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Op-Ed: The Social Medium of Rape - What Can Be Done to Shut Down Rape?

Op-Ed: The Social Medium of Rape - What Can Be Done to Shut Down Rape?

Social media has become a new tool in rape culture. The April 14 episode of CBS’s Emmy-winning drama The Good Wife began with the entire screen filled by a tweet being typed and posted: Todd Bratcher raped me.

Social media has become a new tool in rape culture.

The April 14 episode of CBS’s Emmy-winning drama The Good Wife began with the entire screen filled by a tweet being typed and posted: Todd Bratcher raped me.

In The Good Wife, the victim uses Twitter for recourse against her attacker and is held in contempt of court for violating a gag order. But her rapist has used social media himself, posting a video of him and his friends as he rapes a blow-up doll with a hairbrush. He calls the doll by the victim’s name, Rainey, and laughs about the faux assault, as do his friends. They toss the doll around, calling "her" Rainey over and over.

In the end, social media undoes the perpetrators in The Good Wife just as it did in Steubenville, Ohio last month (see SheWired 4-3-2013). But in two other recent cases it undid the victims first.

Rehtaeh Parsons was 17 when her mother found her hanging in her bedroom in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She was taken off life support last week, never having regained consciousness.

Audrie Pott was 15 when she hanged herself last September in Santa Clara, California. On April 15 the three 16-year-old teens accused of raping Pott were finally arrested after a cyber trail of photos of the assault was pieced together by police. The boys’ names are not being released due to their age, although Pott’s parents are pressing for them to be tried as adults.

Parsons’ mother has also taken to social media to decry what happened to her daughter. The four boys involved were never arrested, although officials are now re-examining that case. Pressure from Anonymous, the cyber guerilla group, has added to the discomfort of the Halifax police. The group has threatened to name the four alleged rapists, but has not yet done so at the request of Parsons’ mother. (Anonymous also figured in The Good Wife episode.)

I’ve received a series of emails since Parsons’ death from different groups, among them, demanding an end to "rape culture." But rape culture can’t be ended by signing a petition. Rape culture can only be ended when rape is recognized as a crime regardless of who victim or perpetrator are.

When my last piece on rape ran here, I got a lot of Twitter responses, some from men confused about why women would call men they know rapists.

I don’t feel like educating men about rape, but somebody has to since society has turned a blind eye to rape and its back on rape victims for generations. So I kept explaining, again and again. No still means no. And if a woman is too drunk or high or is unconscious and you have sex with her, that’s rape. Even if she was into you before she was drunk or high or unconscious.

A few men told me that "there’s a point where a man can’t stop."

No, there isn’t. There’s a point where a man doesn’twant to stop, but that’s different. A man’s desire to have an orgasm never trumps a woman’s desire to not be raped.

Both Parsons and Pott, as well as the unnamed Steubenville victim were all raped while they were unconscious.

Think about that for a moment: Each of these girls was raped when she was out cold, unconscious after drinking too much at a party. Each rape was either photographed or videotaped. Then the rapists spread the images of the rapes onto social media.

This was how each of these teenagers discovered she was a rape victim: When she saw either photos or videos of herself being raped online.

Anyone who is engaged in social media knows that the Internet is forever. Hundreds, thousands, millions of people can access whatever it is that has been posted.

Millions of people can view your rape online. Just like porn.

The rape photos of Parsons and Pott were sent throughout their high schools and social networks. Everyone knew they had been raped. Everyone had an opinion about it. Everyone they knew as well as hundreds of people they didn’t know.

Both teens were slut-shamed at school as well as among their friends and associates, where rumors were spread along with the texts and emails with the embedded photos. Texts asking for sex were sent to them. Texts calling them sluts were sent to them. Texts bullying and shaming them came constantly.

There was nowhere to hide. Parsons posted on Facebook before she killed herself "worst day ever." Because more than a year of vicious taunts and bullying had taken their toll. She couldn’t stand it one more day. She hanged herself.

Pott lasted only eight days before she, too, hanged herself.


Most rapes are private affairs: One man, one woman or girl. But each of these incidents was a gang rape that was also viewed and recorded by non-participants. No one intervened, no one tried to protect these young women who were dangerously vulnerable.

Still, it wasn’t the rapes per se that drove Parsons and Pott to their deaths. It was the humiliation and bullying and taunting. It was having the "worst day ever" over and over again. It was re-living through social media the rapes they couldn’t remember, but which they had still been victims of. It was being made to feel that they were to blame for what happened to them.

It was, in 19th century parlance, being ruined, their reputations destroyed, which for a 15-year-old, feels like life is not worth living.

For these young women, the social media elements of their assaults wasn’t just like being raped a second time, it was like being raped every day, over and over again–every time they went online, every time they picked up their cell phones, every time they went to school or to the store or just sat on their front steps.

Photos and videotapes of the Steubenville rape victim are still on the Internet. News networks and newspapers have the now-infamous photo of her being carried like a roped steer by two teens on their websites. Google "images of Steubenville rape victim" and dozens appear.

Those photos will be there as long as there is an Internet, so even when the rape context is removed and Jane Doe’s photo appears in a news story, it’s still there.

After the verdict in the Steubenville case convicting Trent Mays, 17 and MaLik Richmond, 16 of the rape, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine thought something should be done about the social media aspect of the case: 400,000 emails, texts and photos had been examined for the trial.

On April 15, a grand jury of nine women and three men was convened in Jefferson County Common Pleas Court in Ohio. The grand jury is expected to hear about 10 days of testimony and determine whether anyone else should be indicted in the rape case, including football coaches at the high school Mays and Richmond attended and another teen, Michael Nodianos, who posted comments in a YouTube video about the rape.


I also heard from women after that last rape article posted here. Some detailed rapes they had experienced, but which they had never reported. Other women told me they were sorry I’d been raped. And some told me it wasn’t feminist of me to call victims of rape victims. "You’re survivors,"one woman schooled me.

I want to reclaim the word victim. We’ve been forced to call ourselves survivors for too long. Parsons and Pott weren’t survivors: rape killed them as it does many women every year. Some are killed by their rapists when they are raped–my rapist tried to kill me–but was interrupted. Others become substance abusers or over-eat or under-eat or cut themselves or adopt other self-destructive behaviors.

The word survivor implies we can all just get up, dust ourselves off and move on. As if we haven’t been the victims of extreme violence like Parsons and Pott were. As if a piece of us has been taken that we will never, ever get back. As if one day lying in bed with someone we love, we won’t flash back to that other person, that rapist.

Perhaps it was possible to pretend rape never happened in the past before cell phone videos and Instagrams, Facebook and Twitter. Perhaps that was possible in previous generations where every single episode in life wasn’t recorded and retweeted and liked–or not.

But now, rape is photographed and passed on the same way your lunch or your cat in sunglasses is. There will be no escape for victims unless someone makes it illegal to promote rape through social media.

The first time I was raped by a stranger I was 17. (Like one in ten women, I was raped more than once.) The trolley car I took to get home from college had broken down again. It was November. It was cold and already dark and so I did what a lot of girls did: I hitchhiked. It wasn’t the first time, but it was the last.

Two guys in their 20s picked me up. They seemed nice and friendly and wanting to help. But when they made a wrong turn and I asked to get out, a knife was pressed to my side. I was raped in an empty schoolyard by both men and cut with that knife.

I didn’t go to the police. I secretly saw my family’s doctor who stitched up my wounds, gave me some pills to prevent pregnancy and an antibiotic. He told me to come back if I didn’t get my period or if I got an STD.

He wasn’t going to call the police, either, or talk to my parents. I wasn’t the first woman who had come to him for the same reason. I’m sure I wasn’t the last. Because rape was as common when I was 17 as it is now. But no one talked about it much. Rape shamed the woman, not the rapist.

Not much has changed.

I believed it was my fault when I was raped then and I believed it was my fault when I was raped ten years ago outside my own house in broad daylight. It wasn’t, of course, but it’s how I felt. If only I hadn’t....

No doubt those same thoughts played and re-played in the heads of Parsons and Pott. If only I hadn’t gone to that party. If only I hadn’t gotten drunk. If only If only If only...

Even as I have spoken on panels and written articles and interviewed rape victims, some from war-torn countries, I still feel that twinge of guilt that all women are made to feel. If only...

It didn’t drive me to suicide like it did Parsons and Pott and who knows how many other women whose names we don’t know. But it did wreck my life for a long time and no one took pictures of it and passed it around my college or to my friends. When I was 17, my rape was a secret that almost no one knew.

Our entire society makes women feel responsible for rape. The more "normal" the perpetrator, the more likely the victim will be blamed. Even reporters expressed sympathy for the rapists in the Steubenville case. Not the victim, but the boys whose lives would be ruined because they raped a 16-year-old girl when she was unconscious, took photos of their crime and now they won’t get to play football anymore because they are going to jail.

One threat posted on Twitter attacking Steubenville’s Jane Doe said, "You ripped my family apart, you made my mom cry, so when I see you bitch, it’s gone be a homicide."

On Twitter. For everyone to see.

Yet that was only one message in that case. The police collected 400,000 social media messages.Nearly half a billion.

How many texts and tweets and messages went out in the months between November 2011 when a then-15-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons was allegedly raped and when she hanged herself two weeks ago? How many times was her life threatened, was she called a slut, was she asked for sex from a stranger?

In the week between Audrie Pott waking up to discover she’d been gang raped–also at 15–and her hanging herself, what was said to her? How terrible was she made to feel about herself and her life and her future?

How many times did both these young women think about how the guys who raped them were walking around free while the space in which they led their lives got smaller and smaller and smaller until there was no longer space to live and "worst day ever" took over?

Last week was End Street Harassment Week. It got some limited play on Twitter and on some noted feminist blogs.

But there was no mention in the mainstream media. Diane Sawyer, the only female evening news anchor, did not tell her ABC audience that street harassment is so pervasive that no woman has escaped it, including her, and every woman dreads it. Rachel Maddow didn’t discuss it on MSNBC even though lesbians are even more likely to be harassed on the street.

There are no statistics on street harassment or whether it has direct links to rape, but it’s definitely part of rape culture. Street harassment pressures women to do things they don’t want to do, just like rape does, only on a less violent scale. It presumes that women must accept unwelcome sexual advances because men demand it.

How many times has a man told you to "Smile baby smile" or started talking to you when you had (politely) made it clear you weren’t interested or felt compelled to tell you how pretty you were and if you ignored him then you were suddenly ugly or fat or a bitch or a dyke? How many times did a man get in your face and make a sexual comment? How many times did you feel tension or fear or anger because of how men spoke to you on the street? How many times did you cross the street or turn around because there was more than one man standing around and it felt like a gauntlet, going past them?

Former South Carolina Governor, Mark Sanford, now running for Congress, will be in court at the end of the week for violating an agreement to stay off his ex-wife’s property. In other words, he was stalking her, but he’ll still get to run for Congress.

Shouldn’t we take these transgressions more seriously? Shouldn’t we take the attitude that goes with them more seriously?

Rape culture is predicated on male entitlement and female submission. It’s also dependent on victims keeping silent.

Social media has the potential to silence still more victims from among the quarter million American women who are raped each year, or it can give them a voice like the character in The Good Wife. But as long as there are no rules about rape and social media, the impact is going to be felt by the victims, and there will be more tragedies like that of Rehtaeh Parsons and Audrie Pott. It is up to all of us to make sure that doesn’t happen. The grand jury in Ohio is a start, but other courts must take up the challenge. Rape takes a lot from its victims. It shouldn’t take their futures as well.

Read more from Victoria here. 

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Victoria A. Brownworth