Oct. 18, 2018

#WhyIDidntReport takes Internet by storm as thousands share sexual assault stories

UCalgary professor explains how rapidly spreading hashtag addresses myths and builds community
Jessalynn Keller explains why hashtag movements like #WhyIDidntReport are a powerful tool in addressing sexual violence.
Jessalynn Keller explains why hashtag movements like #WhyIDidntReport are a powerful tool in address Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

I was ashamed. I was afraid nobody would believe me. I wanted to forget it ever happened.

These are just a few statements echoed across the hundreds of thousands of tweets using the hashtag #WhyIDidntReport, a new movement that has taken the Internet by storm. In a matter of days, hundreds of thousands of people contributed, collectively shedding light on the countless reasons that sexual assault survivors choose not to formally report their abuses.

While hashtag movements seem to have sprung up rather recently, according to Dr. Jessalynn Keller, PhD, professor in the Department of Communication, Media and Film, movements including #MeToo and #WhyIDidntReport are part of the age-old practice of consciousness-raising.

“Consciousness-raising is about sharing individual stories and linking them to a broader social structure,” Keller explains.

“Hashtags are new in the sense that the technology itself is new, but the idea behind these movements — sharing one’s story to validate it, to make it real and to have your voice heard — is a historical practice that women have been using for decades to illuminate larger problems and social inequalities.”

Keller highlights that movements like #WhyIDidntReport are particularly compelling because of the human and emotional elements inherent in storytelling.

“So often sexual violence is talked about in terms of statistics. Although they can show the magnitude of the issue, statistics feel quite cold,” she says. “People really respond to hashtags like #WhyIDidntReport because they can identify with the emotion and humanity in the personal stories being shared online.”

While sharing traumatic experiences such as sexual assault can be an agonizing experience for victims and survivors, Keller says hashtags also create community for those who participate. “Putting your story out there and being in community with other people who have similar experiences is quite powerful. Even getting a positive response back from a stranger reaffirms that your story has been seen, you’re being heard and you aren’t alone.”

Although hashtag movements may not lead to immediate change, Keller points out that they do play a role in shifting beliefs and attitudes at a societal level by addressing myths and starting much-needed conversations about rape culture in mainstream media.

“Hashtags like #WhyIDidntReport and #BeenRapedNeverReported directly respond to misogynist claims that because someone doesn’t report to the police it must not have happened,” she says. “We’re seeing people mobilize the hashtag to share their personal stories and highlight the multitude of reasons why people don’t report sexual violence.

“Even though there’s still a lot of disbelief for women who come forward, hashtags are changing narratives about reporting. More and more people are starting to hear different perspectives, to reflect on their own behaviours, to learn about the language of sexual violence, and to understand what rape culture is.”

If you think you have experienced sexual violence, or know someone who has, visit the Sexual Violence Support website for campus and community resources. You can also arrange a confidential consultation with Carla Bertsch, the university’s sexual violence support advocate, by confidential email