Media and Communication Ph.D. Dissertations

Title

The Legitimacy of Online Feminist Activism: Subversion of Shame in Sexual Assault by Reporting it On Social Media

Date of Award

2021

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Department

Media and Communication

First Advisor

Radhika Gajjala (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Dryw Dworsky (Other)

Third Advisor

Sandra L. Faulkner (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Lisa Hanasono (Committee Member)

Abstract

In 2006, American activist Tarana Burke started the me too movement that helped survivors of sexual assault by telling them that there were other survivors too, and they were not alone. In 2017, Alyssa Milano used the same phrase as a hashtag and called for women to share their experiences of harassment using #metoo, or just use the hashtag to show they have been through something similar. This movement eventually brought about the conviction of former Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. However, echoes of this movement reached far and wide, beyond the United States of America. Survivors of assault started using social media to call out what they had been through. This study examines the voice of women on the digital media platforms and how their calling out of sexual harassers on these platforms negotiates with the discourse of shame and guilt surrounding sexual assault.

Shame is a prominent emotion associated with sexual assault that finds its space within the larger narrative of silencing women. Survivors often do not report assault for fear of being shamed. In news media, shame is reinforced by way of stock images that show a woman hiding her face or crying for help that accompany stories of sexual assault. Shame could force survivors to keep their trauma to themselves for years, resulting in other psychological issues. Social media intervenes in this.

This study looks at three cases in India between 2017 and 2019 where survivors used social media to speak up about how they had been sexually harassed and/or assaulted. Using textual and discourse analysis, the study found that as opposed to portraying survivors in a pitiful light, social media gives the agency to the survivor to decide how they want to be seen. They are able to bypass passive narratives through first-person reporting.

This subversion of shame does not necessarily affect the consequences that the accused will face but it focuses on the survivor’s needs. The results of this research suggest pushing the legitimization of reporting of sexual assault on social media. It also suggests implementing educational resources to change the way we talk about sexual assault in larger industries that dominate discourse (for example, law or journalism). Survivors are not obligated to perform their trauma with a hashtag, but social media provides them the opportunity to be heard on their own terms. Social media gives autonomy, agency, and power to survivors.

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