“If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things that you do not see”. This is the mantra that informs my Facebook wall and my twitter feed. These are the words of James Baldwin, an American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet and social critic. Baldwin conceived of political consciousness as an offshoot of deep care. He thought of love as an unveiling of societal ignorance and a marker of resilience. His conception of love made space for the scrapes of suffering and glint of adventure that form part of political and social activism. He lived in a time before ‘hashtags’ , ‘likes’, ‘retweets’ and ‘shares’ but his words populate memes that zip across digital space and take up residence on cardboard signs at on the ground protests.
Social media activism is often derided as being ‘slacktivism’ or a symbol of millennial laziness. Older generations and commentators often write us off as keyboard warriors – willing to sit behind screens and speak of social transformation but never go outside to actually see about those changes. It’s been said countless times that hashtags and Facebook posts don’t save lives. To put it simply, these people are wrong. In my PTSD- ridden post-rape life, it has literally been social media images, brave hashtags and social media connections that shook me awake and alive. The internet can be a difficult place for survivors. Online social networks teem with the murk of victim-blaming, rape jokes and myths, rape apologists/denialists and general ignorance about sexual assault. But they also offer survivors spaces where they are not silenced, and other survivors to interact with and draw strength from. These are the little social media miracles that have kept me pushing and speaking out this year.
I first saw an image of American art student Emma Sulkowizc hoisting her College dorm mattress over her shoulder on Facebook. She had decided to visibly carry the weight of her sexual assault in protest of having to continue to share a campus with her rapist. I knew that she had found powerful visual shorthand to explain something so difficult to understand for people who haven’t experienced rape. In an interview about her performance piece, she sums it up by saying: “A mattress is the perfect size for me to just be able to carry it enough that I can continue with my day but also heavy enough that I have to continually struggle with it”. I think this speaks to the experience of a lot of survivors. Ordinary life continues despite the hulking shadow of trauma.
In June, the rape of 16 year old high school student went viral on social media. Jada’s assault was turned into a meme. Pictures of her experience of sexual violence were posted on different social media platforms to be mocked and derided by her peer group. She fought back and decided to speak up. After an interview, a photo of Jada with her fist raised in the air launched the hashtag which gave social media an opportunity to redeem itself and unite behind her. #IamJada not only bore her name but also a challenge to the cardboard caricature constructed to define rape survivors as what happened to them. In an interview with KHOU-TV, she said “There’s no point in hiding. Everybody has already seen my face and my body, but that’s not what I am and who I am.”
Guerrilla Feminism SA
Earlier this year, Sian Ferguson popped up on my Facebook feed via a mutual friend. This chance encounter on an online comment thread meant the beginning of a friendship, survivor solidarity and feminist collaboration. Sian and I are co-moderators of Guerrilla Feminism South Africa – an intersectional feminist page that posts pieces that intersect across the nexus of gender, race and class struggles. We spotlight these issues in a South African context but also hold space to discuss how they manifest all over the continent and further abroad. Guerrilla Feminism South Africa is billed and constructed as a safe space. This means that there are guidelines to how commentators may engage. These are geared towards ensuring that groups of people that are already significantly marginalised and silenced do not experience oppressive forms of antagonism in this forum. No allowances are made in this space for misogyny, racism, antagonism of the LGBTQIA community and various other kinds of intolerance. This proves to be a radical notion of discursive space in a world that is comfortable sacrificing pieces of people’s humanity for the sake of debate.
In solidarity: a safe space for survivors
Michelle Solomon is a sexual violence activist, researcher and journalist, who started up a Facebook group this year for survivors of sexual violence. In solidarity: a safe space for survivors is a supportive platform where survivors can share personal struggles, triumphs and self-care resources. This group is a space where survivors can talk to each other and share how they tackled certain experiences or provide an “I’ve been there” or a sense of understanding. All the information shared by members in the group is strictly confidential and this is one of the guiding principles that keep the space safe. If you’d like to be a part of the group simply send a request to join the group and one of the admin will approve your request.
Other notable twitter mentions
#rapedneverreported is a hashtag that survivors are using to speak about why they never reported their experience of sexual violence to the police. It is a great window into the myriad of reasons why the criminal justice system has failed to gain the trust of rape survivors. #solidarityisforrapists challenges victim-blaming narratives by pointing out the many problematic ways society seems to support perpetrators and make it extremely challenging for rape victims to keep going. #survivingcostme is a hashtag where survivors discuss the great financial, emotional, mental and physical costs of overcoming an experience of sexual violence.
We invite you to share your own examples of social media organising with us, and to become a part of our team of writers for the Rape Crisis blog so that we can turn this blog into a powerful space for social media activism. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to get involved.
Dela Gwala is a full-time feminist and post-grad student at UCT who writes in the hours stolen from her thesis. She helps manage the South African branch of the largest intersectional feminist page on Facebook, Guerrilla Feminism.