Facebook statuses are now being used as a way to report sexual assault, without involving authorities whom many distrust. This cynicism follows national cases of sexual assault which share a common ending—the victim is doubted, and the assailant not only walks free, but is typically shown sympathy. WFSU spoke with one young woman who shared the details of her attack through a Facebook call-out post.
It has been five months since recent Florida State graduate Allison Couch made this call-out post on Facebook, naming her sexual assailant.
Prior to posting, Couch says she never told the police or reported her assault to the school.
When it happened I was a freshman, and I didn’t know that that was something I should do. So I just sat in my dorm and just dwelled on it. I did not report to anyone at all prior to the Facebook post.
Victims often take to call-out posts because they do not trust the police to take them seriously, or doubt their ability to do anything—especially if the event happened years ago, as in Allison’s case.
"It’s not made clear to people who are assault victims that this is what you should do when it happens," Couch says. "Like I was absolutely terrified, had no idea what to do, did not know what was going on until a year later when I was with an ex-boyfriend and I was like recounting it, because I got triggered, and he was like, 'oh my god, do you realize how big of a problem, like do you realize what happened?' Because I was in denial."
Meg Baldwin is the Executive Director of Tallahassee’s Refuge House, a center that assists victims of sexual and domestic violence.
"The fact that sexual assault has the lowest reporting rate of any crime, tells you that victims still don’t really have a lot of confidence," Baldwin says.
Although Baldwin does not see call-out posts as a solution to a problem, she believes they play a vital role.
But Tallahassee Police spokesman Officer David Northway says it’s never too late reach out to police.
"What do they have to lose? If they feel there is nothing that can be done, and something can be done, that’s a win," Northway says. "But if they come in and they find out there is nothing to be done, then nothing has changed. But I can almost guarantee you there is something to be done."
Allison is not the first person to turn to social media; call-out posts are becoming more prevalent.
Earlier this summer, the punk band PWR BTTM’s lead singer, Ben Hopkins, was accused through Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter of sexual assault. PWR BTTM’s tour, including a Tallahassee stop was cancelled and the band was dropped from its label.
Though Allison did not report her story to police, her Facebook post did catch the attention of Florida State University’s Title IX office, which investigates assault claims.
"Because I posted it on Facebook, it was made public to various authorities that I am involved with, i.e. like the radio station, WVFS, and the SLC," Couch says. "Both those authority figures had reported to FSU because they saw it and because it was reported to them."
Michelle Laurents is the Faculty Program Director of Florida State University’s student run radio station, WVFS.
"If it’s something where I am directly involved, a student of mine is directly involved, or the radio station is directly involved, we try to reach out to those people."
She’s come across a lot of call-out posts.
"For example there is somebody who made a post recently and then reached out and wanted to speak to me and a few other people, which of course we wanted to honor," Laurents says. "But, I made sure that that person knows that I have to, I am then required to report that information to the Title IX officer at Florida State."
Allison Couch says she did hear from FSU’s Title IX office but didn’t see a point in responding to the university. She says it didn’t seem worth it because she was about to graduate by the time she made the post.
"They reached out to me," Couch says. "And then I had something else, I think it was victim advocacy. They also reached out to me. I didn’t contact either of them back. But, they got back to me, but nothing from actual like authorities."
Meanwhile, Michelle Laurents says engaging authorities is an ideal resolution. She doesn’t believe Facebook posts are the best way to handle sexual assault.
"Social media is good for a lot of things, and not so good for other things," Laurents says. "And I think that when there is a serious accusation and there has been a potential victim or victims, and there is an accused who also stands to be victimized in a great way, that social media is not the way to go."
That raises the question – what happens to those accused online? Even if not reported to the police, the post naming them as sexual assailants is permanently online, open to circulation and comments. In our next installment of this story, we’ll hear from someone on the other side.
Imagine being notified that a friend has tagged you in a status –claiming you sexually assaulted them. The claim is never taken to court, where you’re innocent until proven guilty. Instead, the post remains public on the internet. In the second part of our series, we spoke with one person who experienced just that.
Hey all. As a lot of you know, I have been publicly accused of assaulting a member in our community here in Tallahassee.
The author of this post prefers to remain unnamed. He’s worried it could affect his job and his family.
This person and I were close friends. When they first brought up to me how they felt about what happened, I didn't really know how to comprehend the situation at all. I was disgusted in knowing that something I've done could be received in such a monstrous way.
Last year, he was accused of sexually assaulting someone, who has since moved away. This post is not related to Allison Couch’s, from our previous installment of this story.
Although he had no idea he was going to be posted about, the person in this case says it came as little surprise, since this mode of reporting assaults is becoming more prevalent within the group of people he hangs out with – the Tallahassee DIY community. “DIY” stands for “Do It Yourself” and the community handles sexual allegations internally.
But he says dealing with the aftermath was difficult.
"I definitely felt very like isolated, and almost in like, you know, in a prison kind of way," he says.
Posts like these don’t usually make it to the police or go through any legal system. And just as victims are often apprehensive about legal involvement, so are the accused.
"Of course I’m not going prefer that someone presses charges on me, but it is what it is," he says. "Like, whatever the victim in the situation wants to do is the appropriate thing."
Reactions To The Posts
But criminal defense attorney Don Pumphrey believes call-out posts may be more indicative of vengeance or attention seeking, not indicative of what he considers the usual behavior of what he calls a “true victim.”
"They don’t want to talk about what had happened, they don’t go into graphic detail, and it takes months, if not years sometimes, for them to come out and feel strong enough and empowered enough to come out about the true allegations and it gives them closure I guess," Pumphrey says. "So there are patterns to false allegations. The thing, the reason I bring up false allegations, is because it sets true victims back 20 years."
Meg Baldwin is the Executive Director of Tallahassee’s Refuge House, a center that assists victims of sexual and domestic violence.
"Unfortunately, our history shows that our systems of response have been pretty darn terrible."
Baldwin says the history of the justice system holds victims back from reporting and says false reporting isn’t what’s leading to doubts surrounding reports of sexual assault. She says victims have the right to decide how to move forward after an attack, even if that means taking to social media.
But Pumphrey cautions those posting should be aware of the potential legal response.
"The person who makes the post should make sure that they are being very truthful because they could be sued if damages are shown," Pumphrey says. "And they could be sued for libel if it’s written, slander if it’s being repeated."
Reporting Call-Out Posts
As the director of Florida State University’s student run radio station, WVFS, Michelle Laurents says she works to help students who’ve been falsely accused and students who’ve made truthful accusations.
"I have had the experience of students being victimized and other students who have come to me claiming they have been falsely accused," Laurents says.
Each time, she follows university policy and reporting to proper authorities.
"We want to be very protective of sexual assault victims, and so in that process on the rare occasions that someone has been falsely accused, they often get lumped in as, dangerously lumped in, with a larger group, as opposed to being able to have their rights protected as well," Laurents says.
The person we spoke with at the beginning of this story says he learned a lot about his community from this experience.
"To not let a mass group of people affect my own personal beliefs and well-being. Which I feel like group mentality has a lot to do with this," he says.
Call-out posts create a difficult situation. There is no chance for these cases to be investigated, and the posts don’t go away. They are becoming more common in Tallahassee’s DIY community where members are creating their own governing systems and justice is determined by the community’s standards.
Call-out posts are written by victims of sexual assault who take to social media to call-out their assailants to either warn the community or to find justice they feel authorities cannot give. There has been a spate of recent posts stems from the so-called DIY community.
“DIY” stands for “Do It Yourself,” and is a fitting title as DIY members promote local events in art and music.
“The DIY community is hard to like necessary pinpoint as one individual group of people. It’s like a mesh of like a bunch of different counter cultures that are altogether," Bradley says.
Bradley Ellison is considered a pillar of the DIY community. She is the former owner of local record shop Retrofit Records and has always been heavily involved in local music in the area. Bradley attributes the growing number of Facebook call-out posts in the “DIY Community” to the attitude of the community itself.
Members would rather post publicly online than go to authorities.
“There is – [has] always been, a huge amount of distrust towards the police in these communities. Like, not just the DIY community, but any community that is like marginalized. Like even if you look online today, you’ll see stories of people who have experienced sexual assault and they will be able to readily tell stories about going to the police and having the police disregard their case, because it was, you know, in their opinion, two drunk people hooking up.”
When someone posts about an assault on Facebook, Bradley says the posts are usually supported and victims are believed. Then there are those who comment below the post, asking for more evidence. But she admits the social clout of the community members is typically the determining factor in whether others consider them innocent or guilty.
“Like the people who come forward with these stories may be painted as dramatic, or like trying to cause or like break up any sort of sense of community – like communal unity," Bradley says. "So really depends, I think, on who the people are.”
Tallahassee DIY members occasionally use a mediation process where a trusted member of the community meets with the two parties to establish boundaries and requirements going forward. Another method the community uses to protect itself is excluding accused attackers.
As part of the “DIY” culture, house parties are a way for community members to enjoy local music. Members of the DIY scene will keep alleged assailants away by not allowing those called out to attend or perform at house shows.
Kevin Steslow is a co-founder and co-owner of the Bad Girls Club, a Tallahassee house venue.
“If someone is, you know, is uncomfortable, comes up to us and says ‘this person is making them uncomfortable, that this person shouldn’t be there,’ we’ll ask them to leave,” Steslow says.
Although Steslow has never had to kick anyone out of his venue before, he does say call-out posts are on his and the other venue owner/housemate’s radar for this reason.
“No, we’ve been fairly lucky. We’ve never had to actually ask someone to leave," Steslow says. "I feel like usually, in the event page, it’ll say ‘no jerks,’ and like being such a tight-knit community, I guess, since there’s not that many people, we kind of know who to watch out for and stuff.”
Protecting The Village
Paul Conway is a psychologist at Florida State University.
"In a way, this is a very ancient phenomenon," Conway says. "It is all about reputation and moral reputation in particular. Which new research is suggesting, when people meet other people, they care more about that person’s moral reputation than anything else about them."
Conway says this kind of behavior is not limited to victims on Facebook, he says we all engage in this kind of communication, just in different degrees.
"People can engage in this moral reputation management strategies, saying ‘this person is a good person, you should trust them; or, this ‘person is a bad person, don’t trust them,'" Conway says. "And since the dawn of time, people have communicated this kind of information to other people, which is incredibly useful if you want to live in a community with good people and not with bad people."
You hear it in conversation, when you tell your friends about someone you believe has hurt you, and you don’t want your friends to fall into the same position. But under the same premise, Conway warns in the case of false accusations, such actions could seriously impact a person’s life – stripping him or her of moral standing.
"That could be a career-ending move, which can drive friends and family away from them," Conway says. "It can really wreck their life. So, it is not something that should be done lightly. It’s a dangerous game to play."