home Commentary, Europe, Feminism Victim blaming, concern trolling, racism: trawling the comments on reports of sexual assaults

Victim blaming, concern trolling, racism: trawling the comments on reports of sexual assaults

Earlier this week, a young woman in my city reported being seriously sexually assaulted in Weston Park. It appears that she was attacked when walking through the public park around 11pm on Monday night, and local news reported, the following day, that Weston Park and another nearby park, Crookes Valley Park, were cordoned off by the police.

As reports were shared on social media, the comments under Facebook posts and local news articles – surely the very bastion of populist opinion sharing – were filled with concern and questions about what had happened. However, certain themes that appeared as comments were absolutely typical of the misunderstanding of the reality of sexual assault, with common rape myths showing up again and again. Racist assumptions about the religion and nationality of the attacker(s) also proliferated.

Victim blaming

Under an article on the Sheffield Star website, a commenter called WEDANCE wrote about their sympathy towards the victim, saying “My heart goes out to this young lady”. However, their comment went on to suggest that she was to some degree implicated in the assault because she had gone through the park, alone, late at night:

The report says she was walking through the park at daft o’clock and my question would be why? and alone at that. The hundreds of times females especially have been told to walk about in pairs or groups, so this sad case amazes me that the lady walked alone through a park.

The thing is, WEDANCE, the answer to your question about why she was walking through the park is that she was absolutely entitled to do so. She should be able to walk wherever she wants to, with or without company, at any time of day without fear of being hurt.

And as for the hundreds of times that females [sic] have been told to walk in pairs… well, yes, but this is all part of the same victim blaming mentality. Nobody applies these social rules to men in order that they stop raping people. Why should women have to change the way we get home from work, or a night out, or go for a leisurely stroll, just because men can’t be trusted?

In a Facebook discussion, Nicola wrote “Awful…hope they get the person responsible. Poor girl. I wouldn’t dare walk through a isolated park that time of night though… sad but it’s too risky” and Allee said “This is why I don’t walk through Hillsborough Park at night after Work. I would rather go two stops on the Tram and be safe. Its not worth the risk. Hope this woman will be ok and gets the support she needs. Be really careful out there ladies”.

Their comments were not out of the ordinary, nor were their attitudes rare. It sounds like a supportive message, but this kind of concern trolling is still placing a degree of blame on the victim herself. It is a crying shame that these women – and many, many more people – are afraid of walking through parks at night, but saying so in this context is undeniably a judgement on the victim in this case.

The race of the attacker

A white British rapist has been convicted and imprisoned this very week. Despite this, when the police failed to release a description of the Weston Park attacker, many online commenters made the assumption that this was because the attacker was not white or British, and was somehow being protected by the authorities for this reason.

The police even made clear that getting a description during a time of extreme trauma can be a difficult and time-consuming process. Detective Inspector John Fitzgibbons told the local paper that “The woman continues to be supported by specialist officers, and as I’m sure you can appreciate, incidents like this are extremely traumatic for victims, and as such, ascertaining details, including specific details of any descriptions she may have, can take time”.

Commenter Danny referred to this trend – relating to comments that have since been deleted – pointing out that “everyone [was] jumping on [the] race wagon again”, to which Murryfield replied, “Well maybe if the Muslims did not keep raping women and kids then they would not be targeted”, and Neil stated, “in my experience […] when no description given, means immigrant, we wait and see”.

While it is difficult to get precise statistics regarding the race and ethnicity of sexual predators in the UK, a Freedom of Information request that was made public shows that, in Uttley in West Yorkshire in 2010, the offenders relating to 44 rapes included 24 white rapists, 6 Asian rapists, 1 ‘other’ and 13 whose ethnicities were unknown. Regarding 54 sexual assaults, 23 of the offenders were white, 16 were Asian, 1 was ‘other’ and 14 were unknown.

Although these are low figures and do not give us much to go on, they do not demonstrate a disproportionately high number of offenders from any minority ethnic community, given the demographics in the area.

Using online comments to spread rape myths and racist propaganda is nothing new, but it continues to damage the communities that are targeted thanks to misinformation. The fact that there was also a range of commenters who dismissed the concern trolling and racist assumptions is encouraging, but the chance that other victims of sexual assault will feel blamed if they, too, walked through a park in the dark, is incredibly high, on reading the thoughts of their peers.

Photo: Peter/Creative Commons


Philippa Willitts

Philippa Willitts is a British freelance writer who specialises in writing about disability, women's issues, social media and tech. She also enjoys covering politics and LGBT-related topics. She has written for the Guardian, the Independent, New Statesman, Channel 4 News, Access Magazine, xoJane and many more publications. She can be found on Twitter @PhilippaWrites.