Transforming a victim blaming culture

Media discussions of male violence against women focus on the actions of the victim rather than the perpetrator. How can we challenge this narrative using survivor’s testimony without putting them at risk of online harassment?

Louise Pennington
25 November 2016
AP Photo:Paul Elias_0.jpg

  A protest in San Jose calling for the recall of County Judge Aaron Persky for the six-month jail term he sentenced Brock Turner to for a sexual assault conviction. Credit: AP Photo/Paul Elias.

“If I was Ched Evans i would find that whore and actually rape her this time!!"

This is one of the many abusive and threatening messages directed at the victim in the rape trials (and appeals) of footballer Ched Evans’ over the past 4 years. She has experienced an incessant barrage of abuse and threats of physical and sexual violence via Twitter, alongside a deliberate smear campaign including repeated breaches of her anonymity. She has also received a tremendous amount of support from women across the UK. Her experiences demonstrate both the importance of centering the voices of survivors, who are frequently disbelieved, but also the limitations, particularly with the development of social media platforms predicated on notions of ‘free speech,’ that allow survivors of rape to be labeled ‘a fucking cunt’ or ‘lying psycho bitch’.   Social media platforms have, to date, been unwilling to have honest discussions of the reality, representation, and ubiquity of male violence against women and girls, despite a recent EU report that suggests 1 in 3 women between the ages of 18-74 have experienced sexual or physical violence.

Everyday Victim Blaming was founded in 2014 to transform a victim blaming culture into a victim-centered justice system.  We recognize the power of mainstream media and social media, in creating and maintaining the conducive context in which violence against women and girls occurs. Our perspective is predicated on the concept of rape culture, which first appeared in feminist writing in the 1970s. A victim blaming culture consists of a complex set of beliefs, theories and practices that minimise, absolve, and ignore men’s personal and legal responsibility for perpetrating violence against women and girls, this is paralled by women being made responsible for preventing violence by following a set of ever changing ‘rules’ that form ‘safety advice’.

Don't Rape.jpg

Whilst our campaign also tracks and challenges inappropriate, offensive and misleading media coverage of male violence against women and girls, we also created a non-judgmental, safe space in which victims and survivors of domestic and sexualized violence and abuse can share their experiences. We have published stories written by women who have never spoken publicly before, others ask only that we read their story and then permanently delete it - their only need is to have one person who knows, even if that person is a complete stranger in an online space. 

Many of the submissions we receive are from women asking: “was this rape” or “I think it was rape”. The same phrases appear in post after post: “why didn’t I say no”, and “why didn’t I leave”. These women have not yet approached specialist organisations like Rape Crisis, Women’s Aid, and Refuge because they worry about ‘wasting’ their time.  Many simply want someone to say ‘I believe you’. The women who have reported their experiences to the police in the UK speak of disbelief and a refusal to investigate – a 2014 report by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary identifying the frequency with which sexual offences were ‘no-crimed’ by police forces across the UK did not surprise us. 

In the long term, awareness of the reality and ubiquity of male violence against women and girls will transform victim blaming culture, but there are serious ethical considerations about using the voices of victim/ survivors as the basis of feminist campaigns on social media platforms that are unwilling to take responsibility for their users’ abuse and harassment of women. Twitter may have banned professional troll Milo Yiannopoulos for directing a targeted campaign of racist and misogynistic hate at Ghostbusters’ actress Leslie Jones, but it does very little in response to the thousands of men who use their platform as a way to silence and punish women. Facebook pushes its ‘real name’ policy even when thousands of women have made it clear they use pseudonyms to hide from men who have threatened them. Until Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and others recognize that ‘free speech’ does not guarantee the right to threaten violence, feminist campaigns have to balance raising awareness with a responsibility to protect women from online abuse.

We only share survivor testimony publicly for two weeks across social media platforms.  They remain published on our site as it is essential to ensure their voices are heard, but we want to minimise their chances of harassment. Equally, we are aware of the ways in which mainstream media outlets use the voices of victims as clickbait. We want to create a safe space for survivors without using their experiences in a way replicates these patterns, therefore we prioritise challenging myths and inappropriate language in mainstream media on Twitter and filing formal complaints with specific media outlets.

We rarely use hashtags like #WeBelieveYou or #notokay when we share posts on social media as a way of preventing ‘trolls’ (a misnomer that fails to recognize the severity of the criminal acts that may be being perpetrated) from targeting survivors. At the same time, these tags are essential in enabling women to collectively share their experiences. Campaigners need to support these women with positive messages in order to drown out the men’s rights activists who label women liars: using tags without recognising the inevitability of the abuse that will follow puts women at risk. 

Whilst we do not edit in other ways, we do remove identifying details, as anonymity is central to our campaign and we have, on occasion, chosen not to publish posts that are uniquely identifying. This is partly to protect women from litigious perpetrators, particularly if they are ex-partners or husbands, but also because the legal right to anonymity for victims of sexualized violence has been repeatedly breached in online spaces over the past few years, as evidenced in the treatment of the complainant in the Evans rape trial. Protecting the anonymity of survivors and their right to privacy must be understood as a human right and be the basis of any campaign.

Social media, with its ability to connect women globally, has the potential for transformative political activism. It provides women a space in which to share their experiences and support each other. It enables feminist campaigns to access spaces that were blocked previously by financial considerations. However, if we want to challenge media narratives that focus on ‘good fathers’ and ‘Stanford rapists’ (as opposed to simply rapist since Brock Turner’s access to an Ivy League education is deemed more important than the criminal act of rape) using survivor testimony to create a victim-centred justice system, we need to be clear and careful in how and why we are using women’s testimonies, finding ways to centre their voices without putting them at risk of further abuse.

Read more articles on openDemocracy in this year's 16 Days: Activism Against Gender-Based Violence. Commissioning Editor: Liz Kelly

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