Content creators turning to social media to break stigma surrounding sexual assault in Aotearoa
In a post #MeToo world, survivors of sexual abuse are using social media to share their experiences and find a community. Katie Harris speaks to two Kiwi women who’ve created online spaces for survivors to do so.
Madeline Mason is used to baring all online.
Through her Instagram, which is usually punctuated with picture-perfect beaches and leafy green forests, she shares everything: her deepest anxieties, battle with depression and her process of healing from sexual trauma.
“I truly know that it is my darkest hours that have made me very much who I am and put me where I am. And I think that comes from the sexual assault and rape and also the depression and the mental illness that followed on from that.”
Mason was only 14 when she says a man raped her in a public park.
“No one was around, I was so terrified, I had barely kissed a boy at this point and so it was a really defining and violent experience for me with sex and sexuality.”
For eight years after the attack, Mason struggled to make sense of what happened and told no one.
“I never told my parents, my sisters, none of my friends, and carried this huge weight.”
Her sister, Josie Mason, had no idea what Mason was going through because she had hidden it so well.
“Parts of me feel like I failed as an older sister- why didn’t I check in enough? Why didn’t I see the signs?” she still wonders.
As the years ticked over, the attack continued to wear away at Mason, but despite suffering both mentally and physically she still struggled to express the root cause.
Things came undone when she left home to study biomedical science, then medicine, at the University of Otago.
“I got an eating disorder, I was severely depressed and suicidal, I was on antidepressants for almost four years, in and out of the psychologists, and being threatened with being put in a mental health unit, all kinds of things.”
She suffered from bulimia, vomiting into post bags in her hall and avoided socialising with other students.
“It’s also the internal battle you go through to get to the point of being able to share your story. Like, internally doubting yourself and feeling like, I felt sick to the core with myself for so long because I didn’t run away [from him].”
About one in four university students in New Zealand say they’ve experienced at least one form of sexual assault during their studies, and the 2021 New Zealand Crime and Victim Survey shows up to 93 per cent of sexual assaults went unreported.
The survey found the most common reasons for not reporting interpersonal violence, sexual assault and physical offences were shame, embarrassment, further humiliation and the threat of reprisals.
Trying to heal
Now at 23, and after years of work, Mason is in a better place and is using her voice online to remove the stigma and shame around sexual violence and mental health issues.
She does this by sharing written messages in the form of Instagram stories and posts about her recovery and the reality of life after sexual assault.
“If I can help normalise that, and if that can be my way at finding justice for more than myself, then I can really sleep happy with that because I know I’m empowering so many other victims to reclaim what’s theirs in their own time and their own way.
“If anything that’s more powerful, that ripple effect is greater.”
Josie says ever since her sister began freely discussing these issues on her platform she’s noticed a light returning to her.
“It’s a glow. It’s like something you didn’t realise was gone until it comes back. And it reaches so many other people. I can tell that the work she does now truly fulfils and enriches her- helping other people can also heal yourself in the process”
A post shared by ☆ﾟ*･madeline (@madelinemason__)
Mason isn’t the only young New Zealander turning to social media to speak up against sexual violence and the stigma facing those victimised by it.
Laura Eustace, 26, created the Instagram accountThe Flourish Project a few years back to help heal from sexual abuse and to ensure others knew they weren’t alone.
“I feel like it had been boiling to the surface for so long, and it was kind of like I wanted it almost to be out so I could kind of be free from it. For so long I felt so stigmatised and that I would be judged and that no one really would understand it.”
This never eventuated, and once she did start opening up about it others began messaging her about their similar experiences.
Eustace, who works in digital marketing, says she was first sexually assaulted at a party when she was 17. Back then she didn’t have the words to describe it.
“I was too scared to use the word rape because rape seemed like such a big thing. And it felt like such a big event. And I was just kind of like it’s not this big, violent, scary thing. Like, it is scary, but it wasn’t what you kind of see or hear about in the movies.”
It was only after a suicide attempt following the death of a close friend that she got the help she needed.
She began seeing a peer support worker, psychologist and psychiatrist and was later diagnosed with PTSD.
During this, she also realised she was abused as a child.
Through her page, Eustace shares an honest account of what she’s been through, her therapy journey and her experience navigating mental illnesses following her assault.
“For the first year I only had like a hundred followers and it was just my close friends slash a few randoms, but now 90 per cent of the people who follow me, I have no idea who they are. I sometimes meet people and they say, ‘Oh I follow your Flourish account’.
“I’ll just get random messages from people saying ‘thank you so much for speaking up, you’ve inspired me to go get help’. And that’s an amazing feeling.”
For so long she thought the assault defined who she was, but over time, speaking about what happened to others who have been affected has proved to her that she’s not defined by the trauma she went through.
“I can find fulfilment, I can find happiness, I can be in a healthy relationship and not be, you know, in abusive ones anymore. I can take notice of that and I think Flourish has helped me to kind of take a step back and reflect on things and share things when I’m ready to.”
There’s also been a number of physical effects resulting from the trauma, including vaginismus and an overactive pelvic floor.
“My body finally felt comfortable, and safe with someone so it could finally relax and that’s when all these issues started to come up.”
Vaginismus can present in two different ways – primary or secondary. For those with primary vaginismus, full penetrative intercourse will seem physically impossible, despite repeated attempts.
On the other hand, secondary vaginismus is unexplained and ongoing sexual tightness, where there may have been a previous history of normal sex.
A post shared by The Flourish Project (@flourishprojectnz)
The condition is something Eustace has recently become more vocal about, as she believes the physical sexual abuse trauma response isn’t spoken about enough.
“In previous generations, there’s always been that kind of, ‘just get on with it, don’t really think about it’, whereas I think now with social media where you’re able to connect to so many more people, there’s that opening of vulnerability.”
Besides this, Eustace says the beauty of social media is that when you see other people sharing, you feel like you can tell your story as well.
University of Canterbury marketing professor Ekant Veer researches how online communities, largely on stigmatised topics, are formed and maintained.
He says people may not feel safe talking about these issues with offline friends and may feel enabled and empowered to talk about it with others experiencing similar problems online.
Although he hasn’t studied sexual assault, Veer says now more than ever people are taking to social media to connect with and speak about usually stigmatised topics.
“The younger generation are less likely to feel whakama about talking about these sorts of things online compared to the older generation.”
Although he says there are many positives to these communities he did caution that some followers may not take the key step of getting professional help.
“Most healthy content creators will be doing things in a way to say, reach out, make sure to get help, do all of this.”
In 2020, Mason started a community organisation called Neighborhood to help improve the wellbeing and mental health of all young people in New Zealand.
The positive reception she received after sharing her sexual assault experience led to her creating Neighborhood’s Coming Home campaign, “which is all about reconnecting with intimacy and yourself, and your truth after sexual violence”.
Mason says everything she does now is with the intention of helping and creating spaces that her younger self would have needed.
“I genuinely think, if the 14-year-old girl, who I once was, could see someone like me who’d gone to uni, got her degree now. is in her second degree and really is trying her best to be stoked and grab life by the reins… if my past self could see that, I would have so much hope.”
SEXUAL HARM – DO YOU NEED HELP?
If it’s an emergency and you feel that you or someone else is at risk, call 111.
If you’ve ever experienced sexual assault or abuse and need to talk to someone contact the Safe to Talk confidential crisis helpline on:
• Text 4334 and they will respond
• Email [email protected]
• Visit https://safetotalk.nz/contact-us/ for an online chat
Alternatively, contact your local police station.
If you have been abused, remember it’s not your fault.
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