A federal attorney said his quote is being taken “way out of context” after his description of a new outreach program brought accusations of rape apologia.
On Thursday, U.S. Attorney William J. Ihlenfeld of West Virginia announced “Project Future Two-a-Days,” a program that aims to teach student athletes about the “extremely volatile” combination of alcohol, smart phones and social media. Beginning in 11 high schools this month, the program comes one year after the rape of a 16-year-old girl by two high school football stars in Steubenville, Ohio, sparked national outrage when details of the incident were shared on social media.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Ihlenfeld’s description of the program’s origins seemed to suggest that the Steubenville rape case served as the impetus for “Project Future”:
[“The rape case] definitely played a role in causing us to think, ‘Who do we need to focus upon?’ We thought, ‘Let’s start calling athletic directors and coaches to see if they’re interested.’ That investment of time hopefully will pay dividends down the road, not only because you hope the kids are going to stay out of trouble. Social media creates so many distractions off the field for coaches. Maybe we can help them avoid that situation as well … We bring the perspective of ‘OK, if you do this, this is what can happen. We don’t want to see you in court.”
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Once the quote was published, reporters, activists and social media users began slamming Ihlenfeld for creating a program they say sounds like a how-to guide for would-be rapists. “Steubenville-Inspired Program Teaches Teen Jocks Not to Instagram Rape,” went the headline from Jezebel. An article in New York magazine was equally critical, saying the program “misses the point.” And not surprisingly, Ihlenfeld is also being criticized on social media, with one website dubbing him “a--hole of the day.”
In response to the program, the women’s-rights group Ultra Violet launched a petition calling on Ihlenfeld to scrap it:
“The lesson for students from the Steubenville, Ohio, rape case should be not to commit rape, not how to avoid getting caught. We demand that your educational program include material on respecting women, seeking consent from sexual partners, and clearly defining rape and sexual assault for teens -- including the legal consequences for committing these crimes.”
But Ihlenfeld said the connection between the rape case and “Project Future” is being blown out of proportion. In a phone interview, he told International Business Times that the program began last October as an outreach effort geared specifically toward drug education. (West Virginia ranks No. 2 for drug-overdose deaths.) It was only after the program had been around for several months that a component of social media education was added at the request of school officials, reacting presumably to the crime and its repercussions.
“We had some educators and administrators ask us to add it,” Ihlenfeld said. “They said, ‘Hey, we know you’re going to be talking about the dangers of drugs, can you also talk about social media, and sexting and texting as part of your presentation?’”
Ihlenfeld’s description of “Project Future” is a far cry from a program that teaches “high school athletes not to post evidence of rape online,” as Ultra Violet characterized it. On the contrary, Ihlenfeld said, the Steubenville case affected the program only inasmuch as it affected the national conversation on social media.
“It was not the inspiration for this program,” he said.
Ihlenfeld said criticism that the program “misses the point” by focusing on the perpetrators and not the victim is just not true. The three-part presentation, he said, focuses not only on drugs and social media responsibility, but also sexual-assault awareness.
“We talk about the impact it has on the victim,” he said. “We talk about, ‘Would you want this to happen to your sister, to your daughter, to somebody that’s important in your life?’”
He added that the program, in spite of reports to the contrary, sends a message that sexual assault is a crime, and that it comes with consequences.
Most of the critical reports about “Project Future” cite the same AP story, which included Ihlenfeld’s quote but scant description of the program itself. Ihlenfeld said he was not misquoted and has no complaint about the AP story, although he did acknowledge that the reporter likely played up the Steubenville angel for the sake of generating more interest. He said he just wished people would seek more information before jumping to conclusions about what the program teaches.
“In no way are we teaching young people how to commit crimes and get away with it,” he said. “In fact we’re doing the opposite.”