Last fall, a teenage girl in Steubenville, Ohio, was sexually assaulted and raped. Pictures and video of the assault spread like wildfire in social media, including a disturbing video of several young men laughing and joking about raping a unconscious teenage girl. Two of these young men were found guilty of rape, which prompted hundreds of people to attack the rape victim in social media, calling her a slut and a liar.
In Chicago, two teenage boys are being prosecuted for raping a 12-year old girl at gunpoint – and posting a video of the rape on Facebook.
In California, three young men are being accused of raping a 15-year old girl, taking photos of the assault, and sharing them in social media. The victim committed suicide a week after the assault, after learning that photos of the rape had been shared amongst her schoolmates.
In Canada, 17-year old Rehtaeh Parsons took her own life because of months of vicious online bullying and harassment. She became a target of brutal bullying by her peers after coming forward about being raped by a group of teenage boys in 2011, when she was 15 years old.
All these cases involved the use of social media to not only spread photos and videos of the assaults, but also to attack the victims for having the courage to come forward. After being violated once by their rapists, these girls were humiliated and violated repeatedly in online spaces, by friends and by strangers. This is bordering an epidemic of promoting and publishing rape cases through social media.
Violence against women and girls happens every day all over the world, and with the spread of Internet and reach of social media, opportunities for cyber bullying and online threats are endless. Rape victims committing suicides as a result of shame and victim-blaming is not a product of the “information society” – in India, suicides of rape victims are sadly common, in Ghana, a 13-year old rape victim has tried to take her own life – twice, and in Morocco, a 16-year old rape victim committed suicide after being forced to marry her rapist. When we read about these events in the news, we unequivocally condemn them. When it happens in our own backyard, or through Twitter or Facebook, there are always excuses – the girl was drunk, the boys didn’t mean it, it was a mistake, freedom of speech – she was asking for it.
This is not about culture, religion, or developed countries versus developing countries. The belief that the victim is somehow to blame for rape is alive everywhere, and the Internet is filled with sites making fun of sexual assault and promoting hatred towards women and girls. Currently, a project called Women, Action&The Media is running a campaign to end gender-based hate speech on Facebook. The organizers of the campaign have written an open letter to Facebook, demanding the social media giant to take down several FB groups that shamelessly promote violence and hatred against women and girls – including groups such as “Violently Raping Your Girlfriend Just For Laughs” and “Fly Kicking Sluts in the Uterus”. If someone started a group called “Violently Killing a Black Person Just for Laughs”, it would (rightfully) be taken down in a heartbeat and considered as blatant hate speech – but when women and girls are the target of that hate speech, it suddenly falls under “freedom of expression and opinion”. This way of thinking is absolutely absurd, and extremely dangerous.
Online attacks against victims of rape and sexual assault are nothing more than a modern version of stoning, caning or whipping a rape victim.
Blaming a victim in social media and attacking them for being raped is just as wrong as is putting victims of rape on trial for their own assault. Blaming the victim for her (or his) rape also implies that most men and boys are capable of rape when given the opportunity, and that it is up women and girls to avoid setting that “inner rapist” loose through our behavior, clothing, or sometimes, mere presence. After the Steubenville verdict, several people took to Twitter to defend the convicted young men by staying that “they only did what anyone else would have done in their situation”. This notion is absurd, not to mention insulting towards vast majority of men and boys who would never, under any circumstances, rape anyone – and by blaming the victim, whether offline or online, we are providing excuses and justifications for rape and sexual violence and at the same time promoting a culture that condones that behavior.
To every girl and woman out there: Rape or sexual assault is NEVER your fault. Coming forward about what happened is NEVER wrong. For every coward who attacks you for your courage and strength, whether online or offline, there are thousands of us who support you, who believe you, who are here for you, even if you never know our names or faces. It takes immense strength to come forward after sexual assault – and no strength, nor spine, at all to spew hatred and intolerance online, often anonymously.
It is our collective responsibility to stand up against such behavior whenever we come across it, both online and offline – and stop the excuses. Because honestly – there simply are none.
- Take part in the Women, Action&Media Campaign
- Visit the UNiTE to End Violence Against Women site for more information and tips on how you can fight VAW
- Check out Take Back the Tech! – a campaign to end violence against women in online and offline spaces, and reclaim technology for battling violence against women and girls