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Taking Sexual Assault Seriously Online and Offline

Rape jokes contribute to the same way of thinking that fuels real-life violence.

When we talk about creating online spaces that are safe from abuse and respectful for everyone, that must mean a space where rape jokes are not tolerated. Rape jokes are always harmful — including in online spaces. When unchecked, rape jokes send a negative message that the trauma of sexual assault is not taken seriously — and that it’s okay to use that trauma to be deliberately offensive or shocking for attention on the internet. 

Sexist jokes, rape jokes, and victim-blaming comments may not seem like that big of a deal because they are verbal and not physical, but they contribute to the same way of thinking that fuels real-life violence. When sexual harassment, abuse, and assault are minimized in online comments, videos, or memes, our real-world spaces are influenced by those same disrespectful beliefs and attitudes. It also makes survivors feel unsafe and unwelcome in those spaces and may retraumatize survivors by triggering their past experiences. 

We Can Build Spaces Where Rape Jokes Aren’t Tolerated

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and the national ‘We Can Build Safe Online Spaces’ campaign calls on leaders and individuals to play a role in creating safe online classrooms, workspaces, and social platforms and to step in when harmful behaviors occur online.

Just because disrespectful, de-humanizing, or threatening comments take place behind a screen, that doesn’t make their impact on the victim any less real. Although they only reflect the point of view of the person making them, their public visibility normalizes not taking sexual abuse seriously. In other cases, these types of comments may cause harm by re-traumatizing survivors of abuse or assault, who may read rape jokes and derogatory comments online and feel that the abuse they experienced is a source of entertainment for others.

We Can End Online Abuse

Online threats and rape jokes are examples of digital harm. Online sexual abuse can be any type of sexual harassment, exploitation, or abuse that takes place through screens. For online spaces to be safe and respectful, these harassing and abusive messages cannot be tolerated. 

Online abuse is influenced by the same attitudes and beliefs that lead to sexual violence offline, such as social norms condoning violence, sexism, and other forms of oppression. Although these experiences are unfortunately all too common in the online world, it does not make them any less harmful. 

We Can Step In When We See Harmful Behaviors Online

When all of us see our role in keeping others safe online by stepping in when we see harmful content or comments, we can build an environment where this type of content cannot thrive.

When we observe harmful behaviors online, each of us can step in by:

  • Educating ourselves about the impact of victim blaming and rape jokes.
  • Reporting inappropriate content on social media in order to have it flagged or removed. If you’re not sure how to report content on a specific platform, check out this safety guide from HeartMob.
  • Speaking out when we see harmful comments. While you might not change the mind of the person who left the comment, others will see that not everyone agrees with them. You can say something like, “Rape is never funny, and these comments are harming the survivors in your life who have to see them.”
  • Showing support to victims of online harassment. You can check in with the person who may have been impacted by the comments. Remind anyone experiencing direct offensive comments that they did nothing wrong and the behavior towards them is unacceptable.
  • Supporting younger online users to come forward to trusted adults when it feels safe. Remind them that they have a right to not be subjected to these comments or offensive humor.
  • Deleting content from forums when you have a role as an admin. You could even volunteer to moderate certain online spaces to prevent it from happening in the future. 

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