A few weeks ago I enjoyed attending a family gathering at which there were photo albums from past reunions. 'How fun!' we alternately mused as we flipped through the pages of photos from years ago, enjoying seeing recollections of past birthdays, holidays, and ceremonies. Coupled with the bittersweet amusement of seeing how young we all looked were the obligatory squeals of somewhat-mock horror at how tragically styled we were. Here, laid bare before all of us in page after page of celluloid glory was photographic evidence of what came before contact lenses, post-pubescent skin, haircuts done by a professional, and the evolution of denim to the multi-fit industrial complex it is today. And even though it was all in fun, even though I was surrounded by my family who love me and think I am a wonderful person, I still felt these pangs of dread at what would be displayed when the group flipped the page. How embarrassing would my teenage body, hair, angsty and dramatic facial expression be in the next photo? Turns out, pretty embarrassing. And I wasn't alone. My brother, who is by everyone's account devastatingly handsome and equally accomplished winced when I joked about showing his wife pictures of him with his super-fresh fade haircut, circa 1994. Obviously, as this is a common theme in people's lives. The dread of having photos unearthed and having your peers, colleagues, romantic partners, etc. see evidence of a time you'd like to forget is universal currency. I flinched at seeing my jeans and haircut from two decades ago, amongst people who love and support me. I cannot imagine the horror of having similar photographic evidence of being raped not only exist, but shared virally amongst my peers, and eventually the internet.
I have been appalled to revisit yet another account of the digital recording and mass-sharing of a rape. As many excellent writers have pointed out, the tragedy unfolding in Maryville, Missouri follows in a particularly repugnant and similar vein to that in Steubenville, and in the case of Rehtaeh Parsons in Nova Scotia. As of this writing another victim has come forward and added to the account, making that 2 young high-school girls alleging rape by older students, all of whom were under the influence of alcohol, and the recording of at least one of the acts.
This recording and forwarding of images of the rape act are a modern dimension of rape that compounds the trauma inflicted upon the victims, with devastating effects. I find myself repulsed and stricken with grief imagining not just the barbarism that underpins rape, but the participatory acts of onlookers who go beyond witnessing this violence to produce this gruesome documentation and then spread it in what becomes a viral transmission, with what smacks of a frightening level of cavalier voyeurism, to say nothing of victim blaming. An added layer of disgust with this modern avenue of victim-blaming is that at least in the case of Maryville, having documentation of the crime was miraculously not enough evidence to prosecute. My mind is blown over this. One might think that having a rape recorded is terrible, but at least it could serve as rock-solid evidence for the prosecution. Yet in this culture or rape excusers it doesn't even guarantee a conviction, and instead serves as a mechanism to reproduce and compound the trauma for rape victims.
As we tackle rape and rape culture, it is becoming ever more impossible to ignore the role that digital media plays in the trauma inflicted upon victims., and we need to talk about it. Social media is adding a terrible new dimension of hellishness to the victims who are more often than not ridiculed and further blamed for their rape. In addition to addressing the motivations and actions of the rapists, we now need to recognize the role that virtual onlookers play. Parents, teachers, coaches, mentors, and other adults in a position to influence young people need to include the sharing of digital media and its consequences in discussions of rape. Sadly, this is an area where we can see rape culture and specifically victim-blaming writ large. Propelled perhaps by the distance and at times anonymity provided by virtual communication, many young people end up participating in the shaming and blaming of victims when they choose to record and/or share these pictures and videos.
So where do we go from here? I don't really know! Camera phones and social media platforms are tools that are difficult to regulate, and are in part wonderful additions to our communications because of their level of open access. But what I hope for are conversations that go something like this: “Wow, you know what's truly shocking and monstrous? Not only the perpetration of a rape but the recording and sharing of it for the purpose of bragging, shaming, and further hurting the victim. We should definitely talk about how that is a repugnant way to share communication and is an act that participates in that rape.”
Hopefully conversations like these are already happening, and amongst people who need to hear it most. Hopefully more than conversations can happen, and meaningful repercussions for the sharing of this repugnant media are developed and enacted (not like this, where once again the victim was made to shoulder the blame and consequences). Hopefully discussions around media sharing of rapes can be framed in such a way as to help people understand what they are doing when they choose to participate in a campaign of trauma and shame.