Despite rape allegations, Conor Oberst still has a career

** 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.

References:

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.

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  • Oberst’s behavior has been particularly disturbing. For a man who claims to care so much about rape victims (thanks bro!) he sure has done everything he can to make the climate even more hostile for women trying to come forward.

  • Me

    Thank you for this piece of honesty and sanity. Those of us who still despite the crowds’ madness do not hate the victims and fear the aggressive can’t give up.

  • A compassionate, well-written and scholarly article, thank you.

    As a psychologist I was, however, concerned by a somewhat surprising naivety by the authors regarding social media and the particular requirement for preserving absolute confidentiality when dealing with such cases. Feminist journalists are surely not unaware of the total lack of privacy vis a vis social media which is the antithesis of confidentiality: “She hadn’t expected anyone to notice her comments, and I didn’t expect many people to read the link I’d posted”.

    At this point in proceedings some degree of thought might have saved a lot of anguish and possible retraumatisation. In some circles this intervention might be interpreted as the acting out of a ‘rescue fantasy. Feminists have responsibilities too. Certainly there was a terrible backlash that no amount of feminist good intentions could undo after the fact.

    I also have misgivings about the term ‘rape culture’. I believe that it may unnecessarily circumscribe and polarise the issues, in begging the question as to the broader sociocultural conditions that permit and normalise abuse. In some sense it also locks in the idea conceptually, as a buzzword, a neat encapsulation for the converted while constraining wider debate with women who do not happen to be feminists.

    The “post-feminist landscape” is a myth implying battles won while dispensing with the analysis of failures. Impulses to heroism, no matter how heartfelt, should be eschewed in favour of carefully thought out strategies that embrace all predictable consequences.

    A feminist analysis of celebrity culture is long overdue, particularly in respect of its hot-housing of power inequities within the highly lucrative sadomasochistic thraldom of the poprock music industry. Have a look at Ian Watkins again. This is not to pathologise early teen mass crushes nor the extraordinary power of music to intensify them (a whole other psychosocial story) but, as the authors have pointed out so eloquently, the abuse of power potentiated by the very nature of the relationship between stars and fans from the get go to the end game is the crux of the matter. I would add that in our celeb-obsessed societies we tolerate the permissive hothouse as a corollary to liberalism.

    So there have to be rules. The rise of paedophilia and the need to protect children from predation – pretty much the last taboo – have confirmed for feminists the limitations of self-serving libertarianism. The music industry – like the visual arts/movie/ fashion industries, etc – has enjoyed immunity from regulation for too long. Given the backlash by Oberst fans to the leaking of the victim’s social media disclosures (as reported by the authors), the raising of community awareness, while meritorious, will merely give rise to factionalism if not properly seen as the first stage towards lobbying for legislative reform. As the only pathway to real change, this is where feminists should be directing their outrage and dedicating their activism.

    • marv

      “I also have misgivings about the term ‘rape culture’. I believe that it may unnecessarily circumscribe and polarise the issues, in begging the question as to the broader sociocultural conditions that permit and normalise abuse. In some sense it also locks in the idea conceptually, as a buzzword, a neat encapsulation for the converted while constraining wider debate with women who do not happen to be feminists.”

      It would be a colossal mistake to retract the term “rape culture”. The issues have already been circumscribed and polarised by male dominance which is the wider social context in which we live that normalizes sexual violence. Rape culture is an honest and straightforward description of reality not a “buzzword”. Of course it will alienate some people and enkindle others to take action. So do the words white supremacy, colonization and class antagonism. The truth is charged language, provocative and dangerous to those who don’t want to hear it. It is being constrained from broader debate not by feminists but by the power of men along with timid approaches to ending their monopoly

    • oh yoko

      the ONLY pathway to “real” change is lobbying for legislative reform? Really? Ok. Cool. Good to know where you stand.

      I’m not saying it hasn’t ever worked, but it is HARDLY the only way. It’s rude and perhaps historically and intellectually lazy to suggest that legislative reform is the only way forward. It is also very much defeatist, if you are any kind of revolutionary whatsoever.

    • lizor

      “At this point in proceedings some degree of thought might have saved a lot of anguish and possible retraumatisation. In some circles this intervention might be interpreted as the acting out of a ‘rescue fantasy. Feminists have responsibilities too. Certainly there was a terrible backlash that no amount of feminist good intentions could undo after the fact.”

      Where do you get off assuming that no “degree of thought” was entailed in the proceedings described in this blog post? And how dare you come onto this blog and give the asinine directive that feminists have [to take] responsibility?

      Your credentials as a psychologist don’t give you the authority you presume to take in this forum where many of us also hold advanced degrees, have decades of working in the trenches with victims of male violence and have been studying and discussing these issues for many years. Your entire post recalls Rebecca Solnit’s essay “Men Explain Things to Me” and her descriptor of the arrogant windbag as he settled into explaining the ins and outs of the book she had authored.

      “He was already telling me about the very important book — with that smug look I know so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority.”

      I don’t know your sex or gender identity, but here you are, in the same zone as Tiresome Dude. I do hope, if you are a clinical psychologist, that, for the sake of your clients, you’ll educate yourself about the factual prevalence of violence against women and leave the chorus of deniers, hectorers and apologists. Sexual trauma prevails at a cultural level. That means context for the specific traumas a significant number of your clients must inevitably carry (but perhaps, instinctively do not trust you enough to share). If you have any honest interest in improving things, dispense with this inappropriate, obnoxious lecture of people who clearly know a hell of a lot more about the issue than you do.

  • Sylvia Black

    “concerned by a somewhat surprising naivety by the authors regarding social media and the particular requirement for preserving absolute confidentiality when dealing with such cases. Feminist journalists are surely not unaware of the total lack of privacy vis a vis social media”

    You do realize that feminists (women more generally) write about the dudes who rape them (even famous ones!) online all the time, and that most of the time nothing of any consequence happens?

    On the contrary, I suggest it would have been more naive for a woman who has experienced the silencing of her story for ten years to to expect major publications to be covering her allegations within weeks.

  • Sylvia Black

    May I suggest that the Jezebel Rape Kit Questionnaire looks a bit like the lovely due process all woman are afforded by legal teams, administrators, friends, and the world over?

    1. Do you recall all the dates and times and specifics surrounding the incident with complete accuracy? (because trauma and memory have no relationship!hahahaha)

    2. Have you ever spoken positively about the alleged rapist post-rape?

    3. Have you ever misrepresented yourself or your family online?

    4. Has your rapist ever professed to care about *real* rape victims?

  • Orryia

    Sadly, this sort of thing happens all the time. A while ago, a famous singer in my country was accused of raping minors. At the time I knew a thirteen year old girl who was a fan of his. I asked her if she’d heard about the accusations. She nodded, and added hopefully, “But they say those girls are lying.” I was a little too shocked to think of an answer.

  • Fiona

    Why should his career suffer when it’s not clear whether anything really happened?? I’m just as concerned with the invisibility of rape (as a crime) as much as the next person but I don’t think it’s a good idea to just take any person on their word that they were raped. Even white guys are innocent until *proven* guilty.

  • noro

    Please read this and understand the part you played in trashing an innocent man’s career. You STILL cant admit when you’re wrong and it’s sad.
    http://connyxoberst.com/post/92488871217/the-cruelest-hoax-in-history-and-my-side-of-the-story

  • Aaron

    Well, looks like you were fucking wrong. Way to jump to conclusions and trash this innocent “dude” for click-bait fodder. Congrats.

  • xiu

    If conor oberst is innocent of this accusation it is very unfortunate that this girl lied. BUT it doesn’t change the fact that falsely reported rapes are a tiny percentage (2%) of rape accusations. It is important to remember that, because it means that women who accuse men of rape are telling the truth 98% of the time. It means that supporting women who speak out about being raped is not somehow irrational or feminist craziness, it is consistent with the overhwelming majority of actual rape cases. It is also good to remember that the dominant culture is not a neutral space–it supports men almost all the time when rape accusations are made. The police, the laws, and judicial processes are all implicitly supportive of men and the opposite to women who accuse of rape. Mainstream culture puts men first, that’s just the facts. Feminists put women first. How can you condemn feminists as if we are committing some huge crime if we’re willing to put women first, even if it means that 2% of the time we may be wrong, when the entire culture puts men first and definitely doesn’t care that this means that 98% of the time they will be wrong? They don’t care because it is women’s bodies and lives that are seen as expendable. Feminists don’t see women’s bodies and lives that way. I support women by default and always will. And when a woman lies, I will not allow that lie to negatively effect my support for all the other women who DO deserve it.

  • CaveDweller

    “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”.

    That might now read, “Since ‘rape culture’ teaches us to destroy and discredit the accused before we even think about questioning the accuser, it’s fair to step out of that pattern for a moment and wonder”….

    Seems no one is immune from the temptation to be judge and jury prior to due process.

  • Tadgh

    I have to say the tone and some of the content of this article, in addition to the OP’s tweets after the allegations were withdrawn, were pretty disappointing. Even after the accuser admitted she fabricated her rape story there was no degree of contrition from the author, despite the negative bias towards Oberst in the article. Given her unfair treatment of the latter, I believe an expression of even mild regret would have been warranted.

    • noro

      Let’s not forget her tumblr where she was so proud of herself for “discovering” the comments, effectively starting the chain reaction to make this worldwide news and calling herself “the indie rock SVU”. Bragging like this was some achievement for her, not a tragedy for the “victim”. Not at all surprised there is no mild regret from her.

    • Lisa Horth

      Completely agreed. In my opinion, Conor Oberst handled the allegations exactly as he should have: rather than remaining silent on (or worse, exacerbating) a serious issue for women, he publicly condemned rape culture and turned the situation into a way to help actual victims of sexual assault. Although the reluctance of victims to come forward is an extremely serious issue, equally problematic are false allegations that, by the accuser’s own admission, are harmful to the claims of these women and a contributing reason why sexual assault allegations are often unjustly disbelieved in the first place. It appears that the author is too close to this case to consider factors such as the presumption of innocence and the potential dangers of treating all men as the enemy (even politically progressive social figures like Oberst) to admit her unfair treatment of a perfectly innocent and deservedly respected artist, but I for one think an apology is long overdue.

  • BALL DONT LIE

    Munchausen syndrome:

    “The statements I made and repeated online and elsewhere over the
    past six months accusing Conor Oberst of raping me are 100% false. I
    made up those lies about him to get attention while I was going through a
    difficult period in my life and trying to cope with my son’s illness. I
    publicly retract my statements about Conor Oberst, and sincerely
    apologize to him, his family, and his fans for writing such awful things
    about him. I realize that my actions were wrong and could undermine the
    claims of actual sexual assault victims and for that I also apologize.
    I’m truly sorry for all the pain that I caused.” – Joan Elizabeth Harris