The vast reach of social media platforms today has, without a doubt, allowed audiences to access and share information on social issues easily. And while this can be a positive step towards equipping us with an understanding of the world around us and encouraging us to look beyond ourselves and our life experiences, it can also be challenging to navigate. The world can be a confusing place, and it is not always easy to expose ourselves to and support societal issues we are not familiar with or do not entirely understand.
Social media has become a prominent platform for sharing perspectives on social and equity-related issues. Sometimes, varying perspectives can create uncertainty within us, especially if multiple viewpoints are being shared. We may feel pressured to support or post about a specific cause, idea, or view without fully understanding what it means because our friends or family post about it, encouraging performative activism (“Performative Activism,” n.d.). Other times, we may feel that we are not in a position to speak on or post about an issue we support publicly. However, we still strive to make an impact and uplift and support the communities affected. An example of a social issue where this may be the case is sexual violence.
In this blog, I touch on a social movement that encourages society to leverage both online and offline platforms to enact positive change toward sexual violence. I further discuss the importance of overcoming performative activism to address sexual violence as it pertains to society today adequately.
The Me Too Movement – Leveraging Online And Offline Platforms To Enact Change Towards Sexual Violence
Sexual violence is a recurrent topic discussed on social media. It involves sexual acts performed against one’s consent, including sexual assault and verbal attacks against one’s sexuality (“Sexual violence prevention,” n.d.). According to the Me Too movement, sexual violence is most prominent among females, with national U.S. studies revealing that “1 in 4 women have experienced rape or attempted rape during their lifetimes.” (2023). Sexual violence is particularly prevalent amongst women with disabilities, in the military or other industries with minimal female representation, of Indigenous identity, incarcerated, or from other marginalized communities (“Me too,” 2023). For instance, 22.6% of military women reported experiencing rape, and 50.9% reported being sexually assaulted, compared to 6.7% of military men (“Me too,” 2023). Indigenous women are also almost “three times more likely to experience sexual assault than other ethnic groups in the U.S” (“Me too,” 2023). Further, LGBTQIA+ communities are more likely to experience sexual violence than other groups. In fact, “90% of youth who identify as LGBTQ reported being harassed or assaulted this year compared to 62% of [youth] who identified as straight.” (“Me too,” 2023). Nevertheless, sexual violence can and does affect people of all communities and backgrounds. Despite this, many survivors cannot acquire sufficient support to heal, while others are reluctant to share their stories out of fear of being judged, unheard, or not believed, among other reasons (“Me too,” 2023).
Over the years, activists have brought the prevalence of sexual violence to our attention through various movements dedicated to increasing awareness and improving support and resources for sexual violence survivors. One movement that brought about significant change and particularly stood out to me is the Me Too movement or #MeToo movement. But what drove the movement’s success was more than a social media hashtag. Rather, it was how people listened to and reflected on the stories, experiences, and perspectives shared on social media by those most knowledgeable and informed on the matter to make an impact.
The Me Too movement went viral in 2017 after sexual abuse survivor Alyssa Milano shared her experience of sexual abuse using the caption “Me Too.” Milano inspired other survivors to tell their stories, giving rise to the hashtag #MeToo. The hashtag drew the attention of people globally, including celebrities. However, the movement began ten years before the hashtag came to be and was started by social activist Tarana Burke, whose mission is to empower sexual violence survivors – specifically young females from underprivileged communities – through empathy (Frey, 2023).
According to Frey, although the Me Too movement became more known upon its introduction to social media and through its hashtag #MeToo, the real change came to be as users listened to sexual violence survivors’ stories and advocated for change both online and offline (2023). Suddenly, there was an influx of campaigns advocating against sexual violence across various professional industries, such as film, music, sports, military, etc. In the United States, courts introduced stricter laws surrounding sexual violence, such as the Me Too Congress Act. They established more fitting consequences for sexual abusers as a result of this movement's dedication to making meaningful change. (Frey, 2023).
The Me Too movement’s growing impact on addressing the lack of resources and support for sexual violence victims within work environments, judicial systems, and other aspects of society demonstrates that activism does not stop at viewing and sharing a post. Social media is a powerful tool to raise awareness of sexual violence by providing those most capable of speaking on the issue with a platform to share their experiences and knowledge and sparking meaningful discussions among users through reposts and shares. But it is ultimately what we do with the information we retain from social media and our ability to empathize with affected individuals that drive change. Whether it be calling on businesses to address sexual violence that persists within their organizations, starting campaigns advocating against sexual violence in our communities, signing petitions to encourage local or national leaders to develop better support systems and laws that protect and uplift sexual violence victims, or starting a program aimed at providing mental health support for sexual violence survivors, we must learn and reflect on peoples’ stories to determine how to take action best to support them and prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future. Social media movements, such as hashtags, though effective, are short-lived. Our actions, however, can leave a lasting impact.
Overcoming Performative Activism When Addressing Sexual Violence
As mentioned, sharing posts about sexual violence can increase awareness and education. If approached the wrong way, however, it can also be made to be a trend, creating more harm than good. Specifically, people may share and post content highlighting sexual violence issues to conform to certain societal expectations in an effort to avoid backlash or criticism. Criticism can derive from the perception that someone does not support communities most susceptible to sexual violence, such as young females, if they do not post about the issue. This concept is known as performative activism or “slacktivism” and is prevalent among younger generations – who may use social media to express their support and commitment to social issues (Dookhoo, 2015).
Performative activism is "done to increase one’s social capital rather than because of one’s devotion to a cause.” (“Performative Activism,” n.d.). In other words, people or organizations that participate in performative activism are focused on showing others that they support a cause instead of taking action to address the issue. For example, someone may repost a video of a sexual violence survivor’s story on Instagram because their followers are reposting it, but may not have watched the video or taken the time to empathize with the person’s story.
Social media is an excellent way to educate ourselves and others on sexual violence, the behaviours and political factors that precipitate it and the lack of sufficient support for survivors, but it is by no means the end. Instead, the purpose behind creating and sharing educational content on sexual violence on social media should be to use what we learn and apply it to our lives. We can do this by changing our behaviours, thoughts, and actions, starting programs or initiatives to support sexual violence causes, and conducting further readings and research on the topic to ensure we are informed on the subject and better able to form opinions and take action.
By assuming that people who do not post about sexual violence on their social media do not care about the individuals who experience it, we may develop false narratives and perceptions toward them. Some people may be uncomfortable voicing their opinions about sexual violence publicly, given their societal position and privilege. As such, they may choose to act in other ways, such as donating to sexual violence prevention and support organizations or movements like Me Too or reading articles and books to learn how to be an ally to survivors. Others may refuse to voice their opinions on sexual violence issues because the topic is outside of their scope, so they allow those most qualified and informed to educate and speak on it.
With this in mind, to close out this example case, we should not assume that someone who does not advocate against sexual violence on social media is not concerned about it. Social media is meant to be a safe space to learn and share stories, perspectives, and current issues. It should not dictate one’s devotion and commitment to addressing sexual violence. There are times when we must step back and allow those who were silenced from disclosing their trauma and personal struggles with sexual violence to reclaim their voices and power. After listening to their stories, struggles, and needs, we may decide how to support these communities best.
Becoming An Activist And An Ally To Sexual Violence Survivors
How can we use social media and other platforms alongside each other to become activists against sexual violence and an ally to survivors? Further, how can we take what we learn about sexual violence from social media to make an impact? Let’s discuss, shall we…
Donate to Movements and Organizations
Social media movements protesting against sexual violence, such as #MeToo and #TimesUp, may be affiliated with organizations or broader movements striving to increase sexual violence education and develop better support systems and resources for survivors of all stages in their lives to help them heal. As such, they may seek donations through their websites to execute these initiatives. For example, the Me Too movement is building educational programs in colleges to guide students, staff, and administrators on best practices for eliminating sexual violence on and around campus. When you see a hashtag or trend go viral, look into the organizations and people behind the movements to see if they require funding to deliver on their missions. More than that, leverage your digital presence and link donation pages to your bios or post it on your story.
Reading, Listening, Teaching, and Repeat
A saying I follow is that what we read, listen to, watch, and surround ourselves with defines who we are and how we see the world. Books, podcasts, documentaries and educational social media posts are great sources to learn about individual experiences with sexual violence and understand the various behaviours, attitudes, beliefs, and events that give rise to it. Sexual violence is not a simple issue and affects people in different ways. Everyone’s experiences and traumas are unique to their personal circumstances, making it difficult to follow a defined set of behaviours and attitudes when supporting sexual violence survivors. Thus, exposing ourselves to as many resources as we can is vital to becoming a true ally to help those trying to heal while protecting vulnerable communities by reflecting on and changing behaviours that precipitate sexual violence. For instance, women of various ethnic and racial backgrounds have spoken out about feeling uncomfortable and unsafe when walking in public places late at night or wearing what society deems to be immodest clothing. A woman’s clothing choice is not an invitation to make disrespectful and invasive comments or display unwanted behaviours. Therefore, it is essential to be mindful of how our words and actions can make others feel unsafe while striving to develop more respectful mannerisms and behaviours for different settings. When listening to survivors’ stories on social media, reflect on the concepts that apply to you and seek resources, such as books, to help you overcome negative behaviours and develop supportive language while sharing your learnings with the people around you. Do not just read and listen; absorb, learn, apply, and teach.
Let YOUR Voice Be Heard
I touched on the significance of empowering the voices of sexual violence survivors across social media platforms. While it is true that those who have experienced sexual violence or have more knowledge on the subject are the most capable of speaking on it, there may be times when they require our support, both online and offline, to make their voices heard. I do not mean just reposting and sharing their content but calling on those responsible and urging readers to take action against it. This could mean tagging organizations and educational institutions with increasing sexual violence rates in social media posts demanding them to address the issue and create better support systems, signing petitions and sending emails to local representatives to develop structured laws and consequences against sexual abusers, or joining survivors in rallies and protests within the community, to name a few. It is about knowing when and how to use our voices effectively to support survivors' healing journeys and protect future generations from enduring similar experiences.
Social media activism plays a crucial role in driving anti-sexual violence movements. However, we must look beyond the trend and take steps to address the issue in the long term. A post or hashtag is only viral for so long. Instead, we must leverage these viral moments and take action that has a lasting effect in eliminating sexual violence and fostering better support for survivors. We must further acknowledge how people make an impact both online and offline. Activism against sexual violence is not defined through one lens, and people show their concern in various ways.
Last but not least, if you or someone you know has experienced sexual violence and requires support, please visit the QWIL Resources Page, where you can find a list of resources to guide your healing journey. We see you, we hear you, and we empathize with you.
Dookhoo, S. (2015). How Millennials Engage in Social Media Activism: A Uses and Gratifications Approach . The University of Central Florida Stars. https://stars.library.ucf.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2363&context=etd
Frey, S. (2023, March 15). More than a hashtag: The #MeToo movement is 10 years in the making. ALiGN: Alternative Global Network Media Lab. https://carleton.ca/align/2023/more-than-a-hashtag-the-metoo-movement-is-10-years-in-the-making/
Me too. movement. me too. Movement. (2023, February 13). https://metoomvmt.org/
Performative activism. Boston Medical Center. (n.d.). https://www.bmc.org/glossary-culture-transformation/performative-activism#:~:text=Defined%20as%20activism%20that%20is,sexist%2C%20homophobic%2C%20etc.)