Sexual Assault in the Age of Social Media

FILE PHOTO --  People holding mobile phones are silhouetted against a backdrop projected with the Twitter logo in this illust
FILE PHOTO -- People holding mobile phones are silhouetted against a backdrop projected with the Twitter logo in this illustration picture taken in Warsaw September 27, 2013. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Illustration/File Photo

Earlier this summer, the Stanford rape case sparked outrage. The survivor's harrowing 7,244-word narrative of her attack went viral on Buzzfeed and ignited a long-awaited national debate on sexual assault reform. Her story, uncut in its full 12-page form, saturated Twitter and Facebook feeds across the globe. In a rare instance, social media empowered this survivor's voice to prevail louder than her attacker's. But in the frenzy of social media we live in, victims of sexual assault typically have far less agency as peers and partygoers upload digital evidence of the assault while the victim's voice is squashed and justice disregarded.

Such is the case in Audrie and Daisy, a new Netflix documentary detailing the heart wrenching stories of sexual assault victims Audrie Pott and Daisy Coleman. Both young women sustained horrifying trauma and were forced to relive the attacks day after day as classmates propagated images and videos of their assaults across the web. Between the relentless cyberbullying they faced and a lack of institutional support, Audrie committed suicide and Daisy was driven out of her hometown. In both cases, social media helped amplify victim-shaming and entrench the victim in a state of public suffering.

The story of sexual assault and victimization through social media has unfortunately become commonplace. Between the universality of cellphones with cameras and the widespread cultural adoption of social media, victims are often trapped in a wrath of character assassination and name-calling long after their assault. To make matters worse, victims often feel overlooked by the criminal justice system. Rehtaeh Parsons endured insurmountable ridicule after photos of her rape were circulated across school email, but the online photos amounted to insufficient evidence for the police to press charges. The victim assaulted by two Steubenville, Ohio football players awoke unaware of her assault as it publicly unfolded through text messages, Twitter conversations, and Instagram posts. But even with the online trail the assailants left behind, the police were unable to solidify a case.

Audrie and Daisy has rekindled the public's awareness of sexual assault, but its greater purpose is to inspire action. No longer should we neglect the seventy-six percent of women under 30 who report experiencing online cyberbullying, unwanted contact, trolling, sexual harassment, and threats of rape or death.

Sharing a trending hashtag in solidarity with victims of sexual assault and harassment is not enough. We must do more. Particularly, we should support the efforts of advocacy campaigns striving to reform juvenile sex assault statutes so that legal victories like Audrie's Law in California can become the standard in every state. We should encourage local schools to adopt the CDC's Bystander Intervention programs that empower peers to protect one another in situations of danger, violence, sexual assault, rape, and harassment. We should lend our voices to legitimize evidence on social media as incriminating evidence of truly ghastly crimes, not as part of a campaign to tarnish the victim's identity. We should strengthen accessibility to sexual assault survivor support programs, like Chicago's Rape Victim Advocates, so that survivors have a safe place to heal and recover. We should hold our social media platforms accountable for inconsistently responding to sexual harassment complaints and failing to remove memes that champion violence against women.

Rather than lament the world we live in, it is time we take action in ensuring our daughters, granddaughters, goddaughters, nieces, and sisters never have to withstand such anguish.