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Sexual-assault survivors find solace on Facebook

A social networking site seems like a strange place to find people whose identities are protected by law.

But a number of men and women who have survived sexual assault are turning to Facebook, making their names and photographs public as a means to discuss their experiences and find solidarity among strangers.

"I hope that I was able to create something positive out of such a horrific event in my life," said a 31-year-old woman from St. John's who started one such group to counter misinformation spreading about her assault this summer. "It's been a great tool in helping share information and to know that I have so much support from others."

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As of Friday, her group had more than 900 members.

And she is not alone. There are hundreds of groups with names such as "Rape and sexual assault survivors taking a stand" attracting members from around the globe.

But while the community formed through these pages appears to be filling a need unmet by traditional counselling resources, the public nature of the forum - and the fact that many users reveal their real names, photographs and home towns - is the source of great concern for many who work with sexual assault survivors.

"If this is a tool that can help them transition from victim to survivor, then by all means, we endorse it," said Denise Hayes, a spokesperson for the St. John's Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre. "But once something is out in cyberspace, you can't really take it back, and we want to be sure people don't regret that they made such an intimate situation so public."

On the majority of the sites, the details are limited to a declaration of survivorship and more intimate exchanges are reserved for private communication among members.

On the public "walls" of each group, which any visitor can read, users exchange words of support, pieces of advice and updates on their court cases.

"I am glad to report that my assaulter was found guilty," Nikki Snyders-Blok, of Calgary wrote on July 23, in a group she founded called Sexual Assault Survivors.

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"I know that if it was not for all of your prayers, support and God's loving grace I would not have made it through this."

The 21-year-old founded her group in January, three months after she was assaulted.

"Society has made it that you should feel ashamed," she said in an interview. "And that pisses me off because it wasn't my fault."

She decided to use her name and photograph on the site so that people she knew would recognize that it was okay to talk to her about what happened.

Ms. Snyders-Blok said more people asked if she was okay after a minor car accident last week than during the criminal trial of her attacker.

It is this response that she hopes groups like hers will change. She wants women who have survived sexual attacks - and those who attacked them - to see that she has not been defeated.

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"I want them to see how well I'm doing. I have a good job, I rent my own condo. I've got a great boyfriend," she said. "I want them to see that I'm happy."

Katelyn Pendely is another 21-year-old who started a Facebook support group last May, a year after she was sexually assaulted, out of concern that she wasn't getting the help she needed.

Friends and family of the New Jersey student were sympathetic and supportive, she said, but in a kind of "that sucks" way, and she wanted to talk to people who knew from experience what she was dealing with.

"It comes down to not wanting to be feeling alone," she said. "Survivors tend to feel isolated and they need a sense there's someone out there that feels the same way."

But the sprawling population of Facebook means that Ms. Pendely can also be contacted by those who are not offering words of support.

The first Facebook group that pops up in a search of "sexual assault" is one called the "Sexual Assault Instructor," and appears alongside a picture of a cartoon monkey named The Great Rape Ape.

Ms. Pendely says she does not worry about attracting visitors who say she is to blame for her attack, or who spew toxic opinions in her direction.

"You can tune people out easier online," she said. "You can leave chat rooms, you can block a user. It's easier to walk away from it than it is in person."

She also communicates with her visitors using her real name, a decision that was not made out of naiveté.

"That was very much part of why I created it," she said. "I view it as part of my personal healing process."

Ms. Pendely understands why many survivors don't want their identities revealed, but believes that those who are willing to identify themselves could change public perception about sexual assault victims.

"If people start to come out and talk about what happened it could become less of a taboo issue," she said. "I think it's an important future step in terms of long-term treatment of this issue."

Cheryl Regehr, dean of social work at the University of Toronto, who studies sexual violence, agrees it can be empowering to survivors of sexual assault to share information about their experience.

"They can decide: This is the part of the story I want to tell," she said.

Dr. Regehr said legislation that protects the privacy of those who have been sexually assaulted is important and necessary, but added that it can also serve to limit information available to the public and lead to distortion of fact.

Her department has partnered with Kids Help Phone to explore the benefits of Internet counselling, which may help bridge the gap between geographically isolated people and encourage people to seek help because it can offer a level of anonymity impossible in actual clinics.

"There's no question that we're going to have to be focusing more attention on it," she said. "That's increasingly how our clients are beginning to contact us."

Jane Doe, the Toronto woman who successfully sued Toronto police for negligence after her 1986 rape by a known offender, said social networking sites could also change the language surrounding sexual assault, which she says is fear-based and focused on limiting women's movements.

"Facebook is a brilliant example of a woman being able to control the process and use her own language versus policing or legal language, and I applaud that," said Ms. Doe. "However, the concern is that it is a public forum, that it can be used against her."

But there is still a stigma of shame attached to victims of sexual assault that causes many survivors to keep their identities hidden, and Ms. Doe said she is not convinced the Internet will break down that wall.

"I completely respect and support the decision of any woman to use her real name," she said. "Even as I cling to my own anonymity."

Ms. Snyders-Blok said she sees a generational divide in the response to her group, and others like it.

The majority of the criticism she has received about going public with her story has come from her own family.

"They say that what happens behind closed doors should stay behind closed doors," she said. "For my parents and my grandparents, you don't talk about stuff like that. I think they're almost ashamed of it. But it wasn't my fault."

"Although something like this is horrific and a lifelong battle, I refuse to let it hurt me or my family any more," wrote the Newfoundland woman who started a Facebook group.

"You will never know how much your words have impacted me in such a way that it provides me strength, courage, and a feeling of belonging to a group that all want the same thing, for our wives, girlfriends, sisters, mothers, friends to be safe from sexual assault."

Ms. Pendely said the messages she has received online have helped her heal. Through the site, she has found an element of control over her situation, even though her attacker, too, could potentially be a member of the social networking site.

She refuses to allow the prospect of him contacting her to add to the fear she must already manage on a daily basis.

"Let him," she said. "What's he going to do? It's a website."

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