We Can End Digital Victim-Blaming: How to Support Survivors of Sexual Violence Online
By Laura Peek
During Sexual Assault Awareness Month 2021, NO MORE is proud to join the National Sexual Violence Resource Center for critical discussions about online sexual harassment and abuse.
Preventing and ending sexual violence requires societal change, and much of that change is attitudinal. If we want to assess and respond to the root causes of sexual violence, we have to start with widely-held, cultural beliefs. Of all of the beliefs that reinforce violence, victim-blaming, or the assumption that survivors of assault are somehow at fault for their own abuse, is among the most damaging.
What does online victim-blaming look like?
In our society, it is not difficult to find instances of victim-blaming online. If you spend any time on the internet, especially in the #MeToo era, you’ve likely seen the comment section under a post about sexual violence. Many commenters offer words of encouragement — supporting survivors, wishing them a safe recovery from trauma, or applauding their bravery for coming forward. But, inevitably, you will also encounter victim-blaming statements like:
- “Why didn’t you come forward sooner/immediately report the assault?”
- “You just want attention or a payday.”
- “You had to know what would happen if you went to his apartment/hotel room.”
- “How were you dressed at the time of the assault?”
- “How much had you had to drink?”
- “You shouldn’t have been out alone that late.”
There are many other ways that someone might subtly suggest that a survivor either provoked an assault or did not do enough to stop it.
None of these statements are relevant, and they are not justifications for sexual assault. We know that there are numerous reasons that a survivor might delay reporting or not report an assault at all — from the fear of retribution, to not wanting their family to know, to the fear that they will not be believed. In the U.S., it’s estimated that three out of four sexual assaults are not reported.
Drinking alcohol, wearing a certain type of clothing, and/or staying out late also do not cause sexual assault. The responsibility for sexual assault lies with the perpetrator, every time.
Why is it harmful?
Some might believe that seeing these comments online is less harmful than hearing them in person. But our online spaces are not divorced from reality. Increasingly, especially during COVID-19, online spaces are our reality. Although these statements are the opinion of one person behind a keyboard, they are indicative of wider cultural beliefs, and they reinforce and spread harmful assumptions about the nature of sexual violence. Those assumptions have had and continue to have real-world implications in our homes, schools, communities, and courtrooms. Take, for example, the March 2021 ruling by the Minnesota Supreme Court that a man could not be found guilty of rape because the victim got drunk voluntarily beforehand. Some forty states have similar laws on the books that lay responsibility for sexual assault on the victim if they weren’t coerced into being intoxicated.
Online victim-blaming directly impacts survivors as well, increasing the shame and stigma associated with sexual violence. Someone who has experienced assault may choose not to come forward or report the abuse after seeing other survivors blamed and ridiculed online. This is particularly true for survivors who experience other types of oppression, including racism, transphobia, ableism, and ageism. Seeing these posts or comments may also re-traumatize victims who are trying to heal from abuse.
What can you do?
There are steps we can all take to combat victim-blaming messages online. We can:
- Report abusive or inappropriate content. If you see a post threatening violence, mocking, disbelieving, or blaming a survivor of sexual violence, you can report it to the social media platform. This small step can help get sensitive content flagged and removed.
- Speak out against harmful comments. If you are comfortable doing so, respond to victim-blaming comments online by supporting the survivor or refocusing the conversation on the perpetrator.
- Share information. Many people who blame victims don’t know the facts. Share educational information and resources about the prevalence of sexual violence and its impact on survivors.
- Support positive messages. Like, share, and respond to comments that support survivors, hold perpetrators accountable, and reveal important truths about sexual violence. Often, the more you engage with positive content, the more visible it is to others.
- Check in with the survivor. If possible, reach out to the people targeted by online victim-blaming and let them know that you support and believe them.
Addressing online abuse, harassment, and victim-blaming may feel like a dauntingly large task. But culture change begins with small, positive actions. As a community, we can work to eliminate violence by publicly supporting victims, sharing educational information about sexual assault, and taking a stand against victim-blaming comments. Together, we can make our online spaces safer and more supportive.
If you or a loved one has experienced sexual violence and is seeking support, visit NO MORE’s new Global Directory of Domestic and Sexual Violence Support Services. Created in collaboration with the United Nations and the World Bank Group, the Directory provides contacts for support services in 195 countries around the world.
Laura Peek is the Communications Manager for The NO MORE Foundation, an organization dedicated to ending domestic and sexual violence by increasing awareness, inspiring action, and fueling culture change.