Survivors of sexual assault confront victim blaming on Twitter

On Wednesday, a Twitter user posed a question: Would women who had been the victims of sexual assault share what they were wearing when they were attacked?

The question evoked a troubling, but still-debated myth about sexual assault: That women can prevent such crimes by dressing — or behaving — differently. The responses debunked that myth — and they were staggering.

Some women wrote of wearing t-shirts and jeans. Others wrote of having been assaulted as children, wearing pajamas. There were particularly harrowing tweets that listed multiple sexual assaults. Many responses were jarring in their specificity: “I had on a church dress and some flip flops,” read one.  “Almost forgot, I was wearing a Beauty and the Beast nightgown,” read another. Some women acknowledged struggling to talk about their assaults. “20 years later & I still don’t talk about it,” one woman wrote. “Thank you for giving breath to our collective scream,” another tweeted. “The sound woke a part of my soul that I forgot I had.”

Christine Fox, who tweets under the name @steenfox, said in a telephone interview with She The People that she asked the question after seeing a flier for SlutWalk, a protest march that was started in 2011 by a group of women in Toronto and has since spread to cities around the world, including Washington, D.C.  In a 2011 op-ed, writer Jessica Valenti described SlutWalks as “the most successful feminist action of the past 20 years.”

It’s a controversial name, which is in part why the organizers picked it. It’s also why many of the SlutWalk protesters are wearing so little (though some are sweatpants-clad, too). Thousands of women — and men — are demonstrating to fight the idea that what women wear, what they drink or how they behave can make them a target for rape.

Fox said she and others were put off by the term SlutWalk, but not by the idea behind it. Intrigued, she tweeted a link to the Wikipedia entry for SlutWalk and highlighted a sentence that said the march began after “a Toronto Police officer suggested that to remain safe, “women should avoid dressing like sluts.” Fox said the resulting conversation, which included some tweets suggesting that there are steps women can take to avoid sexual assault, prompted her to pose the question.

“The stories I’ve been seeing were shocking,” said Fox, adding that many revealed sexual assault by family members.  Fox herself was sexually assaulted by “a man I knew and I trusted,” she said. “I couldn’t have done anything differently.”

The role of binge-drinking in campus sexual assaults has been the subject of heated debate during the past year over whether women put themselves at risk by getting intoxicated at parties, where many such attacks occur.

Fox said she has received hundreds of replies to her tweet, including direct mentions from some who wanted to share their stories anonymously. And while hashtags have been known to launch rapid-fire discussions about cultural issues, Fox did not include one. “I wasn’t trying to track it or anything like that,” she said. “That wasn’t my goal.”

But tracking conversations is one of the byproducts of social media’s very public platform. After Buzzfeed embedded tweets from some of the women who had shared their stories, a debate erupted over whether their privacy had been violated.

“It should have been handled more delicately,” said Fox, adding that she hopes people focus on the stories shared by survivors of sexual assault. “Their stories and their bravery inspired a whole lot of people to have conversations.”

In addition to hearing from survivors from around the world, Fox said she had also heard from parents who were inspired to talk to their children about sexual assault.

“I’m not an advocate or anything like that. I’m just a person who has had this experience,” Fox said. “I had no idea that it was going to turn into this. The most important thing is that it brought awareness to a lot of people, myself included.”

Bethonie Butler is a producer and a reporter on The Post’s engagement team. She oversees online comments and has also contributed to The Style Blog and She The People.
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