Written by Lyn Staack, Advocacy Center Youth Education Coordinator.
Yesterday I was told about a disturbing viral trend on TikTok which has spread across Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook; it’s likely that teens you know had seen or heard of this. Millions of users have viewed, shared, or created posts responding to a video in which a group of men purportedly encouraged other men to sexually assault women on April 24 as part of National Rape Day.
The vast majority of the trending videos and posts condemn the original video, express concern for the safety of women, trans and gender nonconforming people, or friends, and/or focus on ways to patrol and take down potential rapists on Saturday. Although, generally seeming heartfelt and well meaning, individual posts and the viral trend collectively have escalated fears (eg “there are men planning a national RAPE DAY STAY INSIDE!!!! #april24”.) USA TODAY has reported that neither they nor TikTok could find any evidence of the referenced original video. The trend has nonetheless sparked, among other feelings, fear and division, which I believe were intended outcomes, whatever the actual origins of the rape day threat.
Rape and sexual violence are very real threats in the lives of women (the targets of this specific rape day threat) which impact the way girls and women are treated and move through the world on a daily basis. The viral response to this story highlights the always present threat of rape as a weapon that can be and is used not only against women, but also trans and gender nonconforming people, and at times men.
The social media frenzy itself is also in effect a form of harassment and intimidation. Many of the videos reinforce messages that women and girls are not safe, that they must limit their lives to be safer, and that, if they are raped, they are at fault for not keeping themselves safe. Others emphasize protective and angry forms of caretaking, often coded as a male or masculine role, that do not generally create empowering or lasting safety for targets of violence and reinforce problematic gender expectations.
Regardless of the validity of this story, as a community we have a responsibility to denounce rape, harassment, and cultural messages that present sexual violence as a weapon. As adults we have a responsibility to guide and support teens in how to respond to this trend in ways that support their individual well-being and affirm community values of respect and safety.
State clearly that rape — and the threat of rape — are never acceptable. No one deserves to be raped. No one has the right to rape. No one should have to live in fear of being raped. Rape is a misuse of power and sex. We should use the word “rape” only to refer to acts of sexual violence; we should never use the word “rape” as a joke or a synonym for “trounced” or “bested.”
Understand why this trend went viral and evokes strong reactions. Whether this specific threat is real or not, it has tapped into the underlying reality that rape is a familiar and real fear in the lives of many girls and young women, trans and gender nonconforming youth, and some boys and young men.
Rape is a weapon with deep historical, gendered, and racialized roots which has been used to intimidate, break down, control, and exert power over others in both intimate and social relationships. In 2021, sexual violence is also a common story line in tv shows and an ever-present topic on social media and in the news. Recent research statistics about sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape are described by teens (rightfully) as devastating and terrifying.
Teach healthy relationship skills, and listen. The counter balances we can offer to feelings of overwhelm, devastation, fear, hopelessness, rage, or paralysis are connection and skills. We can show that we are willing to talk about sexual harassment, abuse, and rape, knowing that these can be emotionally difficult, conflicted, and imperfect conversations. We can invite conversations about what it means and looks like to respect ourselves and others. We can talk about consent, boundaries, and healthy relationships with children from a very young age and continue, with luck, long after they are parents themselves.
And, we can listen. Because, in ways that give me hope, teens are sharing their personal experiences of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault. They are seeking support for themselves as they cope and recover. They are looking for ways to ask for accountability, acknowledgment, and increased awareness from those who crossed their boundaries without consent. They want to prevent future assaults.
Show up. Be visible: As the adults in teens’ lives, you can play an important part in supporting and guiding them. Trust is built over time through repeated actions. One way to build trust is to show up with a willingness to listen and learn. Today, Saturday, next week, next month.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and there are several ways you can show up this week:
Change your profile pic on Saturday April 24. The Advocacy Center will be changing our profile picture at 5pm Friday April 23 to a local image stating “I stand against rape. Today and every day.” created by community members. Copy it from @AdvocacyTC
Wear jeans on Wednesday April 28. Our staff, volunteers, and millions of people across the world will wear jeans on Denim Day to support survivors and to speak out against sexual violence. To learn more, follow our student activism group, ACTion, on IG @actiontompkins and visit denimdayinfo.org/about
Take Back the Night on Friday April 30. Be present when local victims, survivors & allies will gather for our 42nd annual Take Back the Night, which will include a virtual Speak Out & candlelight vigil. Details and zoom link will be posted on our website calendar at actompkins.org/event/take-back-the-night/
Ask teens who feel unsafe and/or targeted what might help. Support teens who feel unsafe and/or targeted by asking them what might help them feel safer. Remember that youth of all genders may have been sexually harassed or assaulted or have concerns about being targeted for harassment or assault.
Effective self defense strategies increase people’s confidence in their ability to assess risk and act to defend themselves — in their homes or out in public. This confidence grows as teens are empowered to realize and trust their own abilities, not by setting fear-based restrictions. Some teens may feel safer staying at home; let this be a choice not a mandate. Others may choose to make a statement and go out with trusted friends or family. Yet others may have very little engagement or concern with this specific trend or day at all. Meet teens where they are, help them think through safety concerns, and build empathy for others who feel differently and have different needs.
There are many opportunities for us to invite deeper conversations. There will be other opportunities for us to show that we are committed to creating spaces that are safer for everyone. To show that we are working to teach and hold those who violate boundaries accountable for harm their actions cause. To show that we listen to, believe, and support survivors of sexual violence.
As parents, caregivers, and adults who work with and know youth, we do not have to do these things perfectly, and we don’t have to do them on our own. But we do need to start, and then continue.
Free and confidential information and support is available 24/7
Tompkins County: Advocacy Center 24-Hour Hotline 607.277.5000 actompkins.org
National Resources: RAINN Hotline 800.656.HOPE (4637) RAINN.org
USA today article “Fact check: Viral TikTok trends surrounding warning of sexual assault on April 24 are unsubstantiated” by Devon Link, updated April 20, 2021
NY Times article, “Tools for Teens to Call Out Sexual Violence A sex ed teacher talks about how young people can try to keep themselves safe from sexual assault and be allies to others” by Shafia Zaloom, April 13, 2021.
From RAINN How to begin to “Talking to Your Kids (of all ages) About Sexual Assault”
ihollaback.org/harassmenttraining Free online bystander intervention trainings as well as information about how to respond to harassment. specific one hour programs include responding to gender-based street harassment, anti Asian/American and xenophobic harassment, police violence and anti-black racist harassment, and intervening as youth. Advocacy Center education staff can facilitate post webinar conversations with groups if wanted.
For local education programs requests, email firstname.lastname@example.org