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 22, 2014 -- Updated 1259 GMT (2059 HKT)
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 2132 GMT (0532 HKT)
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1917 GMT (0317 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1359 GMT (2159 HKT)
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1927 GMT (0327 HKT)
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT