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Sharing sexual assault experiences online is like ‘walking a tightrope’ for survivors

By Brenna Jessie of Rape Crisis Scotland // 23 June 2020

With a growing movement of public accusations of sexual harassment on social media, Rape Crisis Scotland’s Brenna Jessie spoke to BBC The Social and gave her personal view on the issue.

Over the past weekend we’ve seen something of a tidal wave sweep social media with survivors of sexual violence, harassment and assault calling time’s up on those who have abused their power: detailing incidents, naming those responsible and standing in solidarity with one another.

Before we start we should make a few things clear - posting details of abuse where the perpetrator is named or identifiable may impact future reporting and I agree that this isn’t necessarily fair.

Scrolling through these posts you get a real sense that this is a trend facilitated by strength in numbers. The bulk of posts are overwhelmingly from women fed up of living in a world where sexual violence seems like an inevitability for girls and women, where seeking justice has been, or feels, fruitless and where posting their experiences at the hands of dangerous men online feels like the best or even only chance of protecting other women.

There should be absolutely no doubt that the actions of these survivors takes courage and that their frustration is legitimate and real.

It is the symptom of a society where sexual violence is so normalised that it can take years to even realise an experience was abusive and possibly criminal.

It’s a response that comes from the lived reality of the vast majority of survivors who feel let down by, and have little faith in, the systems and institutions that are supposed to protect all of us.

It’s the legacy of a justice system that does not work hard enough to protect victim-survivors of sexual violence, nor to embrace the reforms necessary to ensure real accountability for perpetrators. That being said, the decision to post online is not one that can or should be taken lightly and it’s not one that Rape Crisis would be quick to recommend. In some cases it may be dangerous and we’ve already seen cases of women being harassed and threatened online for having shared their stories.

There is a very real risk that posting certain details may impact any future hopes of reporting incident(s) to the Police. In the unlikely event a case was to make it to court there is every chance that the defence would weaponise solidarity between women and call it collusion.

Legal ramifications

As well as potentially opening yourself up to online harassment and impacting future reports to the Police, naming someone publicly could also lead to legal ramifications. An individual can sue for damage to their reputation over material that is published about them. On top of defamation and privacy laws, wrongful accusations could also lead to someone being vilified for a crime they did not commit. That person could become victim to vigilantism because of the public nature of the accusation.

All too often survivors are caught between a rock and a hard place. In a society that so readily disbelieves and shames victim-survivors of violence, they are pressured to walk a lengthy and painful tightrope toward justice, while weighed down by the question of ‘what if he does it to someone else’; a burden that is absolutely not theirs to carry.

More often than not – after years of their lives being put on hold – they are let down and left with no validation that what happened to them was wrong. Sexual harassment, assault and abuse are often devastating for those who experience them.

Though imperfect, posting online is clearly a means for many of reclaiming power and control that was taken from them and part of navigating a world after trauma where seemingly ‘legitimate’ justice responses are also deeply imperfect.

If you or someone you know has been affected by the topics covered in this article – you can find information and support here.