When Rape Goes Viral

Thomas Ondrey/Plain Dealer/Landov

"I was raped at an off-campus event," Kelsey (not her real name), who just finished her freshman year at University of California, Berkeley, tells me. She tentatively chooses the word and drags out the first letter: "rrrrraped." She never reported the assault.

About a week later in her dorm, a group of students was clustered around a guy holding a phone. "A bunch of my floormates had gone to a party," says Kelsey. "There was a video of him, very drunk and laughing, and fingering a girl who was very drunk and crying. And everyone on my floor was gathered around the phone watching this video and laughing about it." She was horrified. "When I said something, I was told to shut up and f--k off and it wasn't my business."

This wasn't the guy who had raped Kelsey, and she didn't know the girl in the video. But "it was really similar to my situation," she says. "I just kind of put myself in her position and imagined: what if everyone in my perpetrator's dorm is doing the exact same thing?"

She says she went to a school administrator, who was sympathetic and asked Kelsey to get her hands on a copy of the video. But because Kelsey had already expressed her outrage, none of her classmates would forward it to her. She says she tried to follow up with the administrator a few more times, but nothing much happened. Of course, it's certainly possible that action was taken behind the scenes, without Kelsey's knowledge. But at least as far as she knows, the student "didn't face any repercussions for his actions at all."

Kelsey is one of the anonymous plaintiffs in a national complaint against the Department of Education and several universities for violating students' civil rights by failing to thoroughly investigate reports of crime on campus, and for failing to follow the Clery Act, a federal law that requires colleges to keep accurate crime statistics. (Janet Gilmore, spokeswoman for UC-Berkeley, says the university has yet to see the complaint, but "we care very much about this issue and work hard to encourage students to report sexual assaults. We thoroughly investigate these cases and work with surviving students to ensure they are getting the counseling, support, and any additional care they may need.") But even though Kelsey is deeply engaged in activism surrounding the issue of rape, she's also been very private about her own experience as a victim. Right now, she's home for the summer, and her parents still don't know that she was assaulted. She feels incredibly lucky that she didn't end up like the girl in the video her floormates watched: the victim not only of a sexual assault but of a gross affront to her privacy.

Audrie Pott faced the dual trauma of assault followed by widespread judgment. Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

And yet, even as she seeks to maintain privacy about her assault, she says she wishes more people would have seen the video of the crying woman being attacked. Assuming the university failed to act, perhaps the release of the video would have changed that. "If the video had gotten published or something, maybe the university would have actually done something if it would have tarnished their reputation," Kelsey says. "There's a history of sexual assault and harassment being swept under the rug to make the campus look like a perfect and safe place, and it's difficult but I feel like if something would have happened with this video ..." She trails off, and corrects herself: "It isn't even about the video though. It's that it happened and the university didn't do anything."

In a way, though, it is kind of about the video—and the stark dilemma it created. That video—grotesque as it was—probably represented the best hope for shaming people into taking strong action in this case. It was also, however, a vicious weapon that if widely circulated could have ruined a young woman's life.

Both of those outcomes have repeatedly proved to be consequences of our hypersocial digital culture. As social media has become enmeshed in the lives of young people—and a fair number of not-so-young people—so has the widespread sharing of information about specific sexual assaults, especially video and photos. In recent years, a half-dozen high-profile sexual-assault cases have centered around photos or video of the crime that were shared on social media. In 2010, a 16-year-old girl was drugged at a rave in Vancouver and violently raped by a half-dozen men while a bystander snapped photos and later uploaded them to Facebook. Soon the whole school had seen photos of what was undoubtedly one of the worst experiences of her young life. This past April, a 17-year-old named Rehtaeh Parsons took her own life in Nova Scotia. A year and a half earlier, Parsons had been gang-raped at a party and harassed about it on Facebook.

Probably the most notorious incident occurred in Steubenville, Ohio in 2012. There, two high school football players and a handful of bystanders took photos and tweeted about the sexual assault of a 16-year-old girl who had passed out at a party.

Then there was the case of 15-year-old Audrie Pott. In September of last year, Pott told her parents she was sleeping over at a friend's house in her hometown of Saratoga, California, on the western edge of Silicon Valley. Instead, she went to a party where she drank so much vodka and Gatorade that she passed out in a bedroom and woke up to find her body written on with a Sharpie—someone had scrawled his name and "was here" on her leg, like graffiti on a bathroom stall. Her shorts were off. She had no memory of what happened. The next day, photos of her naked body made the rounds on Facebook.

Sheila and Larry Pott were unaware of their daughter’s sexual assault at the time of her suicide. Robert Galbraith/Reuters

"I have a reputation for a night I don't even remember, and the whole school knows," she messaged a friend on Facebook. It wasn't just that she had been physically violated and still wasn't sure what had happened to her. Now even her classmates who weren't in the room had seen an intimate part of her body. And they were taunting her about it. In another message, she wrote, "My life is ruined. I can't do anything to fix it." She didn't tell her parents what had happened, and she didn't go to school authorities. She certainly didn't press charges.

Instead, one week after she woke up in that bedroom after the party, she hanged herself in her bathroom. At the time of her funeral, her parents still had no idea that their daughter had been assaulted. But over the next few days, the story started to come out. Classmates came forward with anecdotes and names. Eventually, three 16-year-old boys were charged with sexual battery and distribution of child pornography.

Social media can offer victims a path to legal relief by, in effect, creating more witnesses.

What all these stories have in common is a wrenching Catch-22 at their core. For decades, the challenge facing anti-rape activists was to take what is often an intensely private crime—54 percent of sexual assaults are estimated to go unreported—and bring it to national attention as a pervasive crisis. Now that cases regularly crop up in which photos and videos of sexual assaults are circulated on social media, it's becoming harder to argue that rape is anything but a public scourge. We are all bystanders. We all bear witness.

Yet the increased attention on social media often has tragic consequences for victims. They don't just have to grapple with the physical and psychological ramifications of being sexually violated. They have to deal with the fact that everyone else knows what happened, too.

After being gang-raped, then bullied on Facebook, 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons took her own life. Paul Darrow/Reuters

RAPE WAS long considered to be a crime carried out by sex-crazed men who targeted strangers—women who were stupid or unlucky enough to walk alone down a dark alley or leave their doors unbolted. But starting in the late 1960s, feminists began working to change this common misperception of sexual assault. In her influential 1975 book Against Our Will, Susan Brownmiller argued that "rape is a crime not of lust, but of violence and power," a social tool that men used to assert dominance over women and communicate that dominance to the wider world. At the time, it was still legal in most states for men to rape their wives, and many states required all sexual-assault allegations to be corroborated by a third party. Both legal distinctions sent a clear message that what happens behind closed doors between two people—even if it's a violent sex crime—is not something the rest of us should be particularly concerned about.

In the 1980s, victim-advocacy organizations began publicizing the fact that the majority of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. There are simply not that many nefarious strangers, not that many dark alleys. This is a crime that happens every day, in the spaces where we live and work and sleep and, yes, drink. Places where we feel safe. It is a crime that usually involves existing friendships, acquaintances, and relationships.

When we see photos and videos of a teen girl's body or of a high school boy bragging about taking advantage of her, this reality is thrown into stark relief. And when we see ordinary kids engaged in extraordinarily terrible behavior, we don't always look away. Often, we click "share."

That was exactly what happened in Steubenville, Ohio. Thousands of us clicked on grainy images taken at a house party and saw a girl whose body had gone slack, held by her arms and legs by two high school football players. We read tweets from bystanders who joked, "Song of the night is definitely Rape Me by Nirvana." We watched a video of those boys laughing about it and saying "she is so raped her p**s is about as dry as the sun right now." Most people who saw all of this online could not even locate Steubenville on a map, but now they were witnesses to an awful crime that had occurred there.

Indeed, the Steubenville case is perhaps the best representation of how social media can offer victims a path to legal relief by, in effect, creating more witnesses. Arguably, the case never would have resulted in a conviction if the images had not been circulated through social media.

But social media does more than offer legal relief. The Steubenville tweets and photos infused the crusade to end rape with a new degree of urgency. Suddenly we weren't talking in abstractions about what "he said" or "she said." We were looking at an Instagram photo of a comatose teenager being dragged around. "That picture was a come-to-Jesus moment for a lot of people," says Kate Harding, author of a forthcoming book on sexual assault called Asking for It. "We had a conversation in the wake of Steubenville that we've never really had before as a country. All of these things have been coming out, and it's something that we're hearing about on MSNBC and on CNN and in the big newspapers. A lot of what we're talking about is driven by the fact that there is video and social media. Social media is used as a demonstration of how many people care and are watching and listening."

The simple truth is that salacious photos help to get the media interested in what isn't exactly a new issue. "That's why media is covering these stories more," says Jaclyn Friedman, executive director of the advocacy group Women, Action & the Media (WAM) and co-editor of Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape. "It's sad to me that this is a question of, does this make good TV or not? But I do think that it improves the chances for justice when those photos or videos are sent around. I don't think on balance it's worth it, but I'm not the one who gets to decide." She adds, "It's traumatizing to the victims and all of us, but if perpetrators choose to do it, we take advantage of it and use it against them."

It isn't just the mainstream media that pick up on these stories and move them forward: in several cases, video and photos that had been circulated only among teens were brought to wider attention by members of the hacker group Anonymous. After no one was charged in Rehtaeh Parsons's gang rape in Nova Scotia, Anonymous hackers found and published the names of young men allegedly involved in the 2011 attack. A 12-minute video of Steubenville boys joking about the assault—which includes comments like "she's deader than a doornail," followed by laughter—was also made public by Anonymous. It got more than 717,000 views.

Christopher Capozziello/New York Times/Redux

AND YET, whatever the benefits, the horrific human downsides of all this sharing are never far from view. During the trial, the Steubenville victim was asked on the stand how it felt to see photos of herself passed out. "Not good," she replied.

Moreover, while unearthing videos and photos and publicizing them beyond teens' social circles can lead to arrests, those photos and videos are just as likely to be turned against accusers as they are to help prosecute attackers. The questions that have long dissuaded survivors from coming forward—What were you wearing? How much vodka did you drink? What were you thinking?—are now being asked on social media, often whether or not a victim has made allegations herself. Inevitably, when people share images of a sexual assault, they end up putting the victim on trial along with the accused attackers. And whereas there are legal protections to ensure the victim remains anonymous and that details such as her sexual history are not introduced as evidence at trial, no such courtesies are extended in the court of Twitter and Instagram.

For a victim, there's no difference between people who share footage of the assault because they want to raise awareness about the problem and people who share footage to laugh at it or, worse, because it turns them on. "The horror of having the intimate violation of your body exposed, shared, transmitted, and existing in a way that you know can never be expunged is awful," says Kaethe Morris Hoffer, legal director of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation. "Since the advent of the Internet, it has been a tremendous and devastating burden for survivors to live with the knowledge that they have no hope of ensuring that images of their sexual violation will ever be erased. What social media does is make the transmission of it a hundred times faster and more shareable."

Attackers have created photographic and video evidence of their crimes ever since cameras and camcorders have been available. ("One of the characteristics of gang rapes is they're so performative," says Harding. "The urge to document this particular kind of rape has apparently always been a part of it. It's just now we have the distribution.") In 2006, when Facebook was not yet a major cultural phenomenon, Morris Hoffer successfully intervened in a Chicago-area court case in which a judge was going to make a victim watch footage of herself being sexually assaulted—a crime of which she had no memory—as part of her assailants' trial. Had that crime occurred in 2013, there's a good chance that victim would have come across such images on social media, before she even decided whether or not to seek justice in court.

Questions that have long dissuaded survivors from coming forward can now be asked on the Web.

And that case illustrates another reality about images and videos of sexual assault: they can easily be used as proof of consent rather than its absence. Even though the victim in the 2006 case ultimately wasn't forced to watch the footage, the trial ended in an acquittal after defense attorneys went frame by frame and argued the victim—who was so drunk she doesn't remember the incident—had consented.

"Ever since there have been photographs of sexual assault, the assertion of the survivor that the image is actually an image of abuse has been contested," Morris Hoffer says. "The material that is produced from the abuse is used as evidence that it wasn't abuse."

Even if the perpetrators are convicted, it doesn't mean the victim is off the hook. The publicity surrounding images and photos can last well beyond the point where it is useful for the justice system. Recently, tennis star Serena Williams came under fire for a sentiment that a lot of other observers expressed about the two convicted Steubenville rapists: "They did something stupid, but I don't know. I'm not blaming the girl, but if you're a 16-year-old and you're drunk like that, your parents should teach you: don't take drinks from other people. She's 16, why was she that drunk where she doesn't remember? It could have been much worse. She's lucky." Williams later apologized directly to the victim and her family. Meanwhile, the victim's attorney has made repeated public statements that she wishes the whole thing would just go away. But, as with the night she was assaulted, she doesn't have much of a choice.

If Pott’s classmates had come to her support sooner, perhaps she would still be alive. Eric Risberg/AP

THERE AREN'T any easy ways around the conundrum of social media and sexual assault. One strategy being pursued by activists is to go after social-media posts that are unambiguously pro-rape. Recently WAM, Friedman's media-advocacy group, embarked on a campaign to get Facebook to pull down any pages with titles like "Violently Raping Your Friend Just for Laughs" that promote sexual assault. Dozens of organizations signed on to a letter demanding "swift, comprehensive and effective action addressing the representation of rape and domestic violence on Facebook."

Facebook had long taken a laissez-faire approach to responding to user reports of pages peppered with rape jokes, images, and, in some cases, threats. "The reason we targeted Facebook is because they have a policy against hate speech," Friedman says. "In some ways they're ahead of the game because at least in theory they have a policy that this stuff is not welcome there." Eventually Facebook admitted its attempts to curtail hate speech had failed, and unveiled plans to improve its monitoring system.

But Facebook, with its hate-speech policy, is the exception. Most popular social-media sites, like Twitter and Tumblr, have no such community standards. Their terms of use lean toward unfettered free speech, placing the onus on users not to post or share objectionable content. (And maybe even the Facebook policy will have diminishing returns. Focus-group research shows teens have a "waning enthusiasm" for Facebook because of the increasing adult presence there.) Perhaps with a big enough activist effort, it would be possible to push Twitter and Tumblr to temper their free-for-all approach and formally reject content that promotes rape. Still, enforcement of such a policy would fall to users, who would be the ones reporting posts that violate the policies. It would be like whack-a-mole.

One possibility is that the legal system could end up offering some recourse for activists. Cristina Tilley, a media law professor at Northwestern University, predicts that, eventually, we're going to see people sued in civil court for posting videos and images of sexual assault. "But it's not entirely clear to me how successful they might be," she says, "and if early suits along these lines don't succeed, that may discourage others from filing and send a message about whether the underlying conduct is off-limits or tolerable."

Of course, if such lawsuits, coupled with tougher enforcement of community standards by Facebook and other sites, did ultimately lead to fewer violations of rape victims' privacy—and fewer suicides—that would be a wonderful thing. But there will still be the question of how to continue making rape a public crime without intruding on the privacy of victims.

After all, if users are sharing photos and videos of sexual assault as a way to encourage action against such crimes, it's hard to call such content hate speech. And so, when it comes to social media that is not pro-rape but instead aims to raise awareness of it, advocates are more conflicted. If they could wave a magic wand and make all social-media content documenting rape disappear, would they?

"I'd only want that if we'd somehow otherwise transformed the culture so we took women and men seriously when they report rape," Harding says. For her part, Friedman argues that activists should take their cues from victims. "We have to do our best as activists and journalists to either find out what the victim would want or at least consider that question," she says. "If we don't have access to that info, we have to do our best to be empathetic and try to imagine what the victim would want."

In some cases, perhaps the answer lies in considering the content of each individual photo or video. Much of the footage and many of the tweets that came out of Steubenville didn't picture or name the victim at all—they featured perpetrators and bystanders laughing about the crime. While we might be wary about outing victims as we pursue justice, most of us have far fewer qualms about publicizing the sickening remarks of an onlooker who encouraged the attackers. Documenting the callous way perpetrators and bystanders discuss rape has the potential to be just as horrifying as a blurry photo of the crime or its aftermath, a way to highlight the banality of this particular evil.

Photos and videos that feature bystanders have the added benefit of engaging all of us from a perspective we understand. Most of us don't identify with sexual predators. But, in the age of social media, we all know what it's like to witness an attack.