Uncertain terrain: social media and sexual assault narratives

When Alexis, reported her sexual assault to Title IX investigators at Chapman University in December 2014, the last thing she expected was that officials would not believe her.

“I don’t recall really altering my story drastically, but apparently [they said] I did,” said Alexis,, now a junior majoring in communication at USC,who declined to use her real name for privacy reasons. “They didn’t record anything [during the investigation], they just hand wrote notes. [It] was the main reason I transferred [to USC] — I didn’t feel like I was in a school that would take care of me.”

Chapman University Lead Title IX Coordinator DeAnn Gaffney declined to comment on Alexis’ case.

For some survivors, there is a struggle to regain the narrative — and control — of their daily lives following an assault. However, even though Alexis felt disappointed by this outcome, she found a space that allowed her to tell her own story: social media.

In recent years, outlets such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and Tumblr have become spaces where survivors like Alexis can connect with many others who share similar experiences, and can serve as advocacy platforms where survivors ultimately have the power to dictate their own narratives. But online spaces are not free from negative social reactions to assault: Victim blaming, shaming and a lack of survivor privacy are probable consequences of sharing an assault case on social media.

Sharing stories

BuzzFeed recently became an example of social media’s ability to influence the sexual assault narrative. In June 2016, it published a piece that soon became one of the site’s most shared stories of the year: an open letter from a sexual assault survivor to her assailant, which created national headlines with a raw, powerful message that spread across social media.

The letter served as a viral spark that reignited online discourse surrounding sexual assault on college campuses and added personal context to the Stanford rape case, in which Stanford student Brock Turner was found guilty of three counts of felony sexual assault but only sentenced to six months in jail.

“Being able to broadcast [your assault] to everyone and turn it into something … and not be ashamed — I think that can definitely change the narrative,” Alexis said.

Shideh Ghandeharizadeh | Daily Trojan

According to a December 2016 New York Magazine editorial, the online outrage that followed revealed the power and potential of social media to portray the untold side of a story on behalf of sexual assault victims.

“Social media brings you the empowerment you otherwise wouldn’t have had if you didn’t speak up,” Alexis said. “It could empower you to own what has happened to you and take control, because … you lose control when you are sexually assaulted.”

According to therapist and clinical associate professor Kristen Zaleski, who works at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, social media can also be a valuable and unique place for survivors to find support because it provides a personalized platform to share stories.

“The truth is, one in four women has a history of surviving a sexually violent episode,” Zaleski said. “So whenever you post something, you have a 25 percent chance that the person reading that has the same story, and is going to empathize with you, and maybe even share back or be inspired.”

Aside from being a sexual assault survivor, Alexis is also an advocate on campus, where social media has become a key aspect of her work. Alexis is a representative for Violence Outreach Intervention and Community Empowerment, a program in which USC students educate their peers about gender-based trauma.

“When I do my VOICE presentations, I tell people to friend me on Facebook or follow me, and I get a handful of people who do add me — they don’t necessarily talk to me, but they know that I am there if they ever want to talk,” Alexis said. “I also share articles and sometimes write longer thought pieces of my own … on the state of sexual assault on campuses in the United States and around the world.”

Online issues 

Alexis’ social media advocacy began after her Title IX investigation, which was not ruled in her favor. Alexis’ alleged perpetrator was found not guilty, and her case was dismissed. She turned to Facebook as an outlet to explain what had happened to her — it is where Alexis’ story is told, undiluted by forces outside. According to Women Against Violence Against Women, a Canadian rape crisis center, rape culture fosters prevailing social attitudes that normalize or trivialize sexual assault and abuse. And while social media can undoubtedly empower survivors of sexual assault, Zaleski said it can also be a toxic space that perpetuates this problem.

In a study she conducted in 2016 that examined the presence of rape culture within the comments section of online news articles, Zaleski found that victim blaming was the most prominent theme.

Zaleski defines victim blaming as a common filter through which many people approach sexual assault. Instead of antagonizing the perpetrator, many will, either consciously or subconsciously, imply that the survivor is to blame for their own assault due to details such as their clothing, relationship status or degree of sobriety.

“As people look for that affirmation online, and they read any of the comments after the 40-some articles we looked at, they would see that a lot of people wouldn’t think they were legitimately sexually assaulted,” Zaleski said. “They would believe it was [their] fault, or that [they were] complicit in it, and that [they] might feel like the police or judicial system might also blame [them].”

Alexis also identified the double standards that come with speaking out about a sexual assault.

“There’s this huge irony that when a survivor does something unexpected, like speak out, people say they must not be a real survivor, because a real survivor would be ashamed,” Alexis said. “It’s in that same sense where … if you tell your story as a way to fight back, people might be less likely to believe you, because they believe people don’t fight back.”

Zaleski also warns against using social media as an outlet to immediately make sense of what has happened following a sexual assault. In times of trauma or vulnerability, she said that a face-to-face encounter with a professional should be the first priority.

“I would encourage my clients to be hesitant to post something so publicly when you can’t erase that, ever,” Zaleski said. “After you have some distance from the trauma, and are making sense of it and looking for support and guidance in the aftermath, I think that’s a better time to identify yourself and put it out there.”

In the same way, Alexis does not advocate for either speaking about ongoing sexual assault cases or revealing the identity of a sexual assault perpetrator on social media.

“When I posted about my story, I offered that if any woman at Chapman would like to know my perpetrator, they could message me privately and I will let them know who he is,” Alexis said. “But I didn’t broadcast it to the world.”

A changing landscape

The prevalence and permanence of social media continues to contribute to both its appeal and risk. In the Steubenville High School rape case of 2012, two high school football players were found guilty of publicly and repeatedly sexually assaulting a female student. Because the assault was documented on Facebook and Twitter, the case drew national attention for the influence of social media on the initial prosecution and later widespread outrage.

“The reason the men were caught is because they posted it online,” Zaleski said. “The detriment to that is that she, who had this horrible, violent, traumatizing thing happen to her, is now online forever, because of their actions.”

Despite its risks, however, Alexis believes that the ability to share freely on social media contributes to one of its biggest advantages.

“If you feel safe with the people you are linked with on social media…simply advocating for other survivors could be a form of healing,” Alexis said. “Educating [your friends] and expressing your frustrations, even if they are not knowledgeable of your situation, could be very helpful for you to get that indirect support.”