Connectedness, Digilantism, and Trauma

Pleasant Progressive1Trigger warning: rape has been in the news a lot over the past few weeks and it’s made me mad and sad, so I’m going to write about it as the main topic of my post today.

I almost threw up watching coverage of the kidnappings in Cleveland and the details emerge of what those three women endured for the last decade. Then news broke that military sexual assaults had increased 30 percent in the past two years… which was overshadowed by the story of the Air Force guy in charge of a sexual assault program being charged with abuse himself. And yesterday, reports circulated that an Army guy tasked with sexual assault prevention is now under investigation for sexual assault and pimping. Pimping.

All this rape news—the articles on the internet, NPR reports, the constant conversations on cable news—stirred a great deal of ongoing angst and discomfort. And it got me thinking about how our 24-hour reporting cycle and the explosion in internet access is changing the way we handle, report, and even think about sexual assault.

Of late, I’ve been very interested in the practice of “cybervigalantism” or “digilantism” as it relates to issues around sexual abuse. These terms are being used to define vigilantism against crimes via the web—often involving folks who take to internet sleuthing themselves when they feel law enforcement has failed to work a case adequately.

Two quick examples: Rehtaeh Parsons, a Canadian teenager, was raped and cyberbullied, and police dropped the case. When she killed herself, a group called Anonymous (which is most known for hacking) began advocating for justice on her behalf and even publicly communicated directly to Rehtaeh’s alleged rapists. In a separate and highly publicized case in Steubenville, Ohio, teenage rapists actually documented their assault and bragged about it online. The NY Times published an interesting piece about how bloggers helped support the survivor when law enforcement (and many in the small town) seemed disinclined to fully investigate and prosecute the case.

If, as the career counselors tell us, anything you put online stays with you for the rest of your life, how do these infinite histories affect wrong doing and even the act of crime itself? I want to believe that the threat of a lifelong, criminal record online would be enough to dissuade anyone from engaging in nonconsensual sex, but that’s naïve. Instead, I feel disheartened—particularly in these two cases—that law enforcement was so far behind in their embrace of social media. Instead of a preventative force, it feels like the online world maintains a patriarchal status quo.

It reminds me of the staggeringly horrendous statistics around the FBI’s investigation of known child pornographers. Last I checked, we were in single digits—like, we know these guys are out there because we can see them committing the criminal act of sharing illegal photos, but we’re putting so disgustingly few resources into stopping them (investigations are in single digits) that the practice continues basically unabated. The crime isn’t prevented, justice isn’t done, and nobody is getting a message that that shit ain’t right.

Speaking of child pornography, I recently read a compelling article about how the invincibility of online content contributes to a type of re-traumatization of child sexual assault survivors whose abuse was captured and distributed as child pornography. The Price of a Stolen Childhood documents this retrauma in a really poignant way, and posits a compelling question about financial retribution. It makes me wonder whether traditional organizations dedicated to aiding survivors of sexual assault have had to incorporate a social media component into conversations and trainings around post-traumatic stress for survivors. I can imagine this becoming increasingly troublesome (and important) as access to technology and connectedness increases.

And I think we can all agree that it will only increase—changing the way we live. Already, law enforcement can use your cell phone GPS data to track your location and figure out whether you were at a crime scene or not at a particular moment—no warrant necessary. Post-Boston, it seems like cameras on any and every city street are to be expected. Although many still think of sexual assault is a “private” or “personal” crime, these violent acts are being committed in a world that is increasingly connected and online, where lines of privacy are unclear and shifting.

When it comes down to it, we’re talking about people’s lives, well-being, and safety. As we question our ever-connected world, the realities of sexual assault and efforts to end the epidemic are a relevant piece of that discussion.

With love,
The Pleasant Progressive

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