Through the screen: Social media raises awareness for sexual assault

Liesje Powers | Multimedia Editor

By Maya Butler | Staff Writer

These days, it might be difficult to find anyone not scrolling through social media on their phones. Popular platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have allowed people to share pieces of their lives for online audiences, ranging from the most trivial pieces to more personal ones. For other users, however, social media serves another purpose — to raise awareness about serious issues.

Social media movements like the #MeToo movement, which became a viral hashtag for victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault to share their own stories in 2017, have worked to make sure the public realizes the severity of a nationwide issue.

McKinney junior Folake Obasanya recently decided to open a thread from her personal Twitter account, inviting Baylor students to anonymously share stories of sexual assault.

“I know this may be triggering for some people and I recommend proceeding with caution, but this is a very necessary thread of the stories of victims of sexual abuse on our campus,” Obasanya wrote in one post.

As if echoing Obasanya’s words, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center reported that one in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college. In addition, more than 90 percent of sexual assault victims don’t even report the crime.

Obasanya cited the ongoing rotation of sexual assault cases on the news as her reason for starting the Twitter thread.

“There was a lot going on in the mass media,” Obasanya said. “We had Kavanaugh, we had Bill Cosby going to jail and then Jacob Anderson. It was one thing after the other and it was very frustrating.”

Jacob Anderson, former Baylor student and president of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity chapter on campus, was indicted on four counts of sexual assault against another Baylor student in 2016. Opposing counsels agreed on a plea deal in which all sexual assault charges against Anderson would be dropped. He would also be given three years of unadjudicated probation, require counseling and have to pay a $400 fine. In reaction to this news, protesters gathered on Oct. 19 at the McLennan County courthouse in an attempt to dissuade the judge in charge of the case, 19th State District Court Judge Ralph Strother, from agreeing to the plea deal. Spotted at the protest was a poster with the words #MeToo written in black marker.

When Anderson’s plea deal was announced, many in the community who were upset with the news took to Facebook and Twitter. Hashtags like #whiteprivilege, #rapeculture and #jacobanderson sprouted in people’s social media accounts.

A year prior to the Jacob Anderson case, sexual assault allegations against several football players rocked the Baylor community, which ended in the dismantling of former university president Ken Starr, former head football coach Art Briles and others closely linked to the scandal such as Ian McCaw, who served as athletics director at Baylor for 13 years.

Since then, Baylor has attempted to purge itself from the sexual assault scandals and reinvent its identity, one of the very first steps being to elect a new president it believed was capable of leading the university toward a brighter future – current President Linda Livingstone.

Obasanya pointed out another reason for sharing the stories of sexual assault victims despite initial hesitation.

“There’s for sure knowledge about it [sexual assault], but people don’t really understand the extent of it,” Obasanya said. “People need to hear the stories behind these statistics.”

Dr. Mia Moody-Ramirez, associate professor in the journalism, public relations and new media department, explained the overall public treatment of sexual assault cases before the existence of social media.

“I think before social media, it was a bigger deal just because you didn’t hear about it as much,” Moody-Ramirez said. “The more you hear about something, the more desensitized you become … so now, particularly with this topic, we are hearing about it more and more — which on one hand, that’s good because it’s increasing the visibility and people are probably more likely to report it. On the other hand, you will begin to think that’s it no big deal.”

Moody-Ramirez went on to talk about the benefits that come with the rise in social media movements despite the drawbacks.

“I think the hashtag MeToo has been good because it has brought awareness to sexual assault,” Moody-Ramirez. “It has encouraged women and men to come forward and speak up and talk about sexual assault whereas before it was perceived as being more taboo.”

Fort Worth senior Julieth Reyes, who experienced sexual assault before coming to Baylor, said the social protest against the Anderson case, both online and in real life, are opening students eyes to the situation.

“We’ve been talking about it in my social work classes,” Reyes said. “A lot of people have mentioned, especially when you’ve personally gone through something, how distracting that is with homework, PTSD or if you have depression or anxiety. I know half the people that are in these situations are either readjusting their medicines, having to go back to therapy, but … a lot of people that otherwise maybe wouldn’t be in this conversation are in it.”

Moody-Ramirez, however, warned of a potential obstacle to online social movements.

“You do have something that’s called slacktivism, where people might post something about it on social media, but they’re not necessarily doing anything about it,” Moody-Ramirez said.

The protesters against Andreson’s plea deal do not fit the bill for slacktivism, Moody-Ramirez added.

“I don’t think we saw that in this case, because people talked about it on social media, but students also got together and protested. Something was born out of uniting on a social media platform,” Moody-Ramirez said.

Obasanya said she plans on continuing to use her Twitter account as a way for victims of sexual assault to share their story and for others to hear them.

“Social media is amazing,” Obasanya said.” It’s so much bigger than just me, you and Baylor. It’s globally changing the world and changing the shape of how people perceive women.”