Women's Issues

How Digital Resources Can Help Abuse Survivors In The Age Of #MeToo

Confidentiality and accessibility are important for sexual assault and abuse survivors.

How Digital Resources Can Help Abuse Survivors In The Age Of #MeToo

How survivors cope with the trauma of sexual assault or abuse can depend a lot on who they talk to — and that's if they talk to anyone about it at all.

Amid the congressional testimonies of Christine Blasey Ford and Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, the National Sexual Assault Hotline said the number of people it helped was 201 percent above average — that's more than three times as many calls.

The Google search trends for "national sexual assault hotline" and "sexual assault hotline" show this jump as well. Compared to the rest of the past year, the week of Sept. 23 resulted in the highest peak in interest for both terms. 

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This response to high-profile cases of sexual assault isn't unusual. Amid Taylor Swift's case against a man who groped her, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, or RAINN, said calls to its national hotline increased by 35 percent.

And following the start of the #MeToo movement, the hotline was receiving an average of 630 calls a day in December — that's over 150 more calls a day than in December the year before.

"I think it can encourage people to come forward and talk about what's happened to them or seek help. And that is phenomenal, right? Because a supportive and helpful response is really important for long-term healing," Tina Bloom of the University of Missouri said. "I do also think, though, there's an opportunity for some backlash, right? Not everybody's down with #MeToo. Not everybody is enjoying this particular moment in history or celebrating it. And so I think that survivors also see that."

Bloom researches intimate partner violence prevention at the University of Missouri. Since 2005, she has worked with other researchers, survivors and violence prevention advocates to develop "MyPlan," an app and online tool to help survivors, or even people who know survivors, assess the dangers of abusive relationships.

"So, what inspired us to work on this and to develop this was that we know that domestic violence shelters, domestic violence advocates, hotlines, those kind of services are really, really helpful for women who are living with violence — or any survivors living with violence, a man or woman," Bloom said. "The problem is that most survivors never access those resources." 

Bloom hopes that because MyPlan is available for free on mobile devices and internet browsers, it will encourage survivors to seek help. 

Her team is now working on ways to adapt the tools for children or men who are survivors, as well as survivors in low-to-middle-income countries. But despite growing accessibility, stigma and fear can still prevent survivors from reaching out.

"Survivors tend to not disclose violence very readily, and there's a lot of complicated reasons for that. But you know, some of the things that we know are: It's fear of what will happen if the survivor talks about it, maybe retaliation from the abusive partner. It's shame and embarrassment: 'How did I get in this situation? I never thought this would happen to me,'" Bloom says. "It's not knowing about the resources. It's concerns about what will happen, like, 'would my children be taken away if I asked for help?' It's concerns about being judged, you know, it's all of these things."

Some researchers have noted that survivors sometimes use these resources years after their assaults took place. A 2016 study found that while more than half the calls received by a regional sexual assault hotline were made within 72 hours of the assault, the next-most frequent calls were made at least three years after.

Because of this, researchers and advocates strive to be prepared for both the "immediate and long-term effects of assault."

"Having a way to get information where you don't have to tell someone until you're ready — and maybe you're never ready, but having way to get that information privately is so powerful for survivors," Bloom says.