We tend to think of “justice” as meaning having one’s day in court – and that justice is done when the perpetrator is convicted and punished. But for many victim-survivors of sexual violence, that day may never come.
While one in five Australian women and one in 22 men will experience sexual violence in their lifetime, most do not report it to police. Even for those who do, conviction is difficult. And the trial process can further add to victims’ trauma.
Research with victim-survivors has also repeatedly found that “justice” itself can mean many things. Some survivors describe “justice” as meaning that their experience is heard and the offender is held responsible for their actions.
Some victims also describe wanting to be able to tell the whole story about what happened to them to an audience that believes them and that acknowledges the wrongfulness of the harm done.
Perhaps this is why some survivors are using social media and other online platforms to share their experiences of sexual violence and seek support from a community of peers.
What’s happening online?
Digital technologies are receiving a lot of criticism for being tools for abuse, harassment and violence against women. You could be forgiven for thinking of the internet as, by design, a largely negative place for women. And it can be.
But technologies are tools and can be used in both negative and positive ways.
Victim-survivors are seeking support through anonymous and confidential reporting apps and sites for sexual assault. Free smartphone applications and websites such as SARA (in Australia), ASK DC and Callisto (in the US) provide information, support and anonymous reporting options for victims of sexual violence.
Online communities such as Pandora’s Aquarium offer safe spaces where survivors can share stories and seek support in the aftermath of sexual violence. These communities also offer anonymity to survivors.
While some survivor forums are publicly accessible, most are password-protected and require membership. These closed communities are moderated (often by volunteers or survivors themselves) and prioritise participants’ privacy and safety.
Social media platforms also allow survivors to raise awareness by connecting with the broader community. Feminist groups, activists and survivors are using digital tools to “out” perpetrators and spread the message that violence against women will not be tolerated.
This type of public disclosure is certainly not without its challenges. It might, for example, impact on formal justice processes if an investigation or court proceeding is underway. Yet given that most cases of sexual assault will not go through the formal justice system, such digital vigilantism might be the only way a survivor can gain a sense of justice.
Project Unbreakable is a Tumblr photography project that gives a voice to survivors. Perpetrators are not named and shamed. Rather, survivors submit photographs describing their experiences with sexual violence.
Research has shown that victim-survivors benefit from different opportunities to share their stories. This suggests that digital tools can provide an important therapeutic space for the harm done to victim-survivors to be publicly acknowledged.
Victim-survivors also describe that what they want from “justice” is a promise that something will be done by society more broadly to stop sexual violence from happening again. Research into why victims report sexual assault to police has found that some are not motivated by a desire to punish the offender. Rather, they want to raise awareness and seek to change our society and culture to prevent sexual violence from happening to other women and girls.
Digital platforms provide new opportunities for the crowdsourcing of justice. Activist projects such as Hollaback! map information submitted by victims of street harassment. They provide locations and stories of verbal and physical assault in cities across the world.
Street harassment is a form of gender-based violence that is difficult to tackle through the justice system. These platforms provide an avenue for victims to do something both to raise awareness and advocate for change.
In a sense, these emerging forms of cyber justice are really forms of collective justice. Victim-survivors are empowered to share their experiences and to be heard – at the same time as society more broadly is challenged to listen and to take action to stop sexual violence.
This is particularly important when research has shown problematic attitudes towards sexual violence in the Australian community. These attitudes too often minimise rape, blame victims and excuse the actions of perpetrators.
By speaking out about sexual violence and creating safe online spaces to seek support, victim-survivors may also encourage others to report the crime. As journalist Jill Filipovic has suggested:
Narrating our own histories without anyone else’s approval or endorsement is what initially brought sexual assault out of the shadows. Continuing to speak the truth is what keeps the light on.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.