Why did she wait so long to come forward? She should have known better. Why would she even trust him? She was asking for it.
Phrases like these boil down to victim-blaming, or the insistence on placing the responsibility for systemic societal issues on the individuals who are affected. These phrases become a way people understand sexual violence and interact with victim-survivors within a broader rape culture. Importantly, they can worsen the mental health effects for victim-survivors and keep women from coming forward to disclose their experience. Victim-blaming online is common, but much of the research examines the discourses of posts or the impersonal aspects, where strangers over the internet share their views. But what happens when young women read these phrases from family on social media?
In my recent article, I interviewed 33 young women college students about their negative online experiences. Rather than share stories of anonymous trolls targeting women with overt sexism, the young women I talked to more often described family being a primary source of mistreatment. In fact, I heard one example repeatedly: family members’ negative comments about women and women’s issues are frequent and incredibly frustrating. High-profile events surrounding sexual violence, especially in the wake of #MeToo, means young women are seeing lots of content and commentary from strangers, but also friends and family. Respondents shared how family members repost memes and other content that minimize the depth and scope of women’s mistreatment. Notably, they recalled seeing family members, including those they thought were generally more progressive, blame victim-survivors, make fun of children who were kidnapped and assaulted, and claim women who came forward about their assault were lying or simply looking for attention.
Social media has broadened our access to our family’s mundane life events but also their politics, and some family members can feel very comfortable extending their commentary and opinions onto their relatives’ social media posts. Many young women shared stories of family members directly commenting on their posts about feminist issues, such as the pink tax, domestic violence, and sexual violence to attempt to delegitimatize the post as “fake news” or otherwise misinformation. Some family members escalated the situation further, calling and texting young women to address their “political” post or demand the woman delete their post altogether.
While blocking someone seems like a straightforward strategy to avoid this type of interaction, the fact that this involves family complicates the situation. While women of color were most likely to call-out family members for harmful views, many respondents feared defending their posts too aggressively, and were hesitant to block family, since they would have to confront these very people when they went home. The strategy they chose as most useful was silence.
Silence here involves posting less often about social issues women cared about, which has larger democratic costs. But silence also extends to not disclosing their experiences of sexual violence. Victim-blaming and aggressive backlash to their own posts about sexual violence meant young women identified who they could not trust to believe or support them. Twenty-six women in the study had experienced sexual harassment on a selfie, but shared they did not share this with family because it was their fault for posting the picture. Ten women in the study had been raped by men they met online, including four women who were targeted from as young as the age of ten. Seeing their family victim-blame was part of what motivated these respondents to keep their sexual victimization to themselves. This was even true for women who were never assaulted, but nevertheless felt as though their family’s negative reactions to others’ disclosure was enough evidence that they would not have a support system in place.
When the primary advice for navigating harmful interactions online is “don’t feed the trolls,” silence in the forms of not responding to antagonizers or no longer posting at all become not only practical strategies to avoid further abuse, but also strategies that are institutionally encouraged. As my research points out, though, this silence can also extend to not disclosing sexual violence, which has real costs for women college students across race and sexual orientation. Women in college are at an extreme risk for sexual violence; disclosure after victimization can be the first step to recovery as well as seeking recourse. Yet young women’s disclosure is made significantly more difficult when their social media is saturated with victim-blaming narratives from news media, strangers, and family, and when their universities’ continue to have control over the pathway following survivors’ reports of sexual violence. As collective efforts continue to draw awareness to sexual violence, combat rape myths, and demand accountability online, we should be aware of the ways close family members contribute to repression.
Stephanie M. Ortiz (@SmoSaidSo) is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at UMass Lowell specializing in everyday racism and sexism.