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February 24, 2016

Sexual assault survivors, especially men, find refuge in online anonymity

Drexel study examines anonymous posts about abuse on Reddit

Anonymous, online forums may be an important resource for survivors of sexual abuse, especially men, a Drexel study has found.

Researchers in the field of social computing, which examines the link between human behavior and technology, examined posts on three Reddit forums related to trauma and abuse. They were especially interested in "throwaway" accounts, which are used only once in order to ensure maximum anonymity.

"I made a throwaway as I think some family members know about my main account and none of them know about my story," the paper quotes one user. (All quotes in the study were paraphrased to protect the poster's privacy.) 

For the users who disclosed their gender, there were 2.5 times more women than men who talked about sexual abuse. However, men were more likely to use throwaway accounts. The paper's authors theorized that men, in particular, may feel ashamed to disclose abuse or ask for help.

"People may look weak or less competent by admitting that they have a problem and need help," they wrote.

Those who use throwaway accounts are also much more likely to ask for some form of support, advice or comfort. They may ask for help explicitly ("Any advice would be appreciated") or implicitly ("She stole my life away. I don't know how to take it back.").

"Sometimes people have never shared these experiences with anyone before online or off and they feel they need to," lead author Nazanin Andalibi told Drexel Now.

Around one-fourth of users examined had, in fact, disclosed the abuse to someone in real life, but many got unsupportive responses and still preferred to ask for help online.

"No one gets what it's like...The few friends I’ve told sympathize, but they act like they are walking on eggshells around me afterwards until we forget about the conversation," one user wrote.

Others were unsure of how to think about what had happened to them and needed help processing the event. 

One user wrote, "It keeps eating at me. I don't feel like I deserve to name it sexual assault because of how I behaved after."

The study shows that online anonymity may be a crucial way to help abuse survivors feel safe enough to ask for support. Even if it's a "throwaway" account, it shouldn't be ignored.

Read the study, publication upcoming, here.

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