In January, former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar’s sentencing played out in a new Twitter moment almost every day. Everyone in the world could watch and join the conversation as the survivors faced their abuser in court. Nassar’s trial resulted in the resignation of all current members of the USA Gymnastics board, along with calls to protect athletes from sexual abuse. The media coverage of the trial certainly helped move the country to action. It also contributed to a flood of content that survivors of sexual assault were already drowning in, content that might drag up memories of abuse.
In the aftermath of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, America has become saturated with accounts of sexual misconduct. The #MeToo movement called for survivors of sexual harassment and assault to share their stories with the world via social media. Kevin Spacey was pulled from All the Money in the World just six weeks before the film’s release after being accused of sexual assault. At the Golden Globes, black dresses and “Time’s Up” pins flooded the red carpet.
There is no doubt that the Weinstein revelations started a much-needed conversation about sexual assault. There is no doubt that this conversation will have a lasting impact on our country. But there is also no doubt that survivors of sexual assault will be affected by this cultural shift, and not always in a positive way.
With the Oscars airing on March 4, and the award show’s history of tackling tough current issues, the constant discussion about sexual assault doesn’t look like it’s going to let up. Survivors of sexual assault will continue to see accusations against rich and powerful men broadcasted on their televisions and Twitter feeds. In an age in which it’s difficult to avoid movie spoilers on the Internet, there is nothing protecting survivors of sexual assault from reliving their own experiences. As important as this moment in history is, it means that survivors must now navigate a world in which stories of sexual assault seem to lurk around every corner.
As the world becomes more reliant on the Internet and television, the lines between the digital world and the real world become blurred. Over the past decade, more and more of our real-world responsibilities, such as school assignments and professional work, have moved to the Internet. The digital world is the real world, and right now the digital world is full of accounts of sexual abuse. At events dealing with sexual violence, a survivor can choose to stand up and walk away if they feel uncomfortable, though this action is difficult enough. When CNN plays on televisions at the gym and Facebook and Twitter are flooded with news stories and debates, survivors cannot disengage from the digital world.
Does a survivor have to shut off their laptop or cellphone and ignore the headlines of every 24-hour news network in America in order to escape potentially painful memories? A survivor’s assault might already seem like a constant presence in their mind. Right now, anyone with access to the web will inevitably encounter content about sexual assault almost every day.
The conversations that have started in post-Weinstein America will change how we handle sexual assault forever. But for survivors, being unable to scroll through a Facebook feed without a reminder of a traumatic experience must have some kind of psychological impact. How can we continue to address the dangerous culture in our country while also caring for the very survivors we hope to protect? How can we support survivors as they adjust to a completely different climate around their experiences? How can we ensure that the atrocities that they endured never happen to anyone else?
There are no easy answers here. On March 4, the Oscars will proceed with jokes, speeches, and interviews that will undoubtedly address the ongoing crisis in our nation. There will be more #MeToo moments, more “Time’s Up” pins, and more exposés about the crimes perpetrated by those in positions of power. All these things will hopefully propel America to fix a broken system that normalizes abuse. But they will also dredge up the pain of the past for many survivors of sexual abuse. In the past six months, America’s approach to sexual violence has changed rapidly, and we must figure out a way to support survivors while continuing to address the issues at hand.
For resources related to sexual assault, please visit sexualassault.georgetown.edu.