Two teenage girls killed themselves this month after photos of their alleged sexual abuse were posted online.
One girl, 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons, was called a slut and bullied after photos of her alleged sexual assault were emailed around the school.
The other, 15-year-old Audrie Pott, posted on Facebook that her life was “ruined” after pictures of her alleged sexual assault by three boys appeared online.
Parsons and Pott are examples in a growing trend of teen sexual assault that is aggravated by social media exposure.
Teenagers take pictures of gang rapes and post them online to victimize girls again and again, says Dr. Rebecca Campbell, a psychology professor at Michigan State and an expert on sexual violence.
“Sexual assault is a crime of power and dominance,” Campbell says. “By distributing images of the rape through social media, it’s a way of asserting dominance and power to hurt the victim over and over again.”
While images posted online could make it easier to convict perpetrators, rapists could also use video tapes or pictures as evidence that a girl consented to sex, Campbell said. Girls wouldn’t let somebody take their picture if they weren’t consenting to sex, the argument goes.
The humiliation that goes along with those pictures posted online has made headlines in other cases. In Connecticut, two 13-year-old girls were called “whores” on Twitter for accusing a pair of 18-year-old football players of statutory rape.
Last year in Steubenville, Ohio, a 16-year-old girl was mocked as pictures of her being sexually abused were shared over social media.
The impact on all of these victims is brutal.
Parsons, who lived in a Nova Scotia, killed herself more than a year after a gang rape that left her totally changed, according to her mother. She had to switch schools after her alleged attackers emailed a photo of the assault around in an attempt to “ruin her spirit,” her mother wrote on Facebook.
“[Blaming the victim] is a traditional problem that’s being amplified because it’s so easy to share and everyone is connected all of the time,” says Thomas Wold, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Norwegian University of Science and Technology. “All of that information is available — they were Facebook friends, they were partying, they were flirting — [to feed into] the usual strategies for blaming the victim.”
Pott, who lived in California, killed herself a day after a photo of her allegedly being gang raped was posted online. Before she hanged herself, she posted on Facebook that she’d had the “worst day ever.”
In Steubenville, the rape victim found out about her assault when a picture of her passed out and being carried around like a rag doll became viral. “I hate my life,” the girl texted a friend. “Oh my God, please tell me this isn’t true.”
The unnamed girl was ripped to shreds online. One teen tweeted “some people deserve to be peed on” while another called the Steubenville girl “sloppy.”
This kind of character assassination on top of a physical assault is utterly devastating.
“We have tons of stories going way back that the rape victim says that the shame about the rape is worse than the actual rape,” Wold said. “And the assault being shared over social media just adds to the shame.”
While social media makes rape worse for victims, it may also draw attention to crimes that have been ignored in the past. One hopes police will start prosecuting teen rapists before another girl feels so much despair that she feels suicide is the only way to escape her pain.
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