Think Before You Post: 6 Lessons About Social Media and Rape Culture

by Candace Simpson

Trigger Warning: Discussions of rape and sexual assault

The news of sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby has taken over everyone’s social media timelines. I have learned not to invest my energy in this particular story and its details, as the conversation quickly spirals out of control or reason. I am more concerned with public narratives of rape and rape culture, as the way people have been discussing the sexual assault allegations prove many still hold harmful and problematic views about sexual violence. Thus, I’ve discovered six important lessons for public discourse on sexual assault.

1. No one walks around with “rapist” emblazoned on their foreheads.

We have to give up being shocked that someone “lovable” is also someone else’s nightmare. Why couldn’t a rapist be someone’s dad, coach, teacher, or youth minister? The “But-He’s-Lovable” trope goes against the stinging reality of rape. Most rapes are committed by someone the survivor knows very well. In the popular imagination, rapists pop out of the bushes late at night with masks and dressed in black. But especially for Black women, our rapists were probably someone we knew and felt comfortable inviting into our lives and homes. Telling survivors to avoid certain kinds of men obscures the fact that many survivors cannot escape their attackers.

2. Most women have little to gain from reporting rape. And reporting rape is quite difficult.

It’s tough to report rape. Rape culture encourages men to see women solely as objects for their pleasure, while simultaneously shaming women for having sexual agency. For the typical survivor, the fear of not being believed is enough to silence them. If you’ve ever tweeted about sex, posted a photo on Instagram that shows off your curves, had a drink, or been seen in questionable company, your story will likely not be believed. Because many people think these acts are reasons we “deserved it.”

Rape culture is the reason why there are few people who survivors would feel safe talking to, much less any police officer (who most likely will be male). Many of us are not trying to answer numerous questions over and over again, which can be triggering and retraumatizing. It can be more comforting to try to forget or pretend like it never happened—not because we are irresponsible, or liars, or opportunists, but because our survival depends on these defense mechanisms. Sometimes, when we follow all of the rules, we risk our own freedom.

3. Excusing rape is not how we combat racism.

I happened to get roped into a discussion on Twitter about Bill Cosby with Jill Scott and other women. Citing the powers of the justice system, Ms. Scott (and each resulting Tweeter who favorited/retweeted her sentiments) proved to suffer from a case of convenient cognitive dissonance. We know the justice system fails to serve the needs of our communities. Black women know this, and we have been fighting for a better system for some time. Ask Ida B. Wells. Ask the activists and community members who have been organizing against police brutality in Ferguson.

Survivors don’t deny the presence of racism in the trope of the “Black Male Rapist.” We acknowledge the reality of White fear in discussions about Black male sexuality. In fact, that’s exactly why many of us choose not to report our rapes, especially when committed by “a brother”. We would rather be silent than be labeled a race traitor. When we publicly wonder how men like Woody Allen “go unpunished”, but lament that Bill Cosby “suffers,” we’re telling on ourselves. It seems like we’ve forgotten who the actual victims are.

4. A person's job or legacy does not excuse them from being an abuser.

Yes, Bill Cosby made positive contributions (which can be debated), but we have to separate character and actor. When men get caught up in public scandals, we instinctively reflect on their body of work. Most of us still can’t give up on Michael Jackson, R. Kelly, or Cee-Lo Green. We can’t imagine an artist of such genius could be so monstrous. This is exactly how men in power are able to commit sickening acts. The power that these men wield is what makes them prime suspects. Their legacy and influence is not contradicted by scandal. Their legacy and influence is what enables it.

5. The people most qualified to talk about rape are also the most traumatized.

Every time a survivor decides to be brave enough to challenge Uncle Leroy’s rape-apologist diatribe at the Thanksgiving dinner table, we relive the details of our own trauma. I could deal with Jill Scott’s comments, but seeing regular people in my everyday life agree with her made my heart sink. For some of us, engaging in discussions about sexual violence and rape culture is a shortcut to an anxiety attack. And when people side with accused rapists, especially in public, we’ve convinced a survivor to stay silent. For all the Don Lemons (and Jill Scotts) who’ve asked how these women got themselves into dangerous situations, we don’t need your victim blaming. We need you to listen.

6. Survivors have limited spaces for support and encouragement.

Social media has created a great outlet for survivors to share their stories and seek a community of support with one another. Some of us talk, some of us stay silent, and some of us scroll through the hashtags. Sadly, survivors have been silenced in so many other places and by so many other people, that public stories give us permission to vocalize what we’ve been trying to say for a long time. Some of us find solace in a community of other survivors. These circles are needed. They are networks we cannot live without, even though we wish none of us ever had to join in the first place.

I encourage everyone to ask themselves two questions before discussing sexual assault on social media:

How might my commentary be received by someone who has been trying to tell me about attack?

What do I stand to lose from a survivor sharing their truth?

We can do better. Survivors deserve better.

Candace Simpson is a seminary student in New York. As a Brooklyn native, she knows where to find all the good pizza. You can follow her tweets about faith, justice, shea butter, and bacon through @CandyCornball.

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