Last summer, 16-year-old Savannah Dietrich went to a party, had some drinks, and passed out. Then, two acquaintances sexually assaulted her, took pictures, and forwarded them to their friends. News of the public assault tore through Dietrich’s Louisville high school. Dietrich was forced to “just sit there and wonder, who saw, who knows?” The public humiliation culminated this June, when her assailants struck a plea deal on charges of felony sexual abuse and misdemeanor voyeurism that Dietrich felt amounted to a “slap on the wrist.” And the court had an order for Dietrich, too: Don’t talk about it, or risk 180 days in prison and a $500 fine.
First, Dietrich cried. Then, she logged online. “There you go, lock me up,” she tweeted to a couple hundred Twitter followers, outing her assailants by name. “I’m not protecting anyone that made my life a living Hell.” These men had made their assault on her public. Now, they had convinced a court to keep it all under wraps. “If reporting a rape only got me to the point that I’m not allowed to talk about it, then I regret it,” she wrote in a note on her Facebook wall. “I regret reporting it.”
Public officials and victim’s advocates have long grappled with the question of why more than one-half of rape victims do not report the crime to police. Rape trials can be long, grueling, humiliating, stigmatizing, alienating, and ultimately difficult to prove. But as Dietrich’s case shows, the criminal justice process can also rob the victim of control over her own narrative. Reporting to official channels often means keeping quiet in social ones. Even when the story hits the press—as is the case of the local Louisville report on Dietrich, now 17—the accused rapists’ names often remain unpublished.
Now, young victims like Dietrich are “reporting” the assault directly to the people who need the information most—other women living in these rapists’ communities. And they’re risking their own names and reputations in order to bring their assailants out into the open. In 2010, 19-year-old American University student Chloe Rubenstein took to Facebook and Twitter to out two men on campus she said had victimized several of her friends (“ATTENTION WOMEN,” she wrote. “They are predators and will show no remorse for anyone.”) In 2007, a group of women at Portland’s Lewis & Clark College, led by sophomore Helen Hunter, created a Facebook group calling one of their classmates a “Piece of S— Rapist.” When the administration caught wind, it suspended the man for just a semester. But five years later? Google his name, and the online rape allegations still register as the fourth hit.
The tactic has its risks. Women who report rapes through unofficial channels can be shamed for making public claims that have not been proven in a court of law—or else for ruining the reputations of “boys” who have made “mistakes.” Dietrich faces jail time. Rubenstein fielded late-night threatening phone calls from her rapists’ friends. Victims with even less social clout—Dietrich is white and middle-class, and is speaking out with the help of her family and legal counsel—can expect even less support. But the costs of staying silent are high. In her Facebook note, Dietrich said that her attackers gave “people the impression that it’s okay to do that to me … making me look like a whore and increasing my chances of getting raped again.” We know that the majority of acquaintance rapists are repeat offenders. When campus and criminal processes fail to catch these predators, social media can provide a powerful patch.
Last night, Dietrich unlocked her Facebook page to the hundreds of strangers—myself included—who have requested to make her a “friend.” They have flooded her wall with offers of financial support and links to Change.org petitions calling for justice in her case. Of course, Dietrich is also fielding spammy notes from strangers with dogs for avatars (“since they took pictures isn’t this child pornography?”) and all-caps rants about the sex offender registry.
But here, Dietrich is the editor of her own story. She has the power to delete the comments she doesn’t like and promote the ones she does. Thanks to a few brave tweets, a 17-year-old rape victim is now curating an international conversation about sexual assault in America. She’s created a public Twitter account to represent her new online role. And she’s speaking out not only about the details of her own assault, but the ways that the justice system is failing others like her. “All I am hoping for out of this is to get not only justice for myself but to future victims,” she wrote in response to one commenter offering of financial support. “The laws that protect criminals shouldn’t cross over and take away victims rights. Victims rights should come first. And thank you.”