** Earlier this year, news broke that emo darling Conor Oberst had been accused of statutory rape. This is a short history of the case, from the woman who first brought it to the internet’s attention. **
Like many progressives, I spend a fair amount of time reading about social issues. When the story relates to my actual profession, I’m all in. Publications often seem like a desert in that respect, because despite our alleged postfeminist landscape, feminist politics haven’t seemed to make particular inroads into the music industry. Occasionally someone will pick apart especially egregious behavior from especially famous dudes, while many women on the scene self-describe as feminists whether they are or not; but hardly anyone seems eager to probe at this sausage fest any further.
About six months ago, though, an xoJane articlesurfaced about domestic violence within the independent scene. I read it, and the comments too, out of journalistic reflex. One comment recounted a young woman’s account of rape culture in action: as a teenager, she experienced assault at the hands of a prominent indie rocker, and no one she told had believed her. At the prompting of other commenters, she named her assailant as Conor Oberst, the Bright Eyes frontman who went on to co-found a record label and lead half a dozen successful indie bands.
Since several big-name rape cases had recently been in the news, including a retrospective of R. Kelly’s decades-long statutory sex-crime spree, I felt an allegation against yet another musician was newsworthy. According to published statistics [(Bouffard, J.,2000; Campbell, R., Wasco, S. M., Ahrens, C. E., Sefl, T., & Barnes, H. E., 2001; Spohn, C., Beichner, D., & Davids-Frenzel, E. 2001)], very few rape accusations are taken seriously, much less lead to any sort of legal consequences — so to me, the simple fact that more victims around the world were coming forward seemed like evidence of a social shift. Knowing my online followers would likely feel the same, I posted a link to the comment on Tumblr.
Several days later, the original commenter and I got in touch. We both felt it prudent to run an interview with her to establish her account of the event and prevent any misunderstandings, so over the course of several conversations, she told her full story to me and to another feminist who counsels sexual assault victims. Like many women who experience sexual violence [(Krug, Etienne G., Mercy, James A., Dahlberg, Linda L., & Zwi, Anthony B., 2002], the commenter had a turbulent home life and dabbled in self-harm as a coping strategy. Like many teens, she identified with Oberst’s songs about dysfunction and existential dissatisfaction, and rapidly became a fan. The night she says Oberst raped her, she was just excited to see her idol in person. Afterwards, her friends didn’t believe she said “no” because Oberst was famous and she’d previously found him attractive. Like many rape victims, she chose not to report and didn’t speak about the event again until the discussion at xoJane. Like me, she felt that telling her story would help other victims of sexual violence find their own voices, and that it would be worth her effort if she could help even one other young girl or woman.
She hadn’t expected anyone to notice her comments, and I didn’t expect many people to read the link I’d posted. However, while the commenter was sharing her story with us on the phone, Oberst’s online fan club was circulating her post on the internet. By the next day, several major fan blogs had blown up the story; soon blogger conny-x-oberst had contacted the commenter and quickly discovered her identity. Within a matter of hours, news had reached Oberst himself; his publicity team responded with a rebuttal in publications like SPIN, NME, Rolling Stone, and Buzzfeed. Someone sold the commenter’s real name to Buzzfeed, who passed it along to the world. (Between then and now, the article naming the victim has since disappeared from the internet.) Immediately fans on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr bombarded the commenter with harassment and abuse until she deleted her social media accounts. To top off the whole affair, news then came that Oberst was filing suit against the commenter, citing his “hatred of rape” and demanding one million dollars in reparations.
Clearly this isn’t the typical rape case. But at the same time, it kind of is. None of the facts I’ve recounted will seem surprising to anyone who’s familiar with the politics of sexual assault. The victim’s story won’t shock anyone who’s ever been to a concert or read investigative journalism about R. Kelly. Men who are in positions of power — like musicians, no matter how indie-rock — often target the young women and girls who look up to them. The more alone, abused, vulnerable, or marginalized the woman or girl, the more likely she is to keep quiet, and the less likely anyone is to believe her if she does speak up. In the off chance anyone does take her seriously, an abuser can let rape culture take over: society will think up virtually any excuse to paint a victim as a liar who was asking for it and should have known better. If she doesn’t respond to her trauma like society expects a proper victim to respond, if (say) she puts on a good public face and pretends it didn’t happen until she can’t pretend anymore, the case against her is even better. In the end, if all else fails, a man with connections can just throw money at the problem to make it go away.
What, then, made Oberst and his team react as they did? It’s not as though rape accusations are likely to hurt someone’s career. R. Kelly has enjoyed several decades of stardom by simply ignoring the numerous allegations of statutory rape against him. When several victims took the issue to court, he paid their families off and carried on as if nothing happened. Despite ongoing investigative journalism by Jim DeRogatis, the public now euphemizes Kelly’s crimes at best and mines them for “irony” at worst. Woody Allen has similarly dodged accountability by denying his adopted daughter’s charges of molestation and accusing his ex Mia Farrow of fabricating the story, whereas Roman Polanski has successfully taken the “sure-I-did-it-but-who-could-blame-me” route to get away with drugging and raping a teenager. More recently, Isaac Brock of indie band Modest Mouse responded to charges of raping a fan by indignantly making the story go away. Given such precedent, it certainly looks like any concern for basic sexual ethics is just lip service and that pop culture doesn’t give a shit about girls and women. Someone, not just a ball-busting feminist, might understandably think a man could get away with pretty much anything.
In this case, the victim can’t even take legal action because all physical evidence in the case has been lost; all she can do is mention it deep in a comment thread on a feminist website, and now she can’t even do that. Oberst’s career hasn’t suffered at all in the face of her allegations: he still co-owns the successful record labels Saddle Creek and Team Love. He released a solo album on May 20 and recently played the Shaky Knees Festival (as did Isaac Brock, another accused rapist!) with a full tour of major venues ahead. He’s still a major draw as an artist, getting glowing press in major publications, so his $80,000-per-year livelihood is doing just fine. It even seems his reputation is barely dented — many fans responded to the news with little more than dull surprise, and many felt the situation was not unfortunate enough to give up their Bright Eyes discography. Practically speaking, it’s almost like the allegations were never made.
So why counter them in the first place by blowing the story up in the press and filing a lawsuit? In this cultural climate, it would have made much better PR sense to maintain silence until the matter blew over. If a statement had to be made, why not issue a vague dismissal? If someone knew the allegations against them were false (and that, face it, no one who could cause any real problems would likely believe the accuser), why worry? Moreover, if someone were in fact unstable enough to level a false criminal accusation, especially knowing no recourse could be taken anyway, obviously mental health issues would be at foot and the accuser would need appropriate treatment to assess their risk to self or others. Demanding a perversely gigantic sum of money instead, then promising to donate the proceeds to a rape crisis center (you know, to help *real* victims), just seems like a cruel and petty public exercise in power. It discourages other victims from coming forward against *their* attackers, which may very well be the point. And, frankly, above all it makes Oberst look very, very guilty.
Since rape culture teaches us to destroy and discredit accusers before we even think about questioning the accused, it’s fair to step out of that pattern for a moment and wonder. Did Oberst sense that sexual assault victims were beginning to gain strength to tell their stories? Had he noticed that parts of society touched by feminism are more inclined to support victims, which might possibly stand to disrupt the lives of rapists? Did that worry him, for any reason? If so, has he ever found that fear incompatible with his professed hatred of rape? Has anyone else pointed out this dissonance between expressed thought and practiced action?
If you feel indignance rising now in the face of some journalist questioning a man’s motives and credibility, please remember that the victim’s identity has already been sold to the press. She has been harassed both privately and publicly; her motives and credibility have been questioned by a purportedly feminist publication, someone has created a Tumblr account dedicated to spreading rumors about her, and her private life and livelihood have been compromised. Compared to the consequences to Oberst (which have been demonstrably negligible), this is obviously disproportionate. Whether someone believes this is a case of rape turned into an object lesson in order to intimidate other victims, or merely a giant publicity gaffe gone horribly wrong, this could only happen in a society that considers women’s characters, bodies, and lives to be public property, while men are held as sacrosanct.
Even if someone believes false rape accusations are a concern, there has to be a better way to handle it than revictimization and exercises in extreme public misogyny. I personally believe the XOJane commenter’s story; whether you do or don’t, the fact remains that she was grossly mistreated. And her case — including the public humiliation and overt threats to her safety — is not at all isolated or uncommon. Regardless of what anyone thinks of an individual rape allegation, rapists will maintain the power to rape as long as victims live in fear of reporting rapes. Anyone dedicated to ending rape culture will understand the problem here.
Meanwhile, what happens to the rapists? Even when we can *prove* a man is a rapist, he gets to stay in business — making his art, being funded and praised for his art, getting sponsorships and even appearing on behalf of charitable organizations for his art, basically building a personal “brand” for himself because of his art, all the while being given free access to many potential victims for the sake of “art” as a whole. Not only does this really seem as though no one in an actual position of power truly cares if a rapist rapes, it sends a clear message that the money which art brings to already-powerful people means more than women’s lives do. That silence, and justice, can be bought with no consideration to the damage it will cause. That powerful men care more about protecting rapists — especially those who are themselves powerful men —than anyone cares about women and girls feeling safe doing regular things which men take for granted, even benign things like seeking out literature or films or music for our own entertainment.
The larger question I’m posing isn’t “did Conor Oberst do it?” — because in the end, sorry not sorry, Conor Oberst himself isn’t particularly important. I’m asking the classic feminist question: “do most people truly think women are human?” Evaluating the evidence right now, I’m not getting an encouraging answer.
Update 06-20-2014: It appears that the xoJane article and comment section where accusations against Oberst first appeared have been removed from the internet for legal reasons. However, because their fallout is apparent, the fact that they happened is not in dispute. As this essay is ultimately about the culture of intimidation and misogyny which surrounds rape accusations, it still stands.
Update 07-14-2014: The accuser has issued a statement saying that the allegations she made were false. Oberst sued her for libel in February.
Article by Joy Wagner; edited by Sylvia Black.
Joy Wagner is a freelance writer who also works odd jobs in indie rock. For the past decade her hobbies have included radical political theory and feminist activism.
Sylvia Black is a feminist public health researcher and musician. Like Joy, she finds these arenas have considerable overlap.
Bouffard, J. (2000). Predicting type of sexual assault case closure from victim, suspect, and case characteristics. Journal of Criminal Justice, 28, 527-542.
Campbell, R., Wasco, S. M., Ahrens, C. E., Sefl, T., & Barnes, H. E. (2001). Preventing the “second rape”: Rape survivors experiences with community service providers. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 16(12), 1239-1259.
Krug, Etienne G., Mercy, James A., Dahlberg, Linda L., & Zwi, Anthony B. (2002). The world report on violence and health. The Lancet, 360(9339), 1083-1088. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(02)11133-0
Spohn, C., Beichner, D., & Davids-Frenzel, E. (2001). Prosecutorial justifications for sexual assault case rejection: Guarding the ‘gateway to justice’. Social Problems, 48, 206-235.