As Media Coverage of Sexual Assault Fails, Survivors Find Solace in Social Media

1 in 4 women has experienced either rape or attempted rape at some point in their lives. The majority of these cases, however, go unreported.

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), only 230 out of every 1,000 sexual assault cases are reported to the police. In other words, roughly 3 out of every 4 cases go unreported. 

Why is that? Not going to the authorities seems counter intuitive, especially to those of us who have been fortunate enough not to have experienced sexual violence. 

There are a variety of reasons why a survivor may choose not to go to the police. The most common reasons are tied to shame and self-blame. In an interview with ABC News, Beverly Engel, a psychotherapist and self-help author, said that “victims are often too ashamed to come forward” and “almost always blame themselves, and we can understand why, because in our culture, we tend to blame victims in general.”

We often expect victims to be ‘perfect.’ They should promptly identify attackers, perfectly recall the incident, immediately report the attack to the authorities, dress modestly, and not drink. These extreme victim stereotypes perpetuate problematic media coverage of sexual assault.

Media coverage of sexual assault often uses language that exonerates the perpetrator, feeding into the pestilential culture of victim blaming. 

For example, a 2016 Washington Post article detailing the sentencing of registered sex offender Brock Turner highlighted the survivor’s, Chanel Miller, high blood-alcohol levels, including the detail that she “was so intoxicated at the time of the incident…that she didn’t wake up for at least three hours afterward.” 

Abruptly, the article dove into Turner’s swimming career, commenting that “his extraordinary, yet brief swim career is now tarnished, like a rusting trophy” and his “life and career…upended during a night of drinking.” The article insinuated that Miller ruined Turner’s “once-promising future.”

This type of framing works to maintain the ‘perfect’ victim theory and victim blaming by emphasizing that the victim was intoxicated at the time of the incident. It’s clear why survivors often don’t go to the police: reporting puts them at risk of intense public scrutiny, retaliation, and not being believed. 

In recent years, however, many survivors have come forward on various social media platforms, most notably, Twitter. 

Although the “Me Too” movement was founded in 2006 by Tarana Burke, a Black sexual assault survivor and activist, it gained traction in 2017 after a tweet by actress Alyssa Milano that urged survivors to share their stories of sexual abuse went viral.

Milano’s tweet woke the world up to the magnitude of the problem of sexual violence. Since then, millions of survivors have shared their stories of sexual violence online with the hashtag #MeToo.

In a world with systems that often do not hold perpetrators of sexual violence accountable—only 5 out of every 1,000 cases of sexual assault result in a felony conviction—speaking out on social media provides survivors with validation and a space for accountability.

Speaking out on social media is not without its risks: online accusations can expose the accuser to defamation lawsuits, or, if the accuser has also filed an official police report, an online retelling of the story can weaken the prosecutors’ case if there are any slight variations in the story.

Overall, social media can have a positive impact on the way we view and discuss sexual violence. And while social media should not be seen or used as a form of activism—real, substantive change happens through protests, voting, donations, education, and uncomfortable conversations with friends and family—it is a decent tool for sparking and facilitating dialogue around sexual violence and rape culture. 

In recent weeks, many social media accounts have been created for college students to submit their stories of campus sexual assault. Four Boston University students, for example, created an Instagram page for survivors to share their experiences. The goal of the account is to build a supportive online community for survivors and erase some of the stigma surrounding sexual assault. The stories featured on the account are diverse, working to eliminate the singular narrative surrounding victims and sexual violence.

If nothing else, these accounts at least expose social media users to content related to sexual misconduct. For instance, approximately two-thirds of adults who use social media say that some of the content they interact with involves sexual misconduct, and 29 percent say that a large part of the content they see pertains to sexual assault. 

All social justice movements require an informed public to push for progressive legislative reform. And if news organizations continue to cover sexual violence in a way that reinforces victim blaming and rape culture, then social media may be our best option for dispelling these problematic norms. 

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