When a 16-year-old girl named Jada was raped at a party in Houston, someone took a photo. It went viral.
Jada, who had blacked out the night of the party, discovered what had happened to her when she saw the slew of tweets reposting her picture — her legs splayed, her eyes closed, the lower half of her body naked. People started taking photos of themselves mimicking her posture, using the hashtag #Jadapose to consolidate the onslaught of posts that made her rape a meme.
This is only the most recent example of sexual assault gone viral. In 2011, Savannah Dietrich was gang raped by several football players at a party while onlookers snapped photos that were later posted online. The same year, 15-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons was raped at a party; a photo of the incident was spread around her school, and she was bullied for more than a year, until she committed suicide in 2013. The year before, Audrie Pott, also 15, was bullied after photos of her sexual assault by three boys were distributed around her social circle. Pott took her own life less than a month later.
And then, there was Steubenville, where a 16-year-old girl was sexually assaulted at a party by several of her peers. Like Jada, she found out what had happened to her only when students began to circulate photos and videos. Unlike Jada and the aforementioned girls, she didn’t reveal her name — something that, once upon a time, was conventional for underage victims. But now, with girls like Jada (who came forward to the press and agreed to be identified by her first name) protecting their identity seems pointless when so much of their personal, intimate horror has already been flung across the Internet.
There are lots of things to be said about the implications of rape-turned-viral-media: that rape is an act of dominance, and social media gives the survivors a way to fight back; that it further humiliates survivors by forcing them to relive their rape; or that when social media is used as a way to speak out against rape, it may begin to break the silence and erode the stigma surrounding sexual assault survivors. But, the #Jadapose hashtag has been used more than 30,000 times in the past few days, which makes one thing very clear: Rape culture is real, and so is the pervasive influence of social media.
Of Audrie Pott’s three assailants, two were sentenced to a mere 30 days in juvenile detention, to be completed during weekends; the third sentenced to 45 consecutive days. Rehtaeh Parsons’ assailants were never punished, as authorities concluded that there was “insufficient evidence” to press charges, despite having photographs that depicted the assault. After a girl named Daisy Coleman was sexually assaulted as a high school freshman, her rapist got four months in county jail — but, on charges of “child endangerment,” without any mention of sexual assault. And, a teenage boy who spread images of a 16-year-old girl’s gang rape in Vancouver was put on probation and, unbelievably, ordered to “compose an essay on the pros and cons of social media.”
The rare exception came last year, when two guilty verdicts sent the Steubenville rapists to juvenile detention for, respectively, one year and two years. While much ink is spilled about the role social media played in bringing that case to the national stage, it may have inspired more think-pieces than justice: Both young men were still given the minimum sentences for their crimes.
And, that’s the problem. We’ve been too quick to focus on the saga of how social media is a “double-edged sword,” perhaps at the expense of paying attention to the reality of sexual assault. In light of Jada’s story, there’s a lot of chatter about the horrible things that are happening on Twitter, but the truly horrible thing happened at some house party in Houston.
Whether social media is empowering or demeaning in sexual-assault cases is a valid debate, but it should be secondary to the fact that we don’t have laws that are always sympathetic to survivors or reliably hold rapists accountable for their actions.
The British Parliament is in the process of constructing laws that deliver tougher penalties for cases that involve “deliberately naming and abusing” rape survivors on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or other social media sites.
But, in the United States, we need to step up our game in responding to cases of sexual assault — especially when we can clearly see a crime was committed, and especially when survivors have to relive their trauma over and over in the form of reblogs and retweets.
In the aftermath of #Jadapose, it’s time we stop making survivors of sexual assault into social media martyrs and start taking a legal stand against rapists — whether their crimes go viral or not.
Illustrated by Austin Watts