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This Is What #Rape Looks Like | The Nation

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Salamishah Tillet

Salamishah Tillet

Where race and gender meet, where politics and pop culture collide.

This Is What #Rape Looks Like


Trent Mays (l) and Ma’lik Richmond (r) sit in juvenile court in Steubenville, Ohio, March 15, 2013. Both were found guilty of sexual assault. (Reuters/Keith Srakocic)

This is part four in my series on the global epidemic of violence against women. (Here are my posts on Serena Williams’s victim-blaming, the sexual assaults happening in Egypt and the forced sterilization of incarcerated women in California.)

Five years ago, a Chicago jury found R&B singer R. Kelly not guilty of all fourteen counts of child pornography, despite videotape evidence of him allegedly sexually assaulting an adolescent girl. The jurors determined that the tape, which had long gone viral through downloads and bootlegs, was inconclusive. At the time, this was our version of a sexual assault case that had gone viral.

Since then, technology has dramatically reshaped our rape culture.

Our widespread use of social networks, online games and smartphones is two-edged. It has made it easier for perpetrators to target children and teens and to distribute and therefore “virtually” repeat their attacks. But it has also made documenting the ugliness of sexual violence and the guilt of perpetrators easier.

The once shocking story of Steubenville, Ohio, is now a pattern: sexual assault of a minor by two or more young men, filmed on a phone, texted or shared on social media sites, sometimes followed by formal accusations and arrests, almost always proceeded by online threats against the victim.

In two different cases this April, teens Rehtaeh Parsons of Canada and Audrie Pott of California, tragically committed suicide after photos of their alleged sexual abuses were posted online.

“As sexual assaults go viral, people definitely use these new technologies to re-traumatize their victims, often with fatal consequences,” Scheherazade Tillet, executive director of the gender-violence prevention organization A Long Walk Home (and also my sister) told me in an interview.

But, she added, “we also have something we have never really had this way before—unusual insight into attitudes and behavior the perpetrators themselves.”

This understanding is important because public perceptions of rape culture often stem from longstanding myths about rapists and their victims. The image of the rapist as a stranger, driven by circumstance and lack of control, lurking the bushes still prevails. This stereotype directly contradicts what we know to be true: 80 percent of perpetrators know their victims and are intentionally predatory in their actions.

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These video, texts and tweets change the public profile of sexual assailants. They reveal what advocates and victims already know, that the rapists are more often than not the boys-next-door, prized high school athletes, and opportunistic everyday bystanders who either join or do not deter the attack.

This not only gives prosecutors access to evidence that could be crucial to building their cases, but helps understand how we can best work with potential bystanders as well as help the larger society “unlearn” rape culture. By doing so, we can go a long way to reduce public victim-blaming and prevent future assaults.

This is part four in my series on the global epidemic of violence against women. (Here are my posts on Serena Williams’s victim-blaming, the sexual assaults happening in Egypt and the forced sterilization of incarcerated women in California.)

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