In one of my favorite feminist movies—the 1996 flick Girls Town—a group of fed-up young women write the names of the men who raped them on their high school’s bathroom wall. Other students join in, listing their attackers from schoolmates to teachers—warning other women and reclaiming public space.
Today, a Kentucky teen is facing jail time for doing much the same thing: naming her rapists on Twitter. Seventeen-year-old Savannah Dietrich was sexually assaulted by two acquaintances while unconscious—her attackers took pictures and sent them to friends. After the young men pleaded guilty to the attack and agreed to a plea of felony sexual abuse and misdemeanor voyeurism, the judge ordered that no one speak about the court proceedings or the attack itself.
“I was crying as she was reading that,” Dietrich told a local paper. “They got off very easy…and they tell me to be quiet, just silencing me at the end.”
Dietrich ignored the order and tweeted their names. “There you go, lock me up,” she wrote. “I’m not protecting anyone that made my life a living Hell.” Deitrich now says she ready to go to jail to stand up for the right to speak out. As Amanda Hess at Slate writes, “The criminal justice process can also rob the victim of control over her own narrative.”
Hess also points out that Deitrich is not the first young woman to use social media to out rapists:
In 2010, 19-year-old American University student Chloe Rubenstein took to Facebook and Twitter to out two men on campus she said had victimized several of her friends (“ATTENTION WOMEN,” she wrote. “They are predators and will show no remorse for anyone.”) In 2007, a group of women at Portland’s Lewis & Clark College, led by sophomore Helen Hunter, created a Facebook group calling one of their classmates a “Piece of Shit Rapist.” When the administration caught wind, it suspended the man for just a semester. But five years later? Google his name, and the online rape allegations still register as the fourth hit.
Thanks to a widespread culture of victim-blaming and rape apologism, attackers usually have it pretty cushy. Victims are still not likely to report the assault and when they do they’re very likely to be blamed for it—an awful reality that re-traumatizes the victim and paves the way for future rapes.
So making the world more uncomfortable for rapists—letting them know that there will be consequences that include public shaming—is something I’m entirely at ease with. Especially considering how often women are silenced around issues of sexual assault. Sometimes that silence is enforced through a culture that makes women afraid to come forward, but sometimes that silencing is explicit.
In 2007, for example, a Nebraska woman and her attorneys were banned from using the words “rape,” “victim,” “sexual assault”—even “sexual assault kit” in a rape trial lest they prejudice the jury. From Dahlia Lithwick:
The result is that the defense and the prosecution are both left to use the same word—sex—to describe either forcible sexual assault, or benign consensual intercourse. As for the jurors, they’ll just have to read the witnesses’ eyebrows to sort out the difference.
Something tells me mugging victims have never been ordered not use the word “rob” when recounting the crime committed against them—but when it comes to sexual assault, logic and human decency always seem to go out the window.
We live in a country where a videotaped gang rape can result in a hung jury, where jokes about raping a woman are still considered hilarious and where the seriousness of sexual assault is so minimized that writing a research paper on rape is actually considered a reasonable punishment for attackers.
Rape survivors know that there’s a world of shame and stigma that awaits them should they speak up. In this kind of environment talking about sexual assault—let alone reporting it—is not just difficult, it’s straight up heroic.
Preventing victims from naming their attackers—or in this case, even acknowledging the assault—sends the message that rapists’ reputations are more important than a victim’s right to speak up. Savannah Dietrich refused to be silenced. Supporting victims’ voices should be a no-brainer—whether they’re on Twitter, in a courtroom or scrawled across a bathroom wall.
Read more from Jessica Valenti: Anatomy of a Successful Rape Joke.