Audrie Pott's sexual assault was just the beginning of her nightmare. On Sunday night of Labor Day Weekend, Audrie passed out drunk at a friend's house. Three male classmates took her to an upstairs bedroom, where they stripped her down to her underwear, drew on her naked body in green marker, and sexually assaulted her. They also took pictures. Audrie spent the next eight days frantically trying to find out how far those pictures had spread, and enduring the abuse of classmates who had already seen them. Then she hung herself.
Sadly, this narrative of the tragic results of the combination of sexual assault, bullying, and social media is by now a familiar one. 17-year-old Rehtae Parsons hung herself after a year of bullying prompted by the distribution of photos showing her rape. The nationally infamous rape case in Steubenville, Ohio, in which two high school football players were convicted of sexually assaulting a sixteen-year-old girl, featured similar bullying and documentation of the assault on social media. Two thirteen-year-old girls were called "whores" on Twitter after a pair of eighteen-year-old football players were arrested for statutory rape.
In an age when everything that's newsworthy, and plenty that's not, is Tweeted, Facebooked, or Instagrammed, it may come as no surprise that social media has invaded even this particularly ugly aspect of our lives. However, sexual violence activist and expert Dr. Rebecca Campbell, whose research we've written about in the past, suggests that the relationship between sexual assault and social media may be deeper and more disturbing. "Sexual assault is a crime of power and dominance," she says. "By distributing images of the rape through social media, it's a way of asserting dominance and power to hurt the victim over and over again."
Of course, as the cases described above demonstrate, the continued trauma endured by sexual assault victims through social media isn't perpetrated solely by their attackers. Any number of their peers share photos and videos or use social media as a platform from which to bully victims, often for having reported the assault. In this way, social media discourages victims from reporting these crimes by facilitating a reaction to assault comparable to the secondary victimization suffered at the hands of law enforcement that we've previously written about. Such bullying seems to be both a symptom of and a contributing factor to a society that blames victims for their sexual assaults.
Yet the very photos and videos whose dissemination can torture victims of sexual assault can also lead to convictions for their assailants. Indeed, visual images like these can be essential to securing a criminal conviction in cases of sexual assault, where muddled recollections and conflicting accounts can make it very difficult to prove a perpetrator's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Moreover, some of the very aspects of social media that make it such a virulent breeding ground for bullying also make it the ideal platform for survivors to find communities where they can share their stories and receive much-needed support. The anonymity of such spaces makes it possible for survivors not yet ready to reveal their experiences to friends and family to share their stories, allowing them to spread awareness and, in some cases, help the healing process.
Perhaps its most important aspect though is the potential role social media plays to prevent assaults in the first place by changing the culture that tolerates and indeed encourages such behavior. In an article for the Fordham Observer, Alissa Fajek argues that the outrage over cases like Steubenville, often fostered and spread via social media, can help to spread awareness and begin to change that toxic culture.
Clearly, the story of social media and sexual assault is more complicated than social media simply being used as a platform to fight sexual assault or as an extension of the crime itself. Because, like any other tool, the person using it must decide whether social media is used to hurt or to heal. Educating students about the enormous impact their decisions have on the survivors of sexual assault suggests the importance of harm-prevention training. The more students know about social media's effect on sexual assault victims — the damage it can cause or, alternatively, its power to solve the problem of sexual assault — the better equipped they'll be to use social media in way that heals instead of hurts.