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Using an Online Forum, One Woman Describes Coping With a Sexual Assault

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, November 30 2010

"I want to tell you that my children and I are doing quite well considering that we had a gun held to our chests only three days ago," the message read, in a simple sans-serif font.

A person named Alexandra Ellison posted the message on Nov. 28, on a neighbors' forum that is part of the Minneapolis-based e-democracy.org online community, but they weren't her words. She said they were from her friend, who signed the post "the 'mother' in the news."

According to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, this mother had been sexually assaulted at gunpoint while cross-country skiing in Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis. Her two children were there with her. A group of four boys assaulted her, police believe, and also assaulted two teenage girls in a nearby garage in a separate incident.

The message written by Ellison's friend was a call for her neighborhood to turn a vigil into a celebration of their park:

I see that a vigil has been scheduled for Wednesday night. Please take this as an opportunity to celebrate our riches. I would love it if people came out to sing, dance, ski, sled, play Frisbee, etc. Let's make it a celebration of our community and our park! At one point the boys asked for our skis. I wish they could have taken them and used them and experienced the pure joy of gliding in the fresh snow, getting winded from exertion and breathing in cool, fresh air. Please send them all the love you can muster. I think they really need it.

While this mother, whose words Ellison wrote she was passing along so as to protect her anonymity, acknowledged that she had fear and and supposed that she "might fall into despair, hopelessness and hatred sometime along my healing journey," she also wanted to use the e-Democracy forum to declare her refusal to be portrayed as a victim.

"Yes, I was sexually assaulted but the girls did manage to fight off the boys and escape before anything happened," she wrote, after stating some news reports were inaccurate and neither she, nor the teenage girls allegedly assaulted by the same boys, had been raped. "I really have a huge repulsion at the labeling of us as victims. I see us as strong and capable of taking charge of our safety."

A Star-Tribune reporter was reading, as were 500 members of the online forum, according to Steven Clift, a friend of Personal Democracy Forum and e-Democracy's executive director.

Clift held this up as a use case for an open neighborhood forum, which requires real names — so that while "the 'mother' in the news" could retain her anonymity, her words were posted there by a known member of the neighborhood — but operates publicly for all to see. He didn't make this comparison, but other platforms like Front Porch Forum open their forums and email lists only to members of the neighborhood.

"Our model is somewhat unique in that our forums are be designed 'public' so as to attract as many people as possible via Google searches," he wrote in an email, "we require real names (like Facebook but unlike most blog and online news commenters), and we have a city-wide forum where more political issues can rise to a larger more political audience. So, with the mother's post, it is open and accessible for all to see including the local media."

In this case, this online forum provided a means for someone who experienced a terrible thing to refute the idea that she was a victim and express her own wishes for how to handle what had happened to her — with compassion for the perpetrators, not anger or a desire for revenge. And because it was open to the media, she was able to go through a friend, to a community place, and then have that desire broadcast to the readership of the entire paper. It's a powerful story.