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The Flawed Safety of Facebook…One Person’s Story

It’s taken me a while to write these thoughts down.  They’ve been in my head for a while but I guess to put them on paper is to give them a shape, an existence, and to admit that they’re real.  I’d like to think that given all the time that has passed since my assault and all of the support I’ve received that I’ve recovered and that I am not affected by triggers anymore.  Instead I want to process things in an organized and clear fashion and be able to maintain control of both my emotions and reactions. I am able to do this for the most part, which could demonstrate the strength and progress I’ve made, however it could also contribute to how unexpected things hit me so hard.

A couple of months ago, I was spending my Saturday morning cruising around Facebook.  Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a friend recommendation from FB as I clicked on a link that my friend has posted.  When I returned to the news feed, the friend recommendations had changed so I couldn’t be sure of what I had seen.  However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had in fact seen the name of the person who had assaulted me.  Then I did what I probably never should have done: I searched his name and he popped up quickly as we already had two mutual friends.

I could feel my heart start to beat a bit faster as I thought about all the ramifications this could have.  Facebook was my domain, it had been for years.  I immediately felt possessive: I had been a part of this site for years, I was younger and had more connections, what right did this person have to come and invade this space?  I had worked hard for years to rid my physical space of this individual and did not like the idea of sharing a cyber world with him. 

My brain then flipped to questions of safety and privacy: if FB is recommending that I friend him then is it also recommending that he friend me?  Could he see my profile picture? Having control over my safety and privacy is extremely important in general – I have all my privacy settings on FB set to the max where the general public can’t search for me and I even limit some friends from seeing specific material. I grew anxious thinking of the fact that my picture could be appearing on the side of his page and what made it worse was that I didn’t have control over it.

I tried to come up with solutions that would leave me a sense of control over the situation.  My first reaction was to completely dismantle my FB account.  I know that I have a right to be there and it is actually an important way that I communicate with many of my friends and colleagues.  I hate that I thought to give up a very important mode of communication and self-expression because of his presence.  To remove myself from the space was something that the old me would have done and I want to believe that I’m stronger than that version of myself.  I would love to reach a time where these thoughts don’t enter my head.  At the same time, I rarely encounter a situation where we will occupy the same space.  Perhaps this means my initial reflex will always be to remove myself and that is something I will have to work through each time. 

Once I talked myself into keeping my Facebook account, I tried to figure out other options for how to deal with the situation.  I thought of ignoring it completely but that wouldn’t address any of my initial safety concerns.  I thought of blocking him but then I was concerned about not knowing how many mutual friends we had.  What if he saw a post of mine on someone’s wall and I didn’t even that person was a mutual friend? It was a cycle of “what if” scenarios and then trying to re-convince myself that I had a right to the space.
Ultimately I ended up blocking him.  However, this decision wasn’t made that day.  It was made after several weeks where I checked to make sure that we didn’t gain any other mutual friends. 

Knowing that he is there is still nerve-wracking and I would prefer to know that both my physical and cyber worlds are safe.  I doubt that I am the only survivor with this issue and am also certain that it can be much more serious for other survivors.  When we think about the fact that often times people are assaulted by people they know, then we can safely assume that they likely share similar online, in addition to physical, worlds.  I would argue that there is even less control in cyber spheres over who can be present as there is very rarely someone moderating the space.  Many people assume there is a certain degree of safety involved since their is little to no physical proximity.  Additionally, survivors may feel forced to disclose to all of their friends in order to justify removing the perpetrator from the online space.  This is a lot to expect from survivors as many don’t tell anyone they know or may only tell a few close friends.  Therefore it may be left to the survivor to either ignore the person or to defriend anyone they have in common in order to avoid any interactions.  I certainly didn’t feel comfortable asking the mutual friends I had to defriend him, as I have done in previous situations to ensure we weren’t in the same physical space.  I don’t know how much stronger my reaction would have been if we had more friends in common. 

There are many survivors who constantly have to interact with their perpetrators every time they log online.  Perhaps it is through wall postings, group messages, photos, comments on articles, or through social media sites other than Facebook.  It can be just as difficult and feel just as unsafe to confront a person online as it is in the physical world.  There can be the same type of repercussions from the individual(s) and mutual friends.  These risks and experiences could force survivors out of these communities and forums because of the way they’re treated and how they feel.

I had never thought in depth about the relationship between sexual violence, survivors, and perpetrators before this happened.  I’ve used FB to share messages or news articles and to spark conversation about sexual violence but never truly thought about how the site can actually do harm to a survivor’s recovery process.  Ultimately, I think that I have learned a lot from this experience both through self-reflection and in seeing the limitless ways that survivors can be impacted or triggered.

WRITTEN BY: A member of the BARCC Survivor Speaker's Bureau

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Posted by stacey

Stacey formerly served BARCC as the coordinator for Community Awareness and Outreach. Prior to BARCC, she worked for the Navy as a sexual assault response coordinator and volunteered for the DC Rape Crisis Center. She got involved with anti-rape work during college and has enjoyed doing both direct services and educational work.

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