Fed-Up Teens Are Outing Their Rapists on TikTok

Social media may feel like some women’s only route to justice

Close up of a teenager using her smartphone. Her face is obscured by her phone.
Close up of a teenager using her smartphone. Her face is obscured by her phone.
Photo: Peter Dazeley/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Since Covid-19 hit, I’ve become a bit of a TikTok addict. The social media app offers entertaining, quick content that makes me feel connected to what young people are up to, an algorithm that’s proven remarkably mindful of my interests: dog videos, mom humor, and — of course — feminism.

It’s pretty heartening to watch a younger generation of women pick up the mantle of innovative activism and run with it. I’ve seen teens dancing to voicemails of their abusive ex-boyfriends as a way to raise awareness about red flags in dating, watched young women rapping about online abuse, and laughed as college clinic escorts superimposed pieces of broccoli onto anti-abortion protesters’ faces (trust me, it’s hilarious).

But there’s something else I’ve noticed lately, a trend not quite so widespread that it’s gained national attention, but one that could very well change how America deals with sexual assault.

Young women on TikTok are outing their alleged rapists.

Tired of schools that don’t take them seriously and a culture that often will still resort to victim-blaming, these women — some of them are still in high school — aren’t just naming the classmates and acquaintances that sexually assaulted them; they’re posting pictures of their bruises, sharing screenshots of apologetic text messages sent from their alleged attackers, and encouraging commenters to pressure school administrators and local police to take action.

This isn’t the first time young women have used social media to out their rapists. In 2012, Kentucky teenager Savannah Dietrich took to Twitter to name the two high school lacrosse players who sexually assaulted her — an action that defied a judge’s order not to talk about the rape and nearly landed her in jail. (Her two attackers, of course, were given community service and told they could have their records expunged once they turned 19-and-a-half.)

We’ve seen similar kinds of activism through #MeToo: women sharing their stories of sexual assault and naming their abusers. And like with #MeToo, we’ve seen a similar backlash to these women’s decision to out their alleged assailants, with criticisms of vigilantism and claims that men’s lives will be ruined (they have not been). But when almost no rapists go to jail, when schools refuse to expel women’s attackers (giving them “punishments” like writing an apology letter), and when women are still routinely disbelieved, naming and shaming may feel like their only recourse.

And while social media broadens the reach of these actions, the truth is that women have for decades been sharing rapists’ names as a way to protect each other and their communities. In 1990, for example, controversy erupted at Brown University when students there wrote the names of accused rapists on the bathroom walls. Female students at Columbia University did the same thing in 2014.

There’s no question that naming rapists on social media is irresponsible — information that goes viral may not be entirely accurate and can run the risk of hurting a victim’s case down the line. But when you back young women into a corner, making it clear that men can harass, assault, and rape them with little to no consequence, it’s incredibly naive to expect them to remain silent.

Especially when the tactic has proven effective: After multiple teenage girls on TikTok named a high school football player in Oklahoma as their rapist last week, for example, the police in Edmond are now investigating their claims. It’s unclear if the young women had reported the attacks previously (most victims don’t), but their online campaign is what got authorities’ attention. In a statement, the school district said that it contacted local officers after finding out about the allegations “when information surfaced on an open social media platform.”

If we don’t want victimized young women to share unproven allegations on TikTok, Twitter, or even a bathroom wall, we need to make sure that they have other places to go for help — and, most importantly, confidence that the people who are meant to protect them will actually do something. Until that happens, I’d expect a lot more videos.

Feminist author & columnist. Native NYer, pasta enthusiast.

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