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Column: Internet Is a Handy Tool for Fighting Rape

Los Angeles

T he New York Times has identified a trend among campus anti-rape activists that seems obvious, but has actually proven to be quite revolutionary: They are using the Internet. “Frustrated and angry over the handling of sexual assault cases at Occidental College in Los Angeles, a group of students and faculty members recently decided to take the matter to the federal government as a civil rights case,” Richard Pérez-Peña reported last week. “Few people had explored this legal terrain, so the Occidental group reached out to women at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. ... The North Carolina group had taken inspiration, and a few strategic cues, from students who last fall drew attention to the mishandling of sexual assaults at Amherst College in Massachusetts. The Amherst students had, in turn, consulted extensively with women at Yale.”

These activists are working through an “informal national network of activists who, while sometimes turning for advice to established advocacy groups, have learned largely from one another.” Also, they’re Skyping, tweeting and Facebooking it all.

That rather pedestrian development has had a huge and immediate impact on college campuses. When I entered college in Washington, D.C., a decade ago, Facebook didn’t exist. (Neither did Jezebel, Feministing or Double X, for that matter). By the time I graduated, the social network was still highly segregated by campus. If you were interested in learning about new clubs at school, you’d have to wait for the shadowy webmaster behind the student organization website to plug in the info.

As a student — and later, as a reporter covering sexual assault in D.C. — it became obvious to me that anti-rape activist groups on my campus and those near me appeared to assemble, flyer, march, and then die on a four-year cycle. Student activists would work on campus issues —like the availability of rape kits at school hospitals, the lack of transparency in student sexual assault statistics, or institutional biases in disciplinary hearings and campus alerts —until they graduated and moved on. Then, a new set of students would take their place and rediscover the same institutional problems — rape kits still unavailable, statistics still skewed, alerts still underused. Institutional knowledge was scarce, and inter-collegiate activist alliances were thin. Student activists could call on established national groups of older activists for their decades-old methods (“Take Back The Night!”), or they could start from scratch.

The Internet has changed all that. In 2011, students at George Washington University, led by 19-year-old activist Emily Rasowsky, launched GW Students Against Sexual Assault (SASA) to respond to an external report on the school’s sexual assault responsiveness. In the face of the school’s labyrinthine sexual assault resources and policies, the group created a Facebook page to give students what they needed. Then, it set up an anonymous Formspring account to allow students to discuss the campus sexual assault experiences that they weren’t comfortable stating outright.

Now, student activists around the country are leaning on Internet technologies that older anti-rape advisers may have never conceived of as useful in fighting rape, and that has only helped them gain traction among students. “We’re interested in creating more of a student voice” on campus assault, GW SASA’s Rasowsky told me at the time. “Speaking as a student, we aren’t always comfortable going to adults about these things. It can really help to have that student buffer.” These online resources can be continuously tweaked to respond to emergency issues and changing campus norms, while still roping in the voices of members of the community who’ve since left campus; GW SASA continues to maintain its Facebook page for organizing events and sharing news from other schools.

And the Internet anti-rape community isn’t bound by graduation timetables or campus boundaries; it’s a flexible national network with none of the slow-moving machinery of a traditional organization. Fighting rape on campus no longer requires an incoming class of freshmen to take on an entrenched administration — when a school messes up, the news spreads far and wide.

Most crucially, as Occidental College’s movement shows, these online strategies won’t only help college students when they’re on Facebook (“Sign this petition to stop rape!”). They’re really enabling students to secure what they’ve always needed offline — clear sexual assault policies; alert systems that conform to the law; university administrators who do not inherently distrust rape victims.

Amanda Hess is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. She blogs for DoubleX on sex, science, and health. Tweet at her amandahess.