Sexual violence and the paradox of anonymity in the digital age

As women and their defenders use internet to fight their assailants, others use anonymity to attack their efforts.

Twenty year old university student Sarah
Women who draw attention to sexism are castigated by strangers in the most sexist terms possible [AFP]

“Why does she have that blue dot on her face?” I asked my mother.

It was 1991 and like most Americans, my family was watching the trial of William Kennedy Smith, a scion of the powerful Kennedy family and an accused rapist. The trial was one of the most popular television events of the year, rivalling the Super Bowl in audience attention. But its star player remained unseen.

For over 10 hours, a woman described in painstaking detail how Smith had assaulted her on at the Kennedy estate in Palm Beach. The woman’s body was visible behind the witness stand, but where her face would have been, news stations superimposed a blue dot obscuring her features.

“Your client raped me,” the blue dot said.

Today, such a scenario is unfathomable. The blue dot was designed to protect the identity of the accuser, whose name and face, like those of all alleged rape victims, was concealed by the media. The objective of this policy was to spare the victim public scrutiny and further suffering. But that was not always the consequence.

“I never had sympathy for ‘blue dot’, because I couldn’t see her eyes,” one viewer told the LA Times in a letter reflecting public sentiment at the time. Smith became sympathetic, his every emotion played to the camera. He was acquitted that December.

Today, in the internet era, it is difficult for an alleged rape victim’s identity to be fully concealed. This is true not only in high profile cases, but also in the cases of ordinary women and girls. The internet allows those close to the crime – whether the accused, the alleged victim, or bystanders – to speak without a media intermediary.

Sometimes, it is the woman who chooses to tell her story. But sometimes it is not. The violation of rape can be accompanied by a violation of privacy, in which the crime is publicised through photos and play-by-play commentary. Today, you can see not only the rape victim, but footage of the actual rape.

Writing about the Smith case in Newsweek in 1991, journalist David A Kaplan criticised the enforced anonymity of women. “Concealing identity casts the journalist as judge, long before any verdict is in: somehow the stigma suffered by an alleged rape victim is greater than that of the alleged rapist,” he wrote. 

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The tip of the iceberg

The blue dot obscured not only identity, but dignity, he argued, stigmatising the victim and perpetuating a culture of shame.

Twenty years later, anonymity is rarely an option – and with the loss of anonymity for victims comes the loss of anonymity for perpetrators. The question has become less whether identity should be revealed, but what emotions will accompany the revelation, and what factions will attempt to shift the imbalance of shame and blame.

Vigilante justice

On December 23, the online collective Anonymous released a video condemning the rape of a 15-year-old girl in Steubenville, Ohio, and vowed to fight for justice.

“The girl was sexually assaulted, molested, raped and drugged unconscious from party to party. This is a warning shot to the school faculty, the parents of those involved and those involved especially. A preliminary dox is being released on some of those involved, while a full size dox of everyone …is being compiled as you watch this video.”

They threatened to release the dox – a revelation of public identity – unless the guilty parties apologised.

The men and women behind Anonymous heard about the Steubenville rape the same way people in the town of Steubenville did – it was broadcast by the alleged rapists online. On August 11, 2012, two young men carried an unconscious girl from party to party, where witnesses say she was raped, groped and urinated on.

She was also documented: delighted spectators posted pictures of the girl on Instagram and live tweeted her assault. “Who’s this sloppy drunk bitch?” one observer inquired. Later, one of the men who witnessed the violence released a 12-minute video in which he mocked the victim for being “so raped right now”.

Many of the perpetrators later deleted their tweets and posts. But they had been stored by Alexandra Goddard, a social media expert who used her blog, Prinnified, to publicise the crime. What had been braggadocio was now incriminating evidence, a fact not lost on the young men of Steubenville, one of whom sued Goddard for defamation. (The case was dismissed.)

Anonymity, once used to safeguard rape victims in the mainstream media, was wrenched away by social media to make perpetrators accountable – and most of all, to shame them.

In their video, Anonymous hid behind a mask, the narrator’s voice modulated as he issued his threat. “You can hide no longer, you have attracted the attention of the hive,” he jeered. This was vigilante justice – an act which should inspire fear, but often inspired gratitude. Never had a mask conveyed so much empathy.

“When the legal system experiences total paralysis, perhaps what’s needed is a shock to bring the public’s attention to systemic rot,” wrote Alison Kilkinney in the Nation, noting that Anonymous was one of the only forces taking a vocal interest in the case.

Anonymous helped not only alter a legal deficit, but an imbalance in perceptions of rape and anonymity. In publicising the perpetrators, Anonymous shifted the shame, so it was they who were stigmatised, they who were wishing for their faces to be concealed.

Internet campaigns

In the aftermath of Steubenville and a number of high-profile rape casesaround the world, women launched internet campaigns to tell their stories of abuse and sexual assault. One of the campaigns was launched on Twitter under the hashtag #SilentNoMore. 

“The internet allows those close to the crime – whether the accused, the alleged victim, or bystanders – to speak without a media intermediary.”

The women tweeting to #SilentNoMore told horrifying stories of harassment, degradation and violence. They used the internet to fight misogyny. Unfortunately, the misogyny they fought came from the internet itself.

#SilentNoMore was launched by journalist Caroline Criado-Perez to combat “the sadistic and sexual nature of abuse directed at women who dare to contribute to public discourse”. Criado-Perez was speaking a truth that any woman who writes online knows all too well: regardless what you write about, you will be judged by your gender.

“Saying ‘Then came the rape threats,’ is like a rite of passage,” writes Soraya Chemlay, a feminist writer who keeps a “Dumb Cunt” folder on her desktop full of the misogynist messages and threats she receives. She adds that she does not know many women writing online “who have not been harassed or threatened, many to the point of feeling physically endangered”.

This is the paradox of anonymity in the digital age. As women and their defenders use the internet to out and fight their assailants, others use anonymity to attack their efforts to do so. Women who draw attention to sexism are castigated by strangers in the most sexist terms possible, abused for daring to draw attention to their abusers.

Rebecca Watson, an atheist blogger who complained of being sexualised at atheist conferences, still receives “constant rape and death threats a year after she said ‘Guys, don’t do that’,” writes Jen McWreight, a blogger who says she experienced similar harassment and threats for documenting Watson’s case.

Unlike for physical attacks, there is no punishment for online misogyny, no matter how brutal. The de facto abuse levelled at women is meant to convey a message: that the online space women have claimed for themselves is not actually theirs; that no space is safe for women, not on the internet, not on the ground. It will take a shift in the perception of shame – and a willingness to stand up for others – to prove them wrong.

Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who recently received her PhD from Washington University in St Louis.