Skip to main content

The dark side of social media: A new way to rape

By Rebecca Campbell, Special to CNN
April 17, 2013 -- Updated 0944 GMT (1744 HKT)
Canadian teenager Rehtaeh Parsons, who was allegedly gang-raped and bullied, was hospitalized after she tried to hang herself on Thursday, April 4. The high school student from Halifax, Nova Scotia, was taken off life support three days later. Two 18-year-old men face child pornography charges in connection with the case. Canadian teenager Rehtaeh Parsons, who was allegedly gang-raped and bullied, was hospitalized after she tried to hang herself on Thursday, April 4. The high school student from Halifax, Nova Scotia, was taken off life support three days later. Two 18-year-old men face child pornography charges in connection with the case.
HIDE CAPTION
Canadian teenager Rehtaeh Parsons
Canadian teenager Rehtaeh Parsons
Canadian teenager Rehtaeh Parsons
Canadian teenager Rehtaeh Parsons
Canadian teenager Rehtaeh Parsons
Canadian teenager Rehtaeh Parsons
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rebecca Campbell: The rate of sexual assaults is alarmingly high among adolescents
  • Campbell: Rape is a crime of power and dominance, and social media make it worse
  • She says perpetrators make victims feel worse when they circulate sexual assault photos
  • Campbell: We must reform the criminal justice system and do more to prevent cyberbullying

Editor's note: Rebecca Campbell is professor of psychology at Michigan State University.

(CNN) -- Fifteen-year-old Audrie Pott got drunk at a party and passed out. What happened next, according to her family, was that she was sexually assaulted by multiple young men, who took photos and circulated them in their high school of more than 1,000 students. Not long afterward, Audrie, devastated and hopeless, committed suicide.

In Canada, Rehtaeh Parsons, then 15, was sexually assaulted by multiple perpetrators, according to her family, and photographs were also posted online for the world to see. She was tormented and bullied for more than a year with no legal action taken by the authorities, who stated there was "insufficient evidence" to file charges. Rehtaeh also committed suicide.

Why did these tragedies happen?

Rebecca Campbell
Rebecca Campbell

The rate of sexual assaults is alarmingly high among adolescents. Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute of Justice finds that 30% to 35% of female sexual assault survivors were first raped between the ages of 11 to 17. Many of these assaults occur when victims are under the influence of alcohol, and a surprising number of adolescent rapes involve multiple perpetrators. A recent study found that 12.4% of sexual assaults committed against 13- to 17-year-old teens were gang rapes.

When evidence goes viral

Rape is a crime of power and dominance, and social media provide new ways of asserting that power to hurt victims over and over again. Gang rape takes on a whole new meaning when images and slurs are posted and forwarded and spread endlessly. Adolescent sexual assaults are particularly likely to go viral (more so than instances of adult rape) because of the "everyone knows everything about everyone" culture of middle and high school. The ubiquity of cell phones with cameras and the power of the Internet make for faster, farther-reaching gossip, name-calling, character assassination and ultimately despair for the victim.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



What was once a horrible incident that the victim remembers and suffers in private agony has now become an all-you-can-watch public humiliation event.

There's ample evidence that bullying has grown widespread, but the crime of rape has always been around. We live in a culture in which victims are blamed for the assault and made to feel like they are the ones who are criminal and dirty and shameful. Many rape victims are afraid to report the assault to police because they believe the criminal system will not help them. And they're right.

A recent National Institute of Justice study found that among adolescent sexual assault victims who did the brave the system -- they filed a police report, they met with investigators, they endured a medical forensic exam and rape kit -- 60% of these cases were not prosecuted by the criminal justice system. These rates are even worse for adult victims: On average, 86% of sexual assaults that are reported to the police are never passed along to prosecutors even to be considered for prosecution. That's 86% that go nowhere.

Police re-open rape probe after suicide
Anger after teen commits suicide

The cases weren't forwarded to prosecutors because police said there was "insufficient evidence," or because they thought the victim was "making a false report," or because the victim "wasn't credible" -- despite the fact that all of these victims had a sexual assault medical forensic exam and forensic evidence collection kit ("rape kit"). These cases were closed with either no investigation at all, or minimal investigational effort. A recent report from Human Rights Watch suggests this is an alarmingly common practice.

When the criminal justice system doesn't listen, doesn't investigate, doesn't seem to care, it sends the message to rapists: You will not be held accountable for your crimes.

Perhaps it is not surprising that several studies have found most rapists are serial rapists. To victims, this inaction sends the message: Your suffering is not our concern. You don't matter.

Rehtaeh's case went nowhere. Only now, after her death, will it be reopened.

How can this be changed?

One, reform the criminal justice system. Train legal personnel on best practices for the investigation and prosecution of these crimes. Challenge law enforcement agencies to start by believing and to investigate, not shelve, these crimes. Demand that police see these images on social media for what they are: not pornographic exploits but evidence of a crime.

Two, we must get survivors to the services that can help them. The despair that victims experience can all too quickly consume them and destroy their lives. The federal Violence Against Women Act and the Victims of Crime Act provide funding to all states and territories for rape crisis hotlines, crisis counseling and victim advocacy programs. These services are provided free of charge. Friends, family, teachers, everyone can help let survivors know that help is available.

And finally, we have to do more to prevent cyberbullying. The important truth not to lose sight of is that most teens do not commit sexual assaults and most do not bully. We need to support and empower these youth to speak out and intervene with their peers. The CDC has resources for schools and communities to develop "bystander prevention programs," which teach effective strategies youth can use to prevent violence among their peers. Widespread adoption of these programs is critical.

For girls such as Audrie Potts, Rehtaeh Parsons and many untold others, their agony had become too much, and the only solution they saw was suicide. We will never again hear their words, their stories, their voices.

But our voices can still be heard, and we must demand solutions to this seemingly intractable problem. We owe all victims justice and compassion.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rebecca Campbell.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2049 GMT (0449 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1459 GMT (2259 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT