For the next several column inches, I’ll be talking about rape. I know I’m walking on a wobbly tightrope discussing the subject, since 1) I’m a man, 2) I’ve never been sexually assaulted and 3) I’m a man. But, as of late, rape has became an issue that has been associated with many figures in our celebrity culture.
Of course, there is Bill Cosby, who has been accused of sexually assaulting more than 50 women and recently faced criminal charges on two rape allegations, one stemming from eight years ago and another from five decades ago. (Although Cosby won’t face those charges, he is still charged with aggravated indecent assault from a 2004 encounter and is expected to be at a preliminary hearing next month.)
Cosby isn’t the only African-American celeb being put on blast for bad sexual behavior. When R. Kelly was saluted at the Soul Train Awards a couple of months back, Twitter went crazy with those both defending and slamming the R&B star for alleged past indiscretions with underage African-American girls, particularly one instance that was captured on tape and had Kelly fighting child pornography charges in court. (He was later acquitted on those charges.)
It appears social media is becoming the place for those who feel their claims of sexual assault would otherwise fall on deaf ears. In November, adult-film actress Stoya posted several tweets where she claimed her ex-boyfriend, James Deen, also an adult-film star, raped her. This was immediately followed by several other women in the porn industry stepping forward with sexual assault allegations against Deen.
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There are also those who turn to Instagram to show what they claim is photographic evidence of abuse. Last month, comedienne Beth Stelling posted photos of her bruised arms and legs, accompanied by a lengthy post where she claims it was all the doing of a former boyfriend, whom she did not name. “There are many reasons not to make an abusive relationship public, mostly fear,” Stelling wrote. “Scared of what people will think, scared it makes me weak or unprofessional.” Soon after, another poster, also a comedian, named her ex as actor/comic Cale Hartmann.
Although Stelling succeeded in using Instagram to tell her story, other women aren’t so lucky. Just a couple of weeks ago, activist Amber Amour posted a startling shot of her tear-covered face moments after being raped. But even after the photo went viral, Instagram eventually removed it. The company has not at this writing said why, but its guidelines forbid sharing content that, among other things, is graphic or violent. The deletion prompted Amour to post on social media again: “Since when is it against community guidelines to stand up for yourself?”
But just as social media has become a place where accusers can plead their case, the accused can also be found there, telling their side of the story. Immediately after Stoya made her claims on Twitter, Deen posted several tweets maintaining his innocence, later echoing those same sentiments in an interview with the Daily Beast. And Hartmann went to Facebook to defend himself in a lengthy post. Criminal charges haven’t been brought against either man, but their reputations have certainly been tarnished. These days, with social media always ready to mercilessly call out people for their sins, it appears to be easier for a man to pay for his crimes in a public court than a real one.
He said/she said drama aside, social media has also been used to put away sexual attackers. Three years ago, two teenage football players from Steubenville, Ohio, were convicted of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl at a high school party. News of the assault spread like wildfire via text messages, tweets, Instagram photos and cellphone videos. “Thanks to social media, this wasn’t another case of ‘he said, she said,’” wrote Amanda Hess in Slate. “It was a case of ‘they all said.’”
Considering we live in an age where a term like “rape culture” is used to describe our contemporary society, we need social media to continue shining a light on victims of sexual abuse and give them a platform to tell their story. We need social media to remind people not to stand idly by while a rape is taking place. We need social media to slam the “no means no” message into people’s heads. We need social media to prevent sexual abuse from happening in the first place.