Two weeks ago, the Twitter homepage for many Utahns was flooded with a new trending hashtag: #UTAHRAPISTS.
The hashtag was followed by hundreds of tweets written by survivors of sexual assault, sharing their stories, and exposing their abusers. Since the hashtag’s creation, some Twitter users have compiled a mass list of names of abusers submitted by survivors, most of whom chose to remain anonymous.
Some stories are recent, while others date back to survivors’ childhoods. Records of abuse in Utah high schools also began to surface, calling out the “rape culture” that exists within school walls.
The list of abuser names was intended to not only allow survivors the chance to use their voices but to expose individuals who have yet to face social or judicial consequences.
While the trending movement has received mixed criticism, many survivors have used social media to seek action where they felt the criminal justice system failed them.
An anonymous Southern Utah University student who submitted the name of her abuser to the list said, “…when I was trying to decide [to report him], I was told by professionals that I could report, but no one would believe me because there was no physical proof [of assault]. It’s the police system that is messed up for making that advice realistic. Adding his name to the list felt a little like I still got to report him in a way.”
Although the trending list of names is not prompting legal action, it is an opportunity for Utah locals to recognize the large numbers of survivors and abusers they may know personally.
Before Kalie Leavitt, a University of Utah student, had the chance to submit the name of her rapist to the list, she noticed it was already on there. Through the exposure of the hashtag, she met another young woman who was also raped by the same man.
However, neither young woman had submitted his name to the list, meaning their abuser has assaulted more than just them.
“Many people are using the hashtag to report abuse that they have kept to themselves for a long time. In that way, I think it has the potential to lighten the burdens of survivors,” Leavitt said.
However, many worry that the names submitted to the list come with no explanation or evidence, resulting in the possibility of a false accusation.
Many Twitter users have expressed their concern over loved ones being falsely accused and punished for a crime they didn’t commit. An anonymous Salt Lake City local witnessed an example of this first hand through the movement.
Upon seeing a familiar name on one of the circulating lists, she found out from the supposed abuser that there was a miscommunication between him and the person who submitted his name, and he would be publicly apologizing for that.
“Either we need to hold everyone’s feet to the fire or…give everyone else an opportunity to explain their side. I think we need to realize that some people might use this platform as a way to either just troll people or mess over someone who didn’t do anything to them,” she said.
Although she sees the ways the movement could be dangerous for those falsely accused, she also firmly believes in not being “an apologist for abusers.”
However, false accusations are dangerous to more than just the person wrongly accused.
“As a survivor, any time I share my story I am in fear of not being believed, and false accusations magnify that problem,” Leavitt said. “However, in the case of honest reporting, why should we protect abusers? They chose their actions and they should face the consequences those may have on their lives. This hashtag is a consequence in itself…It’s nothing like legal justice, but it’s definitely a start.”
Some survivors are hesitant to share their stories and the names of their abusers, due to the fear of public ridicule or disbelief. In wake of users on social media defending individual abuser names on the list, due to the belief that they are innocent, survivors are left to face the backlash.
Some are in potential danger by exposing the person who had hurt them in the past.
An anonymous University of Utah student said, “…while I want assailants to be named, my own included, survivors are being retaliated against by their assailants on these lists, which just adds to the fear the victim could be feeling. It makes me sad that survivors don’t feel confident enough in the justice system to report their assaults to the police, but will risk retaliation against themselves to put their assailants on a public list like this.”
Similarly to Leavitt, this anonymous student found her abuser’s name on the list before considering reporting it herself. Although seeing his name was “satisfying,” she fears being targeted by him with the assumption that she was the one to expose him.
“I think these lists started with good intentions, but survivors are being targeted and blamed as much as ever, and I honestly think it could get out of hand very fast,” she said.
However, for Salt Lake City resident Megan Gonzalez-Medina, exposing her high school rapist online is one more way for her to gain power over her abuser.
Gonzalez-Medina reported her rape in September of 2019 to the Salt Lake City Police Department, with an expectant sentencing hearing this April that was postponed to August, due to the outbreak of COVID-19. Realizing that her abuser would not be sentenced to anything “serious,” she was prompted to add his name to the trending list.
“Because he was 17 at the time, he can’t be sentenced as an adult. This means no jail, no prison, no ankle monitor…he won’t even have to be on the sex offender registry. Knowing he won’t face any real punishment, despite me facing real trauma and terror makes me want to hold him accountable in any and every way I can, with respect to my safety,” she said.
Gonzalez-Medina also believes this list to be a tool in uniting survivors and amplifying their voices.
“As sexual assault victims, it’s insane to say, but we really are the only ones who have each other’s backs and really understand what it means to be supportive of victims. I think the more we talk and the more angry we get, the more we expose, the more we’re mean and hurt people’s feelings, it’s going to show that we’re not helpless,” she said.
Although #UTAHRAPISTS is not perfect, it offers Utah a chance to recognize the number of survivors and abusers in the community. It has sparked conversations about rape culture, supporting survivors of sexual assault, and condemning guilty assailants on a mass level.
While the hashtag in itself has meaning, the voices behind it are the ones who listen, speak, and stand for the survivors of Utah every day. #UTAHRAPISTS refuses to be silent.
Story and Photo Illustration by Amanda Walton