It all comes down to this: law enforcement and school administrators have to protect survivors—on campus and online.
Moving forward, college campuses must take more effective preventative measures to prevent sexual assault on campus, including increasing security presence, bringing awareness to the incidents of sexual misconduct on campus, and delivering harsher penalties for offenders.
Authored by Kennedy Jones, Fahrenheit Creative Group
Through online movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo, we have watched grief and sadness turn into fearlessness and solidarity. Every day, thousands of Black women are finding the courage to speak out about their past traumas, including sexual assault. But at what cost? With the outpour of testimonials from sexual assault survivors, it is worth exploring whether or not social media is an appropriate or adequate forum for individuals living with the trauma of sexual assault. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other institutions serving Black students should take note of the unique experiences of people of color to ensure the appropriate systems and procedures are in place to create a healthy campus culture and protect survivors of sexual assault from experiencing additional trauma in digital spaces.
There is a long history of Black girls and women being over-sexualized and overlooked. According to the Georgetown Law Center report “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood,” when abuse occurs amongst Black women, they are the least likely to be supported or believed than any other race. The report found adults tend to view Black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than their peers. Oftentimes law enforcement and administrators in the education system, including college and university leaders, perceive Black girls and women as independent and more knowledgeable about sex, which often leads to the conclusion that they are in less need of protection—on campus and online.
Social media platforms have become a platform for survivors to share their stories of sexual abuse as a form of healing. In 2017, students at two of the most renowned HBCUs—Spelman and Morehouse—made national headlines after staging a protest that eventually made its way online, with students recounting events of sexual assault while using a hashtag that resulted in hundreds of posts. It’s worth mentioning that Spelman has been a leader in the education of Black women for nearly a century and a half, and yet female students and supporters felt the need to voice their concerns about their on-campus experience.
The online sharing of these stories has helped raise awareness and brought healing to many. However, people like Colby Bruno, Esq., senior legal counsel for the Victim Rights Law Center (VRLC), believe these stories can complicate or even hinder the adjudication on cases, as she shared in a 2017 interview with NPR.
“A lot of victims find a lot of solace in reaching out to other victims, whether it’s social media [or] the Internet,” Colby shared. “The problem with that is that when you get into the … case, everything on social media is discoverable, which means that both parties … will have access to anything that a survivor … posted.”
Survivors publicly naming and identifying alleged perpetrators can lead to student conduct disciplinary hearings. The outcomes of these hearings can result in sanctions, probation, suspension, or expulsion. According to the Sexual Misconduct Complaints Guide, during these hearings, both parties are offered an equal opportunity to present their side of the story. If the assault case involves no witnesses, each may offer very different versions of what happened. =
To determine credibility, panel members must ask the following questions, as stated in the Sexual Misconduct Complaints Guide.
- Which account makes the most sense?
- Does one account offer reasoned explanations for the major inconsistencies between the versions?
- How general or detailed were the statements and testimony?
- What reasons might either party have to lie or exaggerate?
- Has either party offered a plausible explanation of why the other might be lying?
- Does any individual have special loyalty to, or special grudge against, the complainant or respondent?
Since much of this is ultimately subjective, the hearing panel weighs the credibility of conflicting accounts and determines whose story makes the most sense. Certain social media activity may inadvertently affect how members of the panel think about some of these questions, which is why sexual assault survivors should be very careful about what they share online. Going public about an open case can serve as evidence for the alleged perpetrator if any inconsistencies are found in the testimony.
Another downside to survivors sharing their stories online is the potential backlash they may face. Sexual assault survivors sometimes are blamed for their assault and accused of being liars online, which can lead to further trauma. While there are millions of people who show support for survivors, there is a group that has strongly held opposing opinions. Since most social media platforms have yet to take serious or substantive steps to reduce harassment on their platforms, survivors are left to fend for themselves, which can leave them battling with depression or exposing them to additional trauma and abuse.
It all comes down to this: law enforcement and school administrators have to protect survivors—on campus and online. Moving forward, college campuses must take more effective preventative measures to prevent sexual assault on campus, including increasing security presence, bringing awareness to the incidents of sexual misconduct on campus, and delivering harsher penalties for offenders. Furthermore, social media posts from students that pertain to the university should be closely monitored, and cyberbullying policies should be put in place.
We have to realize that for many college students, social media is their only opportunity to be heard. If survivors of sexual abuse were taken more seriously, or more importantly, never sexually assaulted at all, they would not have to turn to social media to seek justice or support.
This project is supported by Grant No. 2016-TA-AX-K076, awarded by the Office on Violence Against Women, U.S. Department of Justice. Points of view in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.