Toronto actress Alice Moran wore a knee-length, polka dot dress the night she was sexually assaulted, one victim in a string of attacks in the city’s Annex neighbourhood this summer.
When Ms. Moran decided to share her story on Facebook last week, it was her attempt to counter public perceptions about victims of sexual assault – specifically a controversial tweet by Krista Ford: Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s niece recently opined on Twitter that a woman looking to evade rapists shouldn’t “dress like a whore.”
“The last time I wore that dress,” wrote Ms. Moran of her outfit the night she was assaulted, “it was to Easter dinner at my Gran’s.”
For years, victims of sexual assault have unburdened themselves on Facebook: Groups such as “Sexual Assault Survivors” have helped women bond. But now, women like Ms. Moran are going even more broadly public, online, to gain control over their own narratives. In some cases, they’re using social media to out and shame the perpetrators.
In July, 17-year-old Savannah Dietrich of Louisville, Ky., took to Twitter to out two acquaintances who had raped her at a party and then shared photos of the attack. When the men struck a plea deal, Ms. Dietrich named them, risking jail time herself: “I’m not protecting anyone that made my life a living Hell,” she tweeted. Other women have turned to the Web to post warnings about their college campuses, and also to permanently mark up the men’s online identities.
Dorri Olds took it a notch higher: She friended one of her rapists on Facebook, and let it rip. “It felt good to vent, I tell ya,” Ms. Olds said in an interview from New York.
Ms. Olds was 13 when five boys from her high school gang-raped her in a cemetery. The girl blamed herself for wearing “a shimmery, low-cut shirt” her mother didn’t approve of that night, and didn’t press charges. Nearly four decades later, Ms. Olds was on Facebook when the social media site offered up one of its automated friend suggestions: one of the boys who had been involved in the attack, now an adult with a wife and daughter. She clicked “Add Friend.”
“It felt like I was punched in the stomach, it was horrible. Then I saw an opportunity. I’m going to give this back to him. Why should I be the one who’s carried this around? If he has grown into a man with any kind of conscience, maybe he’ll feel bad.”
She sent him a private message: “I hope that night has haunted you. I was naïve and a virgin. I see you have a teenage daughter now. Better keep her safe from guys like you.” The man didn’t respond, and Ms. Olds defriended him. Ultimately, she said, the experience opened an old wound, but also made her life feel “freer.”
That catharsis is common for sexual assault victims who’ve “come out” online. But there are risks, legal and emotional, say those who work with survivors. “The absolute lack of security is foolhardy, and it presupposes a shift in culture around these issues that we haven’t seen yet,” says Amanda Dale, executive director of the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, which serves women experiencing violence in Toronto.
“We don’t want to reinforce the message of shame and keep these things so private that we never shift the conversation,” said Ms. Dale. “That’s why young women like [Alice Moran] are taking the step to go bold and go public, because they feel like they’re warriors on the edge of a social taboo. But there are consequences for that.”
“It is a spotlight that burns you very, very badly,” said Jane Doe, the Toronto woman who successfully sued police for negligence after her 1986 rape by a known offender – the “Balcony Rapist,” Paul Callow.
Jane Doe – who chose to maintain her anonymity under legislation that protects the privacy of those who experience sexual assault – questions why so much of the responsibility continues falling to women, including identifying themselves online to help catch rapists and prevent future crimes.
She says she’s especially “disturbed” by this push because less than 1 per cent of perpetrators of sexual assault were held accountable in 2004, according to recent research conducted by University of Ottawa criminology professor Holly Johnson.
“Despite the legislation that was enacted to ‘protect’ them, now they have to come forward, use their real names, stand up, speak out, take one for the team, when the shame and stigma attached to women who experience rape and sexual assault is as great and problematic as it’s ever been,” she said.
Still, she supports whatever women choose: “They do it because it’s their right to do it, because the anonymity prevents us from understanding the nature of the crime or its effects.”
After Face-friending her attacker, Ms. Olds penned an essay about the experience for The New York Times. Her hope was that women would not remain silent, as she’d done before her statute of limitations ran out. She said “a beautiful outcome” of the piece was that people from her hometown came out of the woodwork, offering their support.
“I’m all for women having a voice. It was a different world then, the mid-seventies: there was no Internet. I don’t how I would have handled it today,” said Ms. Olds, who works as a social media consultant in Manhattan, where she lives with her boyfriend.
“I guess I was hoping that women would see that you can go through horrible things and not only survive but thrive and have a really good life anyway,” said Ms. Olds. “I have a happy life.”