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Discussion Title Sexual Assault Awareness in the Social Media Age

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Recent incidents involving social media (photos and videos of assaults posted and shared online) highlight the importance of discussing the serious impact on victims, especially teens. Please join Fairfax County for a live chat on Friday, April 26, at 10 a.m., about how we can help young people avoid the crowd mentality, stand up for their core values, and hold one other accountable. Representatives from the Fairfax County Office for Women and Domestic & Sexual Violence Services and the Police Department will answer questions.


Kathleen Kelmelis : Good morning. This is Kathleen Kelmelis from the Office for Women & Domestic and Sexual Violence Services and I am here with Second Lieutenant Mark Kidd with the Fairfax County Police Department Sex Crimes Squad. We are here to answer your questions on Sexual Assault Awareness in the Social Media Age. 


Anonymous User : Any suggestions for what to do or say when you see comments and photos related to sexual assaults online? I mean, by commenting, even to say it's wrong, you're still adding to the attention. But if you ignore it, that's bad too.

Kathleen Kelmelis : Bystander intervention is one of the top goals in the movement to stop violence. Most people are against sexual violence but are hesitant to speak up because they are afraid of being accused as overreacting. When you see hurtful comments posted under articles and content related to a sexual assault case, you can do your part by making a appropriate comment providing support for the victim. Do not respond to negative comments. The ultimate purpose of your comment is to open the door for others to speak up rather than having the original poster have a sudden shift in thinking. Keep in mind that victims and family members often read these comments. These comments can either support or retraumatize the victim so choose your words carefully. If you see a website with inappropriate content, do not comment and do report the content to the police.


herndonmom : how are sexual assaults involving social media different than "plain old-fashioned" sexual assault?

Mark Kidd : Social media adds a new dimension to victims of sexual assault and potential sex offenders.  This gives sexual offenders broader access to more potential victims.  Social media also allows sex offenders to learn more about their victims and their daily activities making the victim more vulnerable.


Anonymous User : These poor girls are not only raped, but then the photos are shared all over the internet! No wonder they have to move or switch schools and that some of them commit suicide. What can you do to get your life back once that happens?

Kathleen Kelmelis : One of the most important factors for resiliency is that when the victim confided in a trusted adult (especially a parent or family member) that person believed, protected, soothed, and encouraged the victim.  You might be that person, and your response is so important.  Listen.  Accept the person.  Empathize.  Believe!  Don't criticize or scold.  Don't grill for details.  Speak up if you witness someone being violated or harassed.  Don't just tell the violator to stop, but tell someone in a position to really intervene.  Support the victim. This takes compassion and courage.  Even someone who has been severely traumatized can heal.  There is hope, and help is out there!  Some resources include: a sexual/domestic violence hotline or crisis center, support groups, counselors/social workers/mental health centers, suicide hotline, or hospital emergency room.  In Fairfax, call our hotline at 703-360-7273.  You can visit rainn.org for resources.


Anonymous : I work with survivors on a regular basis who have experienced not only an act of sexual assault, but also the additional trauma of that experience being posted on the internet. They often have similar reactions to victims of multiple perpetrator assaults. There is an intense feeling of humiliation. And I guess I'm wondering how easy or difficult it is for law enforcement to remove that content from the internet if it's reported?

Mark Kidd : Unfortunately the current laws do not give the police the authority to remove material posted on any social media sites. 


Anonymous User : My 15-year-old daughter is on Facebook all the time and tells me about some of the things her "friends" post. One girl posted a photo of herself naked. Others think it's fun to do sexy poses. How can we get it in their heads that this can be harmful and dangerous?

Kathleen Kelmelis : The first question is, "How did we get to the point where girls and women believe that their worth is based on how much male attention they receive?" Understanding cultural and media influences helps one understand why people behave the way they do. When working with teens we show two leading documentaries that touch on this subject. One is 'Miss Representation' and the other is 'Killing Us Softly 4'. As discussed in both films, people are bombarded by thousands of ads a day and the advertising companies are trying to 'stand out' by using increasingly violent and sexualized images. Teens are adopting the same strategies as the advertising companies by trying to obtain attention by using violent and sexual images. Since the brain is not fully developed until 25 years old, it is expected that many teens will not completely comprehend the harmful effects of posting nude or very sexualized photos. The best thing you can do is watch these documentaries with your teens and discuss what they teach. Help your teens identify aspects of their personalities, personal values and talents and focus on developing them. Try to help them expand their identity so it is not focused on their appearance. Also, teens need to know and be reminded that taking nude pictures of those under 18 is manufacturing child pornography. Sending these photos to friends and posting them online is distribution of child pornography. Both are felonies.


Mary : Is there a way that social media can be used to help prevent sexual assault?

Kathleen Kelmelis : There are several PSAs and campaigns that encourage healthy sexuality, respectful behavior, and consent. Use social media to participate in these campaigns. For example, a few of them are:
Start by Believing
No More
Men Can Stop Rape

You can also get involved by posting and sharing positive messages. When you come across something, take a moment to share it.


Anonymous User : Are there any laws against sexting? What should you do if you receive unsolicited sexting messages?

Mark Kidd : Yes, if one of the participants are over the age of 18, then it is a crime.  If pictures of pornographic nature are sent of anyone under the age of 18, then it is also a crime.  If you receive unsolicited sexting messages, you should contact the police department at 703-691-2131.


Anonymous User : what does someone do if they are being harassed online? I've heard its really hard to make it stop. what steps should someone take if they are in that situation?

Kathleen Kelmelis : First, keep in mind that once a photograph is posted online, it is hard to have it removed. You can call your Internet provider and contact social media outlets to try and have it removed, but it is not guaranteed. If you are being harassed, you can block the person from being able to contact you via Internet. If the level of harassment includes threats, you can contact the police. There are also free counseling services through our office where you can talk to someone about the harassment and how it is affecting you or you can call our hotline 24 hours a day to talk about what is happening in your life. Call 703.360.7273. It also helps people to surround themselves with those who are supportive and loving. Tap into those parts of your life that provide positive experiences.


Anonymous User : I am interested in hearing your suggestions for parents regarding helping young people avoid the crowd mentality, stand up for their core values, and hold one other accountable. Thank you.

Kathleen Kelmelis : A strong parent-child relationship based on communication and trust is the best foundation. Keep talking to your teens about how to think for themselves and stand up when they see something wrong happening. Create a safe place for your children and teens to share how they are feeling. The county also offers workshops and programs to help parents and teens improve communication. Call our office at 703.324.5730, TTY 711.


Mark Kidd : On behalf of the police department and the Office for Women & Domestic and Sexual Violence Services, we thank you to all that who submitted questions.  We are sorry that we could not get to every question. If you have further questions concerning a crime, please call the Fairfax County Police Department non-emergency number at 703-691-2131. If you want more information on domestic and sexual violence services, call 703-324-5730. TTY 711 or the hotline at 703-360-7273.  

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