Rape in the age of social media

From Steubenville to India, videos and tweets are being turned against perpetrators of sexual violence

Topics: Steubenville, Rape, War against women, Sexual assault, Editor's Picks, ,

Rape in the age of social media

A video of a gleeful teenage boy crowing, “She is so raped” and “They raped her quicker than Mike Tyson!” An Instagram image of the same girl of Steubenville, Ohio, limply borne by boys holding wrists and ankles. An 11-year-old girl whose gang rape in Texas last year was discovered by adults via cellphone video, a video she then had to watch when she took the stand. A teenage boy in Canada who posted photos on Facebook of a 16-year-old girl being gang-raped, sentenced last year to probation and ordered to write an essay on “the pros and cons of social media.”

They are a loop of retraumatization, these images replaying sexual violence and the culture around it, but they are something else, too: evidence. They are proof not just for a courtroom that formally recognizes the existence of rape and sexual assault, but for a culture prone to denying it or explaining it away. The evidence is made not by concerned bystanders seeking to document crimes but by the victimizers themselves, who chronicle their actions because they see nothing wrong with them or because they think nothing will happen to them. Often the images are made by people who see only spectacle, not reason for intervention. But in all of these cases, the recorders eventually lost control of their own productions — in Steubenville, for example, the kids’ careless tweets were screen-grabbed by an enterprising blogger. Their own creations were turned against them in the service of justice, if far too late and too often incomplete.



In the crudest journalistic terms, rape is having a moment, from India to Ohio. (Recall how much of last year’s widespread anger at Republican politicians had to do with rape at least as much as reproductive freedom. They’re intimately related, and both concern ownership over bodies that are considered collective property, but not everyone sees the connection.) It’s having a moment on the streets, in both of those places, though even that has had a virtual element, as people all over the world have watched and live-tweeted the livestream of the Steubenville rallies and passed around stories of the Indian protests. Sexual violence remains something that is rarely openly discussed in daily life, but has become something that is urgently talked about on the Internet — by introverts, the semi-anonymous, those with too much to lose, those who named what happened to them too late, all rendered angry activists and confessors.

Sometimes, the survivors of such reproduced assaults take matters into their own hands. “There you go, lock me up. I’m not protecting anyone that made my life a living Hell,” wrote 16-year-old Savannah Dietrich on Twitter after naming, in defiance of a court order, the boys who had sexually assaulted her — and photographed it — while she was passed out. “I just wanted to stand up for myself,” she told the Daily Beast recently. “I’ll never take those tweets down.” That same story quoted a legal advocate saying that the new technologies are increasingly used “as a weapon to harass and humiliate the victim,” adding up to  “an invasion of privacy beyond what we’ve seen before.” That’s undeniable, but Dietrich chose to use another virtual platform to turn the glare back on the perpetrators.

For survivors of sexual assault for whom there is no public record, creating one by choice — as opposed to your victimizer taking yet another choice away by publicizing it — is a fraught decision. Jaclyn Friedman, co-editor of “Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape,” first wrote about her own experience with rape in 2007, years after it happened, and was immediately subjected to wild claims by people who said they had (totally made-up) information on the case.  “When you talk on the Internet about being a survivor of sexual violence, two things will invariably happen,” she said. “You will be surrounded by support and you will be called hateful names and hear abusive things.” She added,  ”The Internet is an accelerant, of both the bad and the good. It has the potential to make those violations much worse and much more public, and repeat them in ways that go beyond the most physical act. But it also makes it plain so that anyone can see.”

Feminists talk often about “rape culture” and how it generates impunity around sexual violence, but a chorus of strangers telling you you made up your rape or were asking for it is its own testimony. “If we’re smart, then we point to that and say, look what happens when we talk about sexual violence,” Friedman says, including dismissive or victim-blaming comments that normally would happen in whispers and behind closed doors.

And that narration can happen in real time. “Beaten arrested in interior ministry,” was how writer and activist Mona Eltahawy first told the world, on Twitter, about being attacked by Egyptian authorities, when she had brief access to a BlackBerry in detention. “12 hours with Interior Ministry bastards and military intelligence combined. Can barely type – must go xray arms after CSF pigs beat me,” she wrote after her release. “5 or 6 surrounded me, groped and prodded my breasts, grabbed my genital area and I lost count how many hands tried to get into my trousers.”

“In my 12 hours in detention,” she told Salon, “I insisted on telling every man — and obviously I was the only woman — who came to talk to me that I had been sexually assaulted. It made them incredibly uncomfortable. They tried to shut me up, they tried to make excuses — that it must have been crowded. I said, it wasn’t crowded, that they sexually assaulted me in front of police officers.”

Her decision to continue to go public about the assaults, Eltahawy said, was based on the fact that she had a platform and relative privilege that others subjected to the same treatment did not. She also felt she could handle the backlash. “I was sexually assaulted. I survived. Now let’s talk about reversing this anonymity of sex crimes for the survivor,” she said. “I know why a lot of women don’t want to come out or be named in the media, but as long as they treat us as anonymous, the shame will remain on us and not on the men.”

She was struck by the reactions of the men around her online, two of which “lead to emasculation in some form,” as she put it. One type: “‘I’m so sorry that happened to you, I wish I could have prevented it.’ There’s something about this happening to a woman you know — I wish I could have protected you.” Another type of reaction was specific to revolutions and protest: “It makes them feel less of a man that you were there on the front lines and they weren’t. For some men, and not all, and when they hear the horrors that fellow men can commit they shut down.”

But other men, who might be reluctant to get involved in sensitive issues where they might not be welcome, have new ways of publicly representing a masculinity unlike the one portrayed by the predators, or in describing their own experiences of sexual assault, or by supporting the survivors around them.

“What this room called Twitter does helps us expand the conversation that those of us in the know used to have among ourselves,” Eltahawy said.  Still, she she worries that the unusual visibility of sexual violence at the moment will peter out or remain virtual — or worse, stay passive.

“I hate candlelight vigils,” she said. “I always say, before I ever join one, I’d use one to burn things. They’re the ultimate expression of helplessness.”

Irin Carmon

Irin Carmon is a staff writer for Salon. Follow her on Twitter at @irincarmon or email her at icarmon@salon.com.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>