Rape in the Age of Social Media
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
A video of a gleeful teenage boy crowing, “She is so raped” and “They raped her quicker than Mike Tyson!” An Instagram image of the same girl of Steubenville, Ohio, limply borne by boys holding wrists and ankles. An 11-year-old girl whose gang rape in Texas last year was discovered by adults via cellphone video, a video she then had to watch when she took the stand. A teenage boy in Canada who posted photos on Facebook of a 16-year-old girl being gang-raped, sentenced last year to probation and ordered to write an essay on “the pros and cons of social media.”
They are a loop of retraumatization, these images replaying sexual violence and the culture around it, but they are something else, too: evidence. They are proof not just for a courtroom that formally recognizes the existence of rape and sexual assault, but for a culture prone to denying it or explaining it away. The evidence is made not by concerned bystanders seeking to document crimes but by the victimizers themselves, who chronicle their actions because they see nothing wrong with them or because they think nothing will happen to them. Often the images are made by people who see only spectacle, not reason for intervention. But in all of these cases, the recorders eventually lost control of their own productions — in Steubenville, for example, the kids’ careless tweets were screen-grabbedby an enterprising blogger. Their own creations were turned against them in the service of justice, if far too late and too often incomplete.
In the crudest journalistic terms, rape is having a moment, from India to Ohio. (Recall how much of last year’s widespread anger at Republican politicians had to do with rape at least as much as reproductive freedom. They’re intimately related, and both concern ownership over bodies that are considered collective property, but not everyone sees the connection.) It’s having a moment on the streets, in both of those places, though even that has had a virtual element, as people all over the world have watched and live-tweeted the livestream of the Steubenville rallies and passed around stories of the Indian protests. Sexual violence remains something that is rarely openly discussed in daily life, but has become something that is urgently talked about on the Internet — by introverts, the semi-anonymous, those with too much to lose, those who named what happened to them too late, all rendered angry activists and confessors.
Sometimes, the survivors of such reproduced assaults take matters into their own hands. “There you go, lock me up. I’m not protecting anyone that made my life a living Hell,” wrote 16-year-old Savannah Dietrich on Twitter after naming, in defiance of a court order, the boys who had sexually assaulted her — and photographed it — while she was passed out. “I just wanted to stand up for myself,” she told the Daily Beast recently. “I’ll never take those tweets down.” That same story quoted a legal advocate saying that the new technologies are increasingly used “as a weapon to harass and humiliate the victim,” adding up to “an invasion of privacy beyond what we’ve seen before.” That’s undeniable, but Dietrich chose to use another virtual platform to turn the glare back on the perpetrators.
For survivors of sexual assault for whom there is no public record, creating one by choice — as opposed to your victimizer taking yet another choice away by publicizing it — is a fraught decision. Jaclyn Friedman, co-editor of “Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape,” first wrote about her own experience with rape in 2007, years after it happened, and was immediately subjected to wild claims by people who said they had (totally made-up) information on the case. “When you talk on the Internet about being a survivor of sexual violence, two things will invariably happen,” she said. “You will be surrounded by support and you will be called hateful names and hear abusive things.” She added, ”The Internet is an accelerant, of both the bad and the good. It has the potential to make those violations much worse and much more public, and repeat them in ways that go beyond the most physical act. But it also makes it plain so that anyone can see.”