How Online Shaming Impacts Victims of Sexual Assault

Why teens use online shaming to assault victims a second time

Sad teen girl holding cell phone in classroom

Every 98 seconds, someone in the United States is sexually assaulted. And more often than not, that victim is a teen girl. In fact, females between the ages of 16 and 19 are four times more likely to be victims of sexual assault than anyone else in the general population.

To make matters worse, there is a growing trend among teens who then shame girls online after they have been assaulted, sometimes using video footage of the attack along with name-calling and verbal abuse. For many girls, this online shaming and public humiliation is like being assaulted a second time. Most girls report that it is actually more painful to deal with than the initial assault. And in the end, some young women take their own lives as a result.

Two very prominent cases involving sexual assault and online shaming involve a California native, Audrie Potts, and a Canadian, Rehtaeh Parsons. In both cases, the young girls attended a party, had too much to drink, and were raped while they were unresponsive. Photos of the assaults were later posted online along with hurtful comments and innuendos. They also received cruel text messages and invitations for sex while being isolated and deserted by their friends and peers. The humiliation and pain they felt after being sexually assaulted was intensified by the shaming and blaming that took place. In the end, both girls could no longer take the pain and committed suicide.

Why Do Teens Shame Sexual Assault Victims Online?

Very few, if any, peers will stand up for a teen sexual assault victim. Instead, they often engage in public shaming and victim blaming. While there are a number of factors that play into this type of behavior including peer pressure, cliques, and the overwhelming desire to fit in, the shaming that takes place perplexes adults.

But some researchers indicate that the root cause of this victim-blaming is that bystanders and witnesses do not want to feel out of control. And realizing that anyone can become a victim implies that not everything is in their control. As a result, it is often easier to blame the victim than to recognize that sexual assault could happen to anyone. It is easier to ask what she did to cause it or to assume she brought it on herself than to recognize the fact that one or more of their fellow students could violate another person in such a way.

What's more, many people find it is easier to empathize with the boys committing the assaults and try to protect them from punishment than it is to find justice for the girls. Instead of people speaking out against the assault, they ask themselves “what did she do to cause it?" or "she should have known better than to drink so much."

Another phenomenon at work in online shaming is the courage, and sometimes anonymity, that young people experience when they are behind a computer screen. Oftentimes, it is much easier to say harsh things from the comfort of their own home than it would be to say those same things in public. But what kids tend to forget is that posting comments on social media is a very public act. It's like shouting their thoughts in the middle of the town square. Lots of people are reading what they write and are affected by it, the same as if they shouted it out.

The key to preventing this type of online attack by students is to get them to empathize with the victim. It also helps if they can see the damage that their harsh words, judgments, and comments have on the victim. Getting them to realize that what the victim is going through is extremely painful goes a long way in helping to prevent online shaming.

How Does Online Shaming Impact Sexual Assault Victims?

When someone is sexually assaulted, it is not uncommon for them to blame themselves for what happened. They internally criticize themselves for not being able to stop the sexual assault from happening or for not doing something differently. It is also common for assault victims to feel a great deal of shame over what happened to them.

To heal from this traumatic experience, what they really need to hear from people is that they did not deserve to be assaulted, that they did not cause it, and that they are not to blame. But this is not what happens when they are shamed online for the trauma they endured. Instead, they are victims of name-calling, slut-shaming, and cyberbullying, all of which intensifies the shame they feel.

What's more, this public humiliation can have a debilitating effect on their recovery. In fact, research indicates that when young girls are blamed for the sexual assault, they report greater distress, increased depression, and more thoughts about suicide. Victim-blaming also can worsen anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. All of these things stand in the way of recovery.

Victims also may feel hopeless, alone and isolated, especially when their friends seem to disappear and no one stands up for them. In the end, this silence on the part of so-called friends along with shaming and victim-blaming creates a rape culture.

What Does Rape Culture Have to Do With It?

Rape culture in the United States is nurtured by the belief that the victim is somehow to blame for the attack she endured. In other words, people find it easier to assume the victim deserved the assault in some way. For instance, people might blame her for the way she dresses and say she was asking for it. Or, they might assume that she deserved to be raped because she put herself in a dangerous situation or had too much to drink. Slut-shaming also contributes to the idea that some girls deserve less respect than others and deserve to be raped.

When people engage in victim-blaming beliefs like these, they are telling women that they are to blame for the pain and suffering they have experienced. Meanwhile, these beliefs do nothing to hold the rapist accountable. Instead, people sympathize with the rapist by lamenting over the fact that their "lives are ruined." Two prominent examples of this type of thinking involve the Steubenville rape case and the Stanford diver who raped an unconscious woman.

When rape culture is perpetuated with this type of thinking, it can lead victims to remain silent about their attacks. This is dangerous because it silences the victim about the rape, and the rapists therefore do not get in trouble. In fact, only about half of rapes are being reported, and only 3 percent of rapists spend at least one day in jail. This vicious cycle will continue as long as people keep believing that girls are raped because of something they did.

What Can You Do to Prevent Sexual Assault and Online Shaming?

For the sake of current victims, as well as potential victims, it is vital that you challenge the belief system that some victims are somehow to blame for sexual assault. To do so, teachers, parents, and community leaders must take steps to prevent future incidences of sexual assault and online shaming. Here are some ways in which this can be done.

  • Define all types of sexual misconduct. Too many times, when a young girl is sexually assaulted, the defense argues that she never said no or that the actions were consensual. Or, they might argue that the young man had no idea that what he was doing was wrong. Parents, teachers, college administrators, and community leaders need to educate students on the various types inappropriate sexual behavior including everything from sexting and sexual bullying to sexual assault and rape. Teens are young and immature and need to know that engaging in these types of behaviors is against the law. There should never be any question that what they are doing is wrong.
  • Establish strict policies. In addition to the laws against sexual assault, high schools and colleges need to establish strict policies involving sexual misconduct including expulsion from school. They also need to have policies in place regarding sharing videos, cyberbullying, and publicly shaming other students. Communicate these policies through student groups, school assemblies, newsletters, media coverage and other means of getting the word out. There should never be any doubt in what the punishment will be for sexually assaulting a student and then engaging in public shaming. Even rumors and gossip can be addressed in the policy.
  • Address each and every complaint. If the high school or college receives a complaint involving sexual assault, they need to have policies in place to address those complaints immediately. They also should not shy away from holding perpetrators of sexual violence accountable. Doing so not only establishes a safe learning environment for students, but also creates an atmosphere where victims feel safer in reporting assaults. Meanwhile, the school is fulfilling its moral and ethical responsibility to provide a safe place for students to learn.
  • Say something. Perhaps the most important way to put an end to online shaming and rape culture is to call out those who attempt to shame and humiliate young girls who are brave enough to come forward and report sexual assault. For instance, if you see online shaming, say something about it. Also, offer to support to those who are brave enough to reveal the truth. Like sexual assault survivor Daisy Coleman says in the documentary, Audrie and Daisy: “The words of our enemies aren’t as awful as the silence of our friends.”
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