What Happens When Victims Are Bombarded With Sexual Assault News

A week on, victims discuss what it's like to watch men tear apart allegations of sexual assault online.
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It’s a dull Thursday when I open my laptop to meet with Anna* over video chat. “I’m in my pyjamas,” she tells me, “I’m just trying to have a soft day.”

It’s been over a week since the Channel 4 Dispatches episode Russell Brand: In Plain Sight aired. A programme that documented anonymous allegations of sexual assault against the comedian Russell Brand.

While Brand has not been charged with any crime, the continued conversation surrounding the allegations has made a considerable impact on survivors of sexual assault everywhere.

The presence of sexual violence in the news cycle and discussions online and across social media can be a deeply triggering thing for survivors of sexual abuse. Anna tells me that it’s taken a few days for the news to hit her, but now that it has, she’s facing her trauma all over again..

“I was just crying all last night and this morning. It just feels like an avalanche,” she continues, “It feels like I’m reliving things again.”

According to Dr Sarah Davies, a Chartered Counselling Psychologist and Author of ‘How to Leave a Narcissist for Good’, this is a typical response to being triggered by news. She explains that; “When we experience something shocking or traumatic, the brain automatically switches into survival mode.”

When this happens, our minds may not be able to fully process what has happened to us, even though our bodies have lived through it. Sometimes, this can result in developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, a condition that alters how memories are processed and stored in the body and mind.

And, news coverage and the conversations that follow them can trigger these memories. Forcing victims to relive the attacks they’ve tried so hard to forget, bury or move on from.

She describes this feeling as ‘overwhelm’, where a place, a situation, a certain smell or hearing a certain word can bring memories of the traumatic experience to the fore.

“When the memory is triggered it can bring back a flood of images, physical sensations, emotions, feelings, negative beliefs, and so on. Any kind of a reminder of the traumatic event/experience can trigger immediate mind and body memories,” Dr Davies tells me.

If this wasn’t bad enough, victims of sexual assault often feel a sense of shame and humiliation during the aftermath of an attack. So, when allegations of sexual assault enter the mainstream they can end up revisiting that shame for multiple reasons.

For Anna, it’s a deep sense of guilt.

“I feel so immensely in awe of these women who share their stories and I am ashamed that I haven’t done that,” she continues, “I am worried that the person who hurt me will continue to do it because I don’t have the strength to speak out.”

This feeling is echoed in many other experiences. For Beth*, the feeling centres around not feeling strong enough. “I wish other people’s strength didn’t cause me to feel weak, but it does because sadly we all compare ourselves to each other.”

Social media hate speech is on the rise

Part of the reason for this shame, blame and self-hatred is because of the amplification of victim blaming across social media. However, it can feel especially heavy when alleged cases of abuse are brought against male celebrities. Partly because in some cases, these allegations prove to be true (Harvey Weinstein being one such case).

But, it can also feel like an intense period because of the following that particular celebrity might have.

Robyn D’Arcy, a data scientist, journalist and Head of Data at a large advertising agency, reveals that, according to her research using social listening tools, 4 days after the Channel 4 documentary aired, 1.8 million posts were made across social media reacting to the news. 59% of those posts used misogynist language.

She tells me that within this percentage, many of the claims are focused on devaluing the evidence collected and using misogynist speech to undermine the seriousness of the allegations. In just two days on from the original findings, the number of posts increased exponentially to 2.1M posts. And, with it, so did misogynist language.

What is particularly worrying, is that this data shows how discourse demonstrates how embedded rape culture is in societies across the globe. In her data, D’Arcy records phrases such as ‘scorned’ and ‘get back at him’ by ‘lying.’ She also found concerning descriptions of Brand’s alleged victims, and women more broadly, being referred to as ‘lying,’ ‘exaggerating,’ ‘money grabbing’ and ‘part of a broader conspiracy to take down famous men’.

What we are seeing play out in real-time is a culture of disbelief built on weaponising legal lexicon whilst brandishing 17th-century tropes.

A culture of disbelief and a continuum of sexual violence

“Rape happens because there are attitudes and norms that allow it to happen.”

This is the view of the revised sexual violence continuum, an illustration of rape culture and its intersections with race, class, religion and gender are interlinked. It shows the net-like nature of sexual violence, rather than placing a hierarchy of certain forms of abuse on a bad-to-worst scale.

The sexual violence continuum describes rape culture as ‘social norms and entitlement’.

It explains how a culture that normalises misogynistic portrayals of women, infantilisation and objectification, paves a pathway for sexual violence to occur. It includes harmful beliefs, such as ‘victims are to blame for what befalls them’, or that ‘society should adhere to strict gender stereotypes’.

In short — it describes what we are seeing played out in real-time in the parlance of regular men across social media in the days following Channel 4′s documentary release.

This visceral backlash against survivors normalises violence against women and girls. And, according to Rape Crisis England and Wales, this systematic normalisation directly feeds into the decriminalisation of rape. In England and Wales, only 1.9 percent of rapes were charged by the end of 2022. Which, to put it simply, means most rapists will get away with it and never face justice.

Far too many women know just how impossible a task it can be to bring a sexual offender to justice. For Esme*, understanding how difficult it would be to press charges prevented her from approaching the police, despite having multiple witnesses to her attack.

Is the sexual double standard preventing victims from being heard?

Sat together on her break from work, Esme explains how recent news is bringing the details of her attack back to her. “During the mid-2000s I was sexually assaulted by someone who used ‘promiscuity’ as defence,” she continues, “After he was removed from me he reassured his audience that I was just being uptight, that it was “just a bit of fun” and that I must have been one of those “miserable bitches”.”

Chillingly, this was met with garnered laughter from bystanders. “I didn’t report it. I found the police to be this unapproachable monolith. What if it had been “nothing” and he somehow would try to use the police against me?” she questions.

“People are quick to criticise a victim of historic sexual assault for not immediately coming forward or reporting or prosecuting at the time,” Dr Davies says. “But coming forward is not a straightforward process.”

Part of society’s ingrained misogyny means that women often come face to face with the sexual double standard (SDS) when dealing with police forces. The SDS is an instrument used to judge sexual behaviour, where women and men are held to different levels of accountability and expectation when it comes to sex. Meaning women are often demonised for behaving the way that men are celebrated.

Concerningly, a study found that officers specifically working on RASSO (Rape and Serious Sexual Offences 2025 strategy) held strong rape culture beliefs. An example of this is that women are inherently deceitful, or vengeful. This, amongst other views, could explain why the charge rate for rape in England and Wales sits at just 1.6 percent.

These last few days, God they have been so hard,” Anna tells me. Anna has never found justice for her rape at just 15 years old. Neither has Beth, or Esme.

And yet all are being repeatedly traumatised by the victim blaming rhetoric being levelled at Russell Brand’s accusers online.

“It’s just proving something I’ve always known,” states Anna. “I think, if I ever thought that victims would be believed, I don’t think I would have struggled with my issues as much as I have.”

She explains how hard it is to be constantly reminded of the fact that despite so many years passing things haven’t changed. “I really worry about young girls seeing this, and seeing the reactions to people coming forward,” she says, “To come forward with your own sexual assault, it just feels like you’re putting yourself at risk of so much worse.”

*Names have been changed for the purposes of anonymity.

Help and support:

  • Rape Crisis services for women and girls who have been raped or have experienced sexual violence - 0808 802 9999
  • Survivors UK offers support for men and boys - 0203 598 3898