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I’m (Not) Afraid to Say

What are the limits of frankness in posts about sexual violence


The #imnotafraidtosay (Russian: #янебоюсьсказать) flashmob on Facebook and other online actions against sexual violence have helped victims to speak out about the problem and get psychological support from the web. At the same time, full frankness is hardly possible in such projects. It is directly related to anonymity. According to HSE researchers, the most painful experiences are still muted in groups where the discussants use their real names.

Myths Are Busted, but Not Completely

The web flashmobs where victims of sexual violence share their feelings can help them overcome the psychological trauma. It is important for the participants to reflect on every detail, from the event context, to the nuances of what they were feeling, and not to blame themselves for what happened, no matter how much society puts the blame on them.

Victim blaming is still a widespread thing: victims are often held at fault for violence. The ‘it was your fault’ discourse usually includes such arguments as: you had a provocative look, your behavior was ‘too relaxed’, you acted like a victim and provoked the abuser. Such discourse is characteristic of typical myths about rape.

Researcher Oxana Dorofeeva looked at two most relevant cases: the #imnotafraidtosay (#янебоюсьсказать) flashmob that happened in summer 2016 on the Russian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian parts of Facebook, and a topical sub-project, ‘Overheard’. These actions, and particularly, the flashmob, were aimed at opposing victim blaming and helping people speak frankly about what they experienced. But still, frankness had its limits.

 The topics of child abuse and incest appeared only in anonymous stories, but not in the high-profile public declarations.

 Surprisingly enough, confessions on social media from those who  have experienced violence do not only oppose victim blaming. They are also created taking it in mind. Myths about rape are also common in the posts, though in small amounts. This means that the talk about violence has become more open in society, but still has some limits.

The level of frankness on social media depended on the anonymity mode, as well as on the community’s attitudes.

 ‘Overheard’ (Russian: Подслушано) is a popular entertainment project which is supposed to be a collection of funny stories. Members can post the most shocking stories anonymously (on behalf of the group) and read similar posts by other users.

 #imnotafraidtosay (#янебоюсьсказать) flashmob reaches a wide audience as a social project with serious purposes: to speak frankly about harassment in society and not sweep the problem under the carpet. Users posted their stories on their pages. These explicit stories could be read by various readers, both close friends and remote acquaintances: family, friends, co-workers and supervisors. This is a situation of ‘context collapse’, when the heterogeneity of the audience has to be taken into account.

Due to these conditions, the flash mob participants had to censor their stories, to cautiously choose the amount of information and the way of its delivery.

Various Grades of Truth

The researchers selected 51 posts on Facebook, and 50 posts on ‘Overheard’. The analysis showed that the stories were longer and more detailed on #imnotafraidtosay (some of them shared several cases of harassment at a time). They included a lot of statements in support of other victims, and the call to fight violence was an often repeated idea. The posts on Facebook are much more socially acceptable than those on ‘Overheard’.

 The #imnotafraidtosay project was more about harassment (inappropriate propositions, unwanted touching, and molestation). ‘Overheard’ was more about the facts of rape.

 The flashmob didn’t include any stories about incest and far fewer mentions of being raped as a child. In contrast, on ‘Overheard’, authors of almost half of the publications (20 out of 50) wrote that they were kids (under 13) at the moment of the event, and 11 out of 50 stories mentioned incest.

 The ‘Overheard’ project included stories where sexual abuse came together with other crimes, such as battery and kidnapping. This didn’t happen on #imnotafraidtosay.

Changes of the Norm

There were no cases of direct victim blaming (such as ‘it was my fault’ phrases) by authors in #imnotafraidtosay. The group norm in this flash mob is that the victim understands that the abuser holds all the responsibility. And some posts demonstrate how views of the norm have changed. Things that hadn’t been considered as violence are considered it today. For example, one of the girls admitted that previously she didn’t see it as a danger when her partner forced her into having sex. ‘I remember my first boyfriend doing what I just realized (reading someone else’s post) was abuse (more of a psychological type),’ a flash mob participant wrote, ‘We started seeing each other very early, and I wasn’t ready, but he was consistent and successful in forcing me into intimacy, oral sex, and then traditional sex. Neither he nor I considered this as abuse back then… He sort of had a right to do that, since he was my boyfriend’.

A different type of attitude can be seen on ‘Overheard’. For example, the participants sometimes confessed they were ready to accept someone else’s abuse. ‘Yesterday in a club, a stranger forced me into having sex with him. <…> I didn’t object actually… hadn’t had sex in a long time’, a user wrote. Obviously, the boundaries of the norm are wider in this case.

Context of the Disaster

Accounts were a common thing on ‘Overheard’. Accounts are statements made to explain one’s own or someone else’s untoward behavior and present a ‘more acceptable version of self’ to the audience.

Accounts are usually necessary in the context of external assessment. A person foresees other people’s arguments and responds to them. ‘Accounts help to normalize the situation and bridge the gap between what has happened and what is considered normal, including by the person who tells the story’, the researcher explained.

But in fact, this phenomenon is part of the ‘myths about rape’. Accounts may be classified by content as excuses and justifications. In the first case, the person takes responsibility for the situation and believes their behavior was right. In the second case, they admit that the situation was bad, but shift the responsibility on someone else. Excuses, according to a classification by American researchers Marvin B. Scott and Stanford M. Lyman, are categorized by subtypes, depending on who or what the responsibility is shifted onto. The causes of the incident may be accident, defeasibility, or biological drives. Scapegoating is also possible.

Twice as many accounts have been found in ‘Overheard’ than in #imnotafraidtosay: 25 vs 12 (out of 50 in each case). And this was no surprise. The idea of accounts seemingly contradicts the idea of #imnotafraidtosay. The flashmob was supposed to support the victims, rather than assess their actions. ‘Overheard’ initially includes various perspectives, involving a more complex view of harassment, and that’s why there is a lot of excuses and justifications.

There were 17 excuses and 8 justifications on ‘Overheard’, with 10 excuses and 2 justifications on #imnotafraidtosay. The excuses included confluence of circumstances, young age (‘I was just a kid and didn’t understand what was going on’), and attractiveness.

In their justifications, the authors explained why they did nothing to make sure the abuser was punished (didn’t go to police and didn’t tell the family). Two feelings traditionally take the lead here: fear and shame.

One way or another, it was important for many participants of these projects to emphasize that it was not their fault.

Harassment as a Common Case

The fact that the flashmob still included accounts is a significant phenomenon. It can be seen as an influence of an ‘external’ norm, a reference to the potential external assessment.

The traces of this influence can be seen in the fact that authors of many posts on Facebook started their texts emphasizing they were talking about harassment, not rape, the researcher noted. It was important for the #imnotafraidtosay participants to set the record straight. For example, there was this clarification: ‘I have never been raped physically’, or: ‘There were four cases in my life, only four’. In this way, the participants of the project tried to emphasize that their experiences were within the limits of ‘acceptable’ and not unusual.

There is a certain ambiguity in the fact that harassment was presented as a common phenomenon. On one hand, this means that sexual abuse is a systemic problem in the society. On the other hand, common phenomena are often confused with the norm, or even seen as the norm.



Оксана Дорофеева, Research Assistant,
Laboratory for Studies in Economic sociology

Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, April 25