Sexual Assault in the Digital Age
Sexual assault remains startlingly commonplace, and technology plays a complicated role in how these attacks happen, how they're prosecuted, and how victims persevere.
As technology continues to weave ever more intricately through modern society, the Internet, mobile phones, online pornography and social media are playing increasingly large roles in the way sexual assault victims understand and process their experiences -- but they also facilitate some nasty behavior.
The issue of sexual assault made headlines recently after comedian Daniel Tosh faced media backlash for making a tasteless rape comment to a female audience member. Tosh's boorish rape remark generated backlash when a woman in the audience posted details of the incident with Tosh on her blog, outlining how technology helps fight back against the sexism and misogyny that make rape so prevalent to begin with. The post about Tosh's comments started a dialogue about sexual assault, which continues to rage on despite Tosh's apologies on Twitter.
Amid rapid-fire accusations, critics brought forth frightening statistics -- for instance, according to the Justice Department, someone is sexually assaulted in the U.S. every two minutes.
In this case and others like it, technology boosted the information and discussion around the sensitive topic, but it can also exacerbate the plight of sexual assault victims. After a soccer player tweeted the name of the woman his teammate was convicted of raping in the U.K., he and 13 others linked to the crime landed in hot water with the authorities, illustrating how technology has the potential to negatively impact the plight of sexual assault victims.
The British woman's name circulated to the point that it trended on Twitter, destroying her anonymity and intensifying her plight by thrusting her in into the spotlight in front of angry soccer fans.
On the other hand, despite its potential to complicate and conjure problems, the Internet supports victims of sexual crimes by providing a space to form communities and seek out resources, and a number of technological innovations centered around preventing sexual crimes are coming into focus. The relationship between technology and sexuality is complex, and especially so when sexual abuses and assaults come into play.
Does Technology Facilitate Sexual Assault?
Technology certainly influences human behavior, and even though exposure to the Internet does not create predators, a number of cases suggest access to mobile technology and the Internet can facilitate sexual assault.
Match.com found itself in a maelstrom of criticism in 2011 following an attack that happened on a date made through the site. A Los Angeles woman filed suit against Match.com, saying she wanted the site to screen for sexual predators. The website settled the case, and the man in question was arrested on rape charges and sentenced to a year in prison. Match.com ramped up its screening process, but the ordeal highlights some of the inherent dangers of going out with strangers on the Internet, since it is possible to falsify profiles.
Most online dating sites verify their low risks with statistics, and most people who use the sites are not attacked -- but the potential is there. There are riskier sites like Craigslist's infamous Casual Encounters section, which engender higher percentages of sexual assault cases, especially since sex workers use this type of forum to solicit johns, and prostitutes are subject to far more abuse and violence than the average sexually active woman.
The case of Philip Markoff, known as the "Craigslist killer," when an affluent, engaged medical student contacted a sex worker through the site and then murdered her, is one of the more chilling and notorious instances of sexual violence facilitated by Craigslist. In addition to illustrating how violent people can take advantage of social websites, the case against Markoff also demonstrates how the police capitalize on ISPs, e-mail addresses and Facebook to develop leads.
How Tech Impacts Sexual Assault Court Cases
Due to the sensitive nature of the crime, sexual assault victims' privacy is supposed to be protected, even as far as their names being removed from legal testimony and from public reporting in news outlets -- but this protection may be in danger because info is leaking from court rooms due to tweeting and amorphous social media policies inside courtrooms.
The England soccer player controversy was far from the only time the way people use technology affected court cases -- over the past few years, instances of jurors or people in court rooms tweeting or posting sensitive information on social networks are increasing exponentially. In 2011, a juror's use of Twitter resulted in the court throwing out a death penalty verdict in Arkansas. In the U.K., reporters are allowed to tweet from the courtroom, but the soccer player situation brought up complications because he released the name of an assault victim meant to stay confidential.
Technology is a central element to many criminal court cases, and judges, jurors, defendants, reporters and victims are all struggling to take advantage of the evidence trails and ramped up communication afforded by the digital revolution without violating courtroom procedure or impinging on people's rights. Bored jurors might think little of tweeting information, but it can derail cases and expose plaintiffs to more grief.
Technology as a Recovery and Prevention Tool
Despite its perils, sexual assault survivors are using technology to find and create resources and reach out to make meaningful connections. At the same time, to prevent future occurrences, the Department of Health and Human Services and Vice President Joe Biden joined forces to encourage app developers to create programs catering to prevention on college campuses, which experience some of the highest rates of sexual assault in the nation.
And before the White House initiative, app developers working with New York government officials created the "Hollaback!" app. Hollaback! helps women respond to unwanted sexual advances, publicly shames people who make inappropriate overtures by posting information about the incidents, and lets the police look through the accounts to see if crimes took place.
Then there's Circle of 6, another anti-abuse iPhone app, this one aimed at reaching out to friends about scary incidents. It lets users choose a group of six friends to send quick messages if a dangerous situation arises, and uses GPS to keep them in the know about their whereabouts. One of the app's creators, Deb Levine, works for the Internet Sexuality Information Services, or ISIS, which uses digital and mobile technology to spread information about sexuality, and provides resources for victims of sexual abuse.
Sexual assault remains a problem in the U.S Armed Forces, and the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) created the DoD Safe Helpline to serve people in uniform who have been victims of assault. The Safe Helpline contains an online portion, where people who do not want to talk on the phone can reach help through instant messages. This type of communication may be easier for victims who are not comfortable speaking aloud about the abuse.
Unfortunately, the Internet and mobile technology can facilitate bad behavior, including sexual assault. At the same time, leaving behind a digital trail makes it easier to prosecute assailants, and the same technology that helps predators and can re-victimize people under duress also provides a host of resources and information for victims.
Agree or disagree? We'd love to hear your thoughts. Share your experience and leave a comment below. ♦
Categories: Culture Desk