The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

March 25, 2013

Social media add suffering for sexual assault victims

By Samantha Perry
For The Register-Herald

BLUEFIELD — The shame and stigma associated with sexual assault can make it difficult for victims to come forward. Now, the ease and speed of gossiping via social networking is making it even harder.

Sgt. M.D. Clemons, with the West Virginia State Police Crimes Against Children Unit, said many teen victims are scared to speak up.

“They are scared of the stigma, the shame. Even though it’s 2013, the victim gets blamed all over again, which is what we work to try to prevent.”

In the high-profile Steubenville, Ohio, rape case, in which two teen boys were found guilty of raping a 16-year-old girl, the victim received threats on social networking sites after the conviction. Another 16-year-old girl has been charged with aggravated menacing after using Twitter to make a death threat against the victim, while a 15-year-old who posted a threat on Facebook has been charged with one count of menacing.

Although these threats occurred after the conviction, Clemons said social media discussions about sexual assault cases and victims begin as soon as people in a community realize an investigation is under way.

“Anybody that has access to any social media account can comment,” Clemons said. “Strangers who don’t know anyone involved will comment.

“The shame of it is, parents are doing it, too. You can tell by the posts,” she added.

Clemons said teens are aware of this, and it makes it hard for victims to come forward “knowing you’re going to go through this, knowing these days nothing is kept secret, no matter how hard you try to keep it private. These things used to be talked about around a watercooler; now it spreads like wildfire on the Internet. It’s instant.”

Those who have never been a sexual assault victim or worked with victims don’t understand the dynamics of such cases, or the shame and fear felt by victims, Clemons said.

“It’s not like you tell your story once and it’s over,” she said. “You’re going to relive it — especially if it’s high-profile — over and over again.”

In the Steubenville case, the victim was called derogatory names on social networking sites, something Clemons has seen happen to local victims. “They are not only victimized by the perpetrators, they’re victimized by society.”

In cases of sexual assault on teenage girls, Clemons said many don’t see it “as damaging, as traumatic” as if the victim were a younger child. “But it can have a long-term effect on them. It affects their school life, their home life. There is no escaping it.”

Locally, Clemons said authorities “are aggressive” on sexual assault cases.

Citing statistics from the child advocacy center Child Protect, Clemons said in 2010, officials did 144 forensic interviews with children and teens under the age of 18. Of those interviews, 62 percent were sex abuse cases, 16 percent were physical abuse, 10 percent were witnesses to violence or crime, 7 percent were neglect, 3 percent were drug-endangered and 2 percent were child pornography and delinquency.

Clemons added that 104 interviews were conducted in 2011, and 202 in 2012. Again, the majority were sexual abuse cases.

While it is hard for victims to come forward in these cases, Clemons said it is even more difficult if the perpetrator is someone who is in a position of trust or someone who is well liked by others.

“They (victims) are afraid they will be looked at like the bad guy. With social media, anybody can judge you now.”

Clemons said a teenage girl who is being assaulted should tell an adult at school, call police directly, contact the Just For Kids child advocacy center at 304-255-4834, or tell a trusted adult.

She also offered the advice that is given to small children: “If you tell someone and they don’t believe you, keep telling until someone believes you.”

— Samantha Perry is a writer for the Bluefield Daily Telegraph.