Friday, May 07, 2010
The potential of the internet
This article over at The Sexist made me...hopeful? Not excited, but perhaps optimistic. Optimistic that, even when it seems like all of our major social institutions designed to ensure justice, or at least safety, completely fail to understand the epidemic that rape is, there are courageous survivors using different methods to bring attention to the issue. More importantly, they are bringing censure down on perpetrators.
Read the article, because the background is important. The basic gist: Chloe Rubenstein, a student at American University in D.C., saw another student getting sexually assaulted at a party. Rubenstein, a survivor herself who had not reported her own experiences in the past decided to warn her fellow students at AU by posting a facebook note that named the assailant. The message went out to almost a 1,000 other students (the article doesn't make it clear how many of them are AU students).
This post isn't about Rubenstein's individual actions per se; it's more about the promise that social networking and media have to help us push rape out of our communities. The new research about how rape and sexual assault happens (which we've referenced regularly before) and which Thomas over at the Yes Means Yes blog has very smartly dubbed "the predator theory" tells us that a striking percentage of sexual assaults and rapes are committed by a small knot of very aggressive, misogynist, and violent male offenders.
Dr. David Lisak and his team at UMass have regularly referred to this knot as "undetected" or "camouflage" rapists because they have social license to operate - the society in which they exist generally turns a blind eye to their activities, and as a result, they aren't in prison or socially isolated. I find the term "undetected" really misleading, though, because in reality, many of these perpetrators are not really undetected at all - what they are is unpunished. In the communities where they operate (say, on a college campus) they might be very well known, to a number of different people, as "that creepy guy" or "the guy who did something to my friend last year," or "that guy who beats his girlfriend." People know who perpetrators are, but because of the mainstream cultural support they have to operate, it's hard to call them on their behavior.
If we could regularly count on the institutions that provide security and safety and justice to protect us from sexual assault and to support survivors, then this small knot of dangerous perpetrators would already be either incarcerated or socially isolated so they had no opportunity to perpetrate. Unfortunately, we know we generally can't count on the police or the justice system to actually do this - there are still too many social stigmas wrapped up in rape and sexual assault for these institutions to recognize what these perpetrators are doing. Even really good police departments that have dedicated officers trained in working with survivors of sexual assault have to try to build a rape case with evidence that looks to many people in our culture like consensual sex.
Rules are changing. Police departments are much better about arresting rapists now than they were 30 years ago. Marital rape is a crime that we actually recognize now. But the long-term social change that needs to take place in these big social institutions requires way too much time and energy to serve any one individual survivor. This is where creative, community-based methods of preventing rape can step in and play a more prominent role in providing support to survivors and driving perpetrators out of individual communities.
Informal social sanctions and shared information have been the last refuge of survivors for a long time, when no support was forthcoming from police or universities or the justice system. I'm a bit enamored of social strategies to reduce rape and sexual assault, and I think that subversive, community-specific mechanisms for sharing information and removing perpetrators from a friendly environment can accomplish more for individual survivors than a whole lot of police support can. In the early 1990s, a bathroom stall at Brown University served as an anonymous reporting tool for women to expose perpetrators on campus:
in the 1990s, female Brown students, feeling ignored by the administration when reporting cases of sexual assault, began writing the names of perpetrators of rape and assault on bathroom stall walls. The so-called "Rape List" helped bring the issues of sexual assault to the attention of Brown officials, in addition to sparking a national debate on the issue.
In that particular case, the informal social sanctions helped spread vital information to other students, and also pushed Brown's administration into making some changes in it sexual assault policy because it was getting bad press for not supporting survivors. Not all informal social sanctions will have that effect, but they can certainly help individual women and men ostracize perpetrators from their social networks and prevent them from having access to victims. If I know that a certain dude is a perpetrator, and he sorta kinda floats in my social world, you can bet I won't invite him to any of my parties or gatherings, and I'll start to let other people I hang out with know that they should do the same. If all of the people in my scene do this same thing, then this guy doesn't get to spend any more time with us - he's been excised from our community. The only downside to community-based measures like this is that they are really specific - the wall at Brown didn't help women who didn't go to Brown, or even women at Brown who didn't know that this one particular bathroom stall served the purpose it did.
Using social media, though - that's a different story! It has no limit on physical location, and things like Facebook and Twitter allow us to share information much faster than we ever could before on a bathroom stall. Every community can have its own bulletin board and shared messages - a sort of virtual bathroom wall - and since most of us float in more than one community on our day-to-day basis, the information from one of those walls might start to make its way to other places. People who are known as perpetrators in one community might start to get recognized as perpetrators in other communities as well. My hope is that the more people know who these predators are, the less friends, social cover, and opportunity they will have to perpetrate in the future, even if they aren't picked up by cops and arrested.
I recognize that no social networking tool is a bastion of progressive thought or a survivor-friendly place: the Greater Internet Dickwad Theory explains this reality well enough. But the internet, and this type of community building, allows survivors to create a kind of community that was much harder to create before. Chloe Rubenstein took one very particularly direct route through these systems to point out who she thought the perpetrators in her community were. I'm not sure that her strategy would work for other survivors or allies, but I love the potential of the internet to share this kind of information. If perpetrators have no one to assault, no one gets assaulted. The internet can play a vital role in by making it easier to spread (in a safe way!) the information about who the perpetrators are in our own communities.