Social media for rape survivors


Seven years after being sexually assaulted in a Belfast park, 37-year-old Winnie M Li has embarked on a PhD at LSE to investigate how social media can help rape survivors heal.

In another life, Winnie M Li would be riding the wave of a highly successful film-producing career, building a healthy bank balance and forging ahead with her ambition to be a writer.

While the first two goals have been thwarted, the last wish has come true, ironically by virtue of becoming a ‘statistic’ on Saturday 12 April, 2008 after Winnie was sexually assaulted by a 15-year old stranger in broad daylight.

The attack took place in a Belfast park, one day before Winnie was due to attend a red carpet premiere of Flashbacks of a Fool, starring Daniel Craig.

Six hours of interviews, forensic tests and a medical check-up followed and 24 hours later she was back in London, dressed to the nines at Leicester Square, masking the devastation she felt.

Fast forward to 2015, where Winnie’s life has unfolded in a completely different way to the path she had envisaged for herself.

For nearly three years after the attack she suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression, unable to work and struggling to make sense of the rape and its far-reaching impact.

Winnie’s rapist was convicted and sentenced to eight years jail. He served four. Knowing her perpetrator was behind bars eventually enabled her to move on to the next phase of her life.

The Harvard-educated, American-born daughter of Taiwanese parents resumed her travels and her work, then quit her job in 2013 to enrol for an MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London. The degree set in motion her debut novel, Dark Chapter, due to be published in 2017.

The novel is inspired by her own experience as a rape survivor but actually tells two narratives – from the survivor and the perpetrator’s perspective. This summer, Winnie also co-founded the Clear Lines Festival, the UK’s first-ever festival dedicated to talking about sexual assault through the arts and discussion.

Organised entirely on crowdfunding, the four-day festival was an outstanding success, bringing together more than 60 comedians, artists, writers, and experts, alongside rape survivors. The festival’s aim was to “create a space that acknowledged the trauma and impact of rape in a supportive and sharing environment” but also provided a public forum to discuss the misogyny of rape culture and the pervasive myths propagated by traditional media.

Straight after the festival, Winnie embarked on her doctorate at LSE in September to explore how rape survivors can use social media as a vehicle for healing and also breaking down the myths and stigma surrounding sexual assault.

For her PhD dissertation she is planning to set up a website and invite rape survivors to share their stories anonymously online, as well as interview them off-line, identifying gaps between their narratives and what is reported in the media.

“I want to find out whether the act of sharing such a traumatic experience can help survivors gain a sense of agency and help in the healing process,” Winnie said.

“There are a lot of myths surrounding rape and hopefully my research will show how pervasive and damaging they are. One of the most common misconceptions is that most rapes are committed by strangers, when in fact most are carried out by people known to the victims.

“In my case it was a stranger and that is probably why my rape was so widely reported in the media, but at least 80-85 per cent of victims are actually raped by someone they know, behind closed doors in a house or office.

“Another myth is that perpetrators are creepy, sub-human monsters lurking on the edges of society, who are monsters and sex beasts and can’t be stopped. In truth, most rapists look like normal, everyday people so it is imperative we address the causes of their behaviour.

“One of the most pervasive myths is that a rape survivor’s life is ruined by the experience and they are forever damaged. Without making light of the trauma, this is simply not true. It is possible to recover, but it requires therapy, self-belief, and support. It doesn’t help that there is still an entrenched stigma, among some societies, attached to women who are raped.

“There are certain religions that expect women to stay ‘pure’ and many women who have been raped feel a sense of shame and are not encouraged to share their stories. There’s a lot of victim blaming that happens in our society and that is incredibly damaging to survivors who should never have to bear the blame.”

Every hour, roughly 10 women and one man are raped in England and Wales. The impact goes far beyond one life, with families, partners and friends all affected in different ways.

“If you think of the frequency of rape and the multiple lives affected, it is quite shocking,” Winnie said.

“I don’t think there has been enough research about the crime and its impact on society. Hopefully I can play a small part in remedying this.”

Additional notes

Winnie M Li is a first year PhD researcher in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE. She is studying on an ESRC grant and is also part of the Leverhulme Trust Programme in affiliation with the International Inequalities Institute.  In October she was shortlisted for the Emma Humphreys Memorial Prize, awarded annually at the Feminism in London Conference to recognise women working against male violence.

The title of her thesis is Social Media for Rape Survivors: Storytelling and Reclaiming Subjectivity.

Her debut novel, Dark Chapter, will be published by Norstedts in Sweden in Spring 2017 and a UK publication is forthcoming. It has already been listed by Publishers Weekly as one of the International Hot Book Properties.

Winnie has written more publicly about the issue of sexual assault, for outlets including The Huffington Post  and interviews with her have appeared on Channel 4 News, BBC and RTE Radio, and The Irish Times. She can be reached via Twitter @winniemli 

Posted December 2015