p.m. the following day, describing it as a sexual assault.
"An Ohio University student reported that she had unconsenting sexual conduct with a male while on South Court Street Saturday morning," a police report states. "The case is under investigation."
Police have identified and been in contact with the man who is seen in the images, and Pyle said both he and the woman are cooperating with the investigation. He said he does not know if the man is an OU student.
Meanwhile, the controversy triggered by the social-media coverage shows no signs of abating. Pyle noted that many people commenting on websites and through social media have chastised those who took the pictures, or watched the sexual incident without doing anything to intervene. This, he suggested, may be discouraging some witnesses from coming forward to share with police their accounts of what they actually saw.
"There may be some reluctance… for people to come forward because of the fact that others have commented on the social media," he speculated. Pyle noted, however, that while his agency does have an image from the sexual encounter that officers believe is genuine, eyewitness accounts might be more valuable.
Those who know the incident only second-hand through images, he said, are "looking at a snapshot in time," and those who were watching while it happened "may have seen it in an entirely different manner… It may have looked consensual to them. They might (now) feel ashamed, and so it makes them reluctant to get involved further."
One type of condemnatory comment he's heard, Pyle said, compares the Athens case to a highly publicized rape of a drunk and unresponsive 16-year-old high-school girl by male high-school students in Steubenville, Ohio. That case got huge media attention because the girl was ridiculed, without her knowledge, on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube during the night of the rape.
Pyle said the comparison seems a stretch. "Other than the social media side, there really is no comparison (between) the two cases," he maintained.