How Social Media Helped Give Power to Sexual Assault Victims

Social media has become a powerful tool to lend a voice to marginalized groups. Hashtags have become synonymous with social justice movements and given rise to influential activists. The effects of recent sexual harassment scandals in the tech, movie, and fashion industries show that the Internet has given power to the men and women who have remained unheard for years.

Early this year, Uber, the company known for disrupting the taxi industry, faced backlash after Susan Fowler, a former female employee, wrote a blog post detailing how the company refused to fire a manager who sent her a slew of inappropriate sexual messages and even criticized her for reporting incidents of sexism in the workplace. Uber also had two separate lawsuits filed against them this summer by women who claimed that their drivers sexually assaulted them and that the company failed to take action against their attackers. Ultimately, CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick was forced to step down.

According to an article from CNBC, Fowler was one of many women who had publicly reported the toxic environment within Uber, but this is the largest instance of public backlash the company has faced.

Uber’s situation is just one instance of sexual harassment cases or allegations being swept under the rug in a male-dominated industry.

Recently in the film industry, Harvey Weinstein, movie producer and now former studio executive, was ousted as a sexual predator in an article published by The New York Times. For years, he had paid off his accusers, many of who were young women in the early stages of their careers. They would meet with Weinstein to discuss business only to have him suggest going up to his hotel room, appearing partially undressed, and asking for his victims to give him a massage or watch him bathe. Allegedly in some cases, he would even rape them.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Weinstein’s actions have been described by the media as “Hollywood’s Worst Kept Secret” and longtime Weinstein collaborators like director Quentin Tarantino have admitted to having some knowledge of Weinstein’s behavior and doing nothing about it.

For years, women and men have been speaking out against their attackers and in many cases been ignored or retaliated against. In her blog post, Fowler described an instance where her manager threatened to fire her if she reported any more sexist activity to Uber’s human resources department.  According to statistics published by the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), fear of retaliation was the number one reason victims chose not to report a sexual crime to police from 2005-2010. Sexual violence attackers were also less likely to go to prison compared to other types of criminals.

Many have stepped forward to accuse Weinstein and other public figures of sexually harassing them including actresses Lupita Nyong’o and Gwyneth Paltrow. The social media hashtag #MeToo has gone viral with people recounting personal stories of harassment.

Terry Crews, a male actor, shared his own story on Twitter by recounting a moment where a Hollywood executive groped him at an event. Crews was afraid of what would happen to his career if he reported what happened, so he kept quiet. Bringing awareness to this issue and commending victims for speaking out instead of persecuting them will hopefully foster an environment where men and women feel safe to speak up instead of feeling like the system is set up against them. Crews’ bravery may also help male sexual assault victims who are afraid to speak up because of society’s definition of what it means to be masculine.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia

After Uber’s scandals went public, several tech companies and venture capital firms such as BetterWorks and Binary Capital have been conducting investigations into sexual harassment allegations and asking attackers to resign. Weinstein was also forced to step down from his position at his production company.  

One of the primary reasons these firms are choosing to now take action against sexual predators is the fear of the public finding out that these companies are employing perpetrators. This would lead to them losing money and having a damaged reputation. Now that social media gives women and men the power to keep businesses and public figures accountable for their actions, the fear of having a scandal is on the forefront of the minds of business leaders.

Some Twitter users had already called out companies for working with men who’ve been accused of sexual harassment for years, including Woody Allen, a movie director, and Terry Richardson, a prominent photographer in the fashion industry.

Since 2010, Richardson had been publicly accused of unwanted sexual acts by the models he hires for shoots. These acts included asking a woman to remove her tampon so he could play with it and thrusting his genitals into a model’s face uninvited.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Condé Nast International, the publisher that owns overseas editions of Vogue as well as several other popular magazines, made headlines after the executive vice president announced through an internal email that the company would no longer hire Richardson and publish his work. Several fashion brands including Bulgari and Valentino have also released statements saying they will not work with Richardson.

In the case of Weinstein and presumably other powerful people who sexually harass others, their oppressive actions originate from a desire to have power. Weinstein would try to entice his victims by promising to help them in their career. Perpetrators don’t fear what will happen to them because the culture within these industries has shown that when you’re at the top, consequences don’t apply to you. Fortunately, social media gives people the power to keep companies and public figures accountable for their actions. It gives people a direct line to those who help keep perpetrators in a position of power.

The Internet has sparked conversation and brought awareness to how sexual assault incidents affect victims. Fear, company culture, and society’s expectations of gender all play a role in why many choose to not report incidents. Social media provides us with a medium to help change the balance of power between victims and their attackers.