Social Media as Vigilante Justice

Content notice: Sexual assault and domestic violence; no explicit detail

Like many survivors of sexual assault, I watched Harvey Weinstein’s downfall with both horror at the widespread abuses and satisfaction at the fact that just one serial predator whose victims have been actively silenced had finally had his comeuppance. Like many of us, I know of too many others whose victims remain silenced, and I worry that those who have assaulted me – none of whom it was possible to bring to justice – have since gone on to assault others. Perhaps especially under a president who bragged publicly about assaulting women and won an election for his pains, the response to Weinstein and then to other men who’ve been accused of similar attacks is noteworthy.

But the firestorm over sexual assault has also been worrying me. Even though I write a blog, I’m like most people who choose the academic life: I prefer to mull things over for a while, testing my immediate reactions against the observations of colleagues and trying to translate them into clearer explanations of my concerns. So I’ve been sitting with these worries for the past several weeks until they could crystallize. What’s become clear to me is that I’m worried we’re seeing a social media version of vigilante justice.

I can’t look at the recent uproar over sexual assault without my own experiences in mind. I’m a survivor of multiple sexual assaults, none of whose perpetrators were ever even accused, none of which could likely have been prosecuted in court, and all of which rest on my word alone against that of the perpetrator. As a domestic violence survivor whose friends and colleagues believed the abuser’s accusations of neglect and abandonment and never even bothered to ask me for my side of the story, I am also the survivor of a kind of vigilante justice in which the wrong person was accepted as the victim while the real perpetrator walked away with everything. A lot of what’s been happening around sexual assault issues recently feels encouraging and empowering; a lot of what’s been happening feels like vigilante justice. A lot feels like both at the same time, and I’m not sure what to do with that.

Part of the reason for the vigilante justice is that sexual assault survivors of all genders have historically been silenced through shame, coercion, even paternalistic protectionism. Another part of the reason is that charges of sexual assault are notoriously difficult to prosecute. Those situations must change, not only because victims deserve justice but because the accused, no matter how nefarious their alleged crimes, deserve due process – the real kind, not the kind where those in power get away with murder and the victims are the ones who have to live with shame and scorn for the rest of their lives. Vigilante justice over social media may be the only option right now, but it isn’t a good one. We have to do better, as activists and as a society.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about the patterns here. On the one hand, this current list from Time (content note: there are some explicit tweets in this article) shows a lot of powerful white men who’ve been publicly accused in the past month or so of sexual assault, or whose past history of disciplinary action for sexual assault has been publicly revealed. On the other hand, the actual consequences for those accused have varied widely. Take Roy Moore, who’s taking his turn in the accusatory spotlight right now. Granted, he can’t exactly be fired as an election candidate, but he could be subjected to such intense behind-the-scenes pressure that he would step down. Clearly that hasn’t been a priority for the Republican leadership. Weinstein, on the other hand, went down in flames. Of course, this difference in response could be due to many factors, but I find it suspicious that the case that started the whole media firestorm involved a Jewish man.

Then there’s Kevin Spacey. Accused by a white man of assaulting him at the age of 14, Spacey replied with horror and with a statement that he had no memory of the incident. Strikingly, he did not deny it. If he’s telling the truth that he doesn’t remember assaulting Anthony Rapp, then Spacey chose to accept the word of his apparent victim without demanding evidence – exactly what many of us who fight against rape culture have been advocating. Spacey was then summarily stripped of most of his current contracts. Can we afford to refuse to think critically about the fact that two of the most high-profile cases in this apparent triumph of sexual assault survivors involved a Jewish man and a gay man who were accused of assaulting white women and white male children, respectively, and were then punished without trial, mostly by other white men? Brave white men saving vulnerable (but valuable) white women and children from the perverted assaults of the Other. Even if both are guilty, how far are we really from Leo Frank?

Real due process is the solution to this problem. But due process is notoriously difficult to achieve in cases of sexual assault and domestic violence, especially when the people adjudicating the case have their own histories and live in a society dominated by rape culture and by very narrow ideas about who “counts,” who’s legible, as a victim and as a perpetrator. How does one balance a commitment to justice for victims – and to believing victims even in the absence of witnesses or evidence that would hold up in court – with a commitment to justice for all people and an awareness of the U.S. history of anti-Semitic, racist, anti-immigrant, and homophobic vigilante justice excused by the drive to “protect the innocent”? I’m struggling to find an acceptable answer to this question. I hope this post inspires you to struggle along with me.


Author: Melissa M. Wilcox

Melissa M. Wilcox (any pronouns) is Professor and Holstein Family and Community Chair of Religious Studies at the University of California, Riverside. Dr. Wilcox is the author or editor of several books and journal issues, and numerous articles, on gender, sexuality, and religion. Dr. Wilcox's books include Coming Out in Christianity: Religion, Identity, and Community; Sexuality and the World’s Religions; Queer Women and Religious Individualism; Religion in Today’s World: Global Issues, Sociological Perspectives; Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism, and Serious Parody; Queer Religiosities: An Introduction; and (with Nina Hoel and Liz Wilson) Religion, the Body, and Sexuality. Dr. Wilcox is currently working on a new research project on religion and spirituality in queer and trans leather and BDSM communities.

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