One night, in early 2013, I posted an image to my new Tumblr blog illustrating themes around fear of being falsely accused of rape and chances of rapists being convicted of their crimes. It was my third post, and part of a larger project I was formulating about creating a new conversation about sexual violence. When I woke up, the image had been liked and re-blogged 16,000 times.
By the end of the day, the image had set off a passionate and emotional discussion around the world. Many advocates, leaders, and organizations recognized the value and intent of the graphic — to spark new ways of connecting to and framing the issue of sexual violence. Other bloggers and writers condemned it — and me — with thoughtful yet perhaps harshly titled articles like The Enliven Project’s False Rape Infographic is Going Viral, Too Bad It’s Wrong and others like, Lies, Damn Lies, and Infographics, that I won’t even link to here.
And then there were the comments. On my site. On other posts. On Reddit. Some of them were constructive thoughts on the graphic or the topic at hand, but many of them were deeply personal, hostile, and defensive attacks. My friends told me not to read the comments. My husband tried to take away my phone. But I was truly fascinated — and not entirely surprised — by the reactions, especially the reactions of men.
In my years of speaking about sexual violence — as a survivor and as an advocate — I’ve seen my fair share of negative reactions to conversations about sexual violence. In my twenties, I thought men were just defensive, angry, and hostile — or unwilling to have a discussion about something so deeply personal to me. And then, while serving as a medical advocate at a local rape crisis center, I met a young man who changed my perspective.
One weekend, I was called to meet a survivor at a local hospital. When I showed up, the medical staff told me that they needed help dealing with her “disruptive” and “hostile” male friend — their words, not mine. He was questioning the survivor intensely, snapping at the nurses, and generally seemed in distress. Rather than shut him down, I looked for a way to connect. We went for a walk, and he disclosed his own sexual assault from years ago. He never sought help. And now, in the middle of watching his friend experience the same thing, it was all rushing back to him.
Men and women can be intensely triggered by stories of sexual violence — even, and perhaps especially, on the internet. In fact, one out of four women and one out of six men will experience sexual violence directly in their lifetimes. Not to mention the experiences of family members, friends, partners, and loved ones — all in different stages of trauma response and survivor recovery. When triggered, we respond in so many different ways. While one person might well up or appear anxious, another person might shut down or become hostile.
Being triggered doesn’t justify abusive or violent language, but it does explain hostility and denial in a more complex way than, “Those guys are all crazy jerks.” We are quick to judge those who express discomfort or disbelief around sexual violence — especially if they are men. We interpret a lack of understanding or engagement as condemnation of the cause.
In turn, we often — online or in person — shut down an important conversation with men who are actually eager to talk. As a part of my work to make conversations about sexual violence less uncomfortable, I’ve spoken to dozens of men about sexual violence. I’ve learned that they feel sad, concerned, and helpless — and are seeking ways to support the survivors in their lives. But when the topic comes up, they have no idea what to say. They realize it’s a high stakes conversation, and don’t want to get it wrong.
When men — and women — react strongly — or not all — to the topic of sexual violence, I’ve learned to respond with curiosity and compassion. Conversations about sexual violence are necessarily uncomfortable, but when we work through that discomfort together, we can start to create connections and healing — the things we need to support survivors and prevent sexual violence from taking place at all.
Well, this turned into a long comment… sorry about that.
I think in this case that any negative reaction was because, from my reading, this infographic feels deliberately designed to distort the source data.
The fact that men reacted worst of all is most likely because this infographic displays all men accused of rape as being guilty of rape, except the extremely misleading 2/1000 put down in the bottom corner. My biggest takeaway from my first reading of this was that anyone accused of rape was guilty until proven innocent.
How would the internet react if this infographic was re-done based on a complete assumption of innocence? It could be distorted to suggest that only 10 out of 1000 men were guilty of the crime they were accused of. It could further be made to show that twice that number had their reputations ruined by having to go to court, have their name published and forever be associated with the moniker ‘rapist’, despite insufficient evidence to convict.
With some creative spin, you could even suggest based on this info that only 1% of rape accusations were true. This is obviously incredibly unfair and grossly misrepresents the data, and I’m certain it would (rightly) bring about a massive backlash.
I fully agree with you that an open discourse on sexual violence is the only way to fix a broken system and I am completely in agreement that the system is broken. I find that things such as your original infographic do more to drive people apart than bring them together though. Some people are going to be defensive when presented with this information, and those people are going to pick it apart. Why provide ammunition for them? Put forward cold facts and be fair and transparent with your assumptions, then people can’t get distracted arguing that you’re misleading with a motive.
In conclusion, and for the record lest I be branded a “rape apologist” – rape is absolutely disgusting and the current system is not set up for success. There’s nothing special about sexual assault though when it comes to the presumption of innocence, and the suggestion that there is will never be a foundation for a productive discourse.
Jacob, thanks so much for contributing your thoughts here – I don’t mind the length at all! I appreciate you taking the time to write out your thoughtful comments and share your insights. I agree with you that the current conversation about sexual violence is extremely polarized, and too many people jump to a place of defensiveness right away. That’s why my work focused on creating more comfortable conversations about sexual violence and provides practical guidance on how to support survivors – male and female alike. If you spend time getting to know me and my work, you’ll quickly learn that I don’t agree with the gendered nature of the current dialogue on sexual violence, and welcome and invite open discussion without labels like rape apologist (check out my post on that one!). I feel strongly that we need to open more dialogue about what accountability and responsibility looks like for perpetrator that doesn’t automatically include long prison sentences without any pathway to rehabilitation. And it’s also my opinion that the current justice system doesn’t really support survivors or accused perpetrators in ways that will result in a society free of sexual violence. I’m not sure if this addresses all of your concerns, but hopefully provides a little bit more context of where I’m coming from as a human, which is kind of hard to interpret through a single viral graphic, don’t you think? Best, Sarah