Content creators

Content creators take to social media to break stigma around sexual assault in Aotearoa

Madeline Mason, medical student and influencer. Picture/File

In a post #MeToo world, survivors of sexual abuse are using social media to share their experiences and find community. Katie Harris speaks to two Kiwi women who have created online spaces for survivors to do so.

Madeline Mason has a habit of revealing everything online.

Through her Instagram, which is usually punctuated by picture-perfect beaches and verdant forests, she shares everything: her deepest anxieties, her struggle with depression, and her process of healing from sexual trauma.

“I really know that those were my darkest hours that made me who I am and got me where I am. And I think that comes from the sexual assault and the rape, as well as the depression and subsequent mental illness.”

Mason was just 14 when she said a man raped her in a public park.

“No one was there, I was so terrified, I had barely kissed a boy at the time and so it was a really defining and violent experience for me with sex and sexuality.”

For eight years after the attack, Mason struggled to understand what had happened and didn’t tell anyone.

“I never told my parents, my sisters, any of my friends, and I carried this enormous weight.”

His sister, Josie Mason, had no idea what Mason was going through because she had hidden it so well.

“Some of me feel like I failed as an older sister. Why didn’t I check enough? Why didn’t I see the signs?” she wonders again.

Over the years, the attack has continued to wear down Mason, but despite her mental and physical suffering, she still struggles to articulate the root cause.

Things went downhill when she left home to study biomedical sciences, then medicine, at the University of Otago.

Madeline Mason speaking at an event.  Picture/File
Madeline Mason speaking at an event. Picture/File

“I had an eating disorder, was severely depressed and suicidal, took antidepressants for almost four years, in and out of psychologists, and threatened to be placed in a mental health unit , all sorts of things.”

She suffered from bulimia, vomited into mailbags in her hallway and avoided socializing with other students.

“It’s also the internal battle that you go through to get to the point of being able to share your story. Like, inwardly doubting yourself and feeling like I felt deeply sick with myself for so long because I didn’t run away [from him].”

Around one in four university students in New Zealand report having experienced at least one form of sexual assault during their studies, and the 2021 New Zealand Crime and Victims Survey shows that up to 93% sexual assaults were not reported.

The survey found that the most common reasons for not reporting interpersonal violence, sexual assault and physical offenses were shame, embarrassment, further humiliation and threat of retaliation.

try to heal

Now 23 and after years of hard work, Mason is in a better place and using her voice online to break down the stigma and shame surrounding sexual violence and mental health issues.

She does this by sharing written messages in the form of Instagram stories and posts about her recovery and the reality of life after sexual assault.

“If I can help normalize this, and if this can be my way of finding justice for more than myself, then I can really sleep happily with this because I know I’m empowering so many other victims to reclaim what is theirs in their own time and their own way.

“If something is more powerful, that training effect is greater.”

Josie says that since her sister started discussing these issues freely on her platform, she has noticed a light coming back to her.

“It’s a glow. It’s like something that you didn’t realize was gone until it came back. And it touches so many other people. I can say that the work what she does now really fills and enriches it – helping others can also heal you yourself. In the process”

Mason is not the only young New Zealander to take to social media to speak out against sexual violence and the stigma faced by those who experience it.

Laura Eustace, 26, started The Flourish Project Instagram account a few years ago to help heal from sexual abuse and to make sure others knew they weren’t alone.

“I feel like it’s been boiling on the surface for so long, and it kind of felt like I wanted it to be almost extinguished so that I could somehow break free of it. For so long, I felt so stigmatized and that I would be judged and no one would really understand it.”

Laura Eustace leads the Instagram Flourish Project.  Picture/file
Laura Eustace leads the Instagram Flourish Project. Picture/file

It never happened, and once she started to open up about it, others started messaging her about their similar experiences.

Eustace, who works in digital marketing, says she was first sexually assaulted at a party when she was 17. At the time, she didn’t have the words to describe it.

“I was too scared to use the word rape because rape seemed like such a big thing. And it felt like such a big event. And I was just kind of like it wasn’t such a big thing. , violent and scary. Like, it’s scary, but it wasn’t what you see or hear in the movies.”

It was only after a suicide attempt following the death of a close friend that she got the help she needed.

She started seeing a peer support worker, a psychologist and a psychiatrist and was later diagnosed with PTSD.

During this time, she also realized that she had been abused as a child.

Through her page, Eustace shares an honest account of what she went through, her therapy journey, and her experience navigating mental illness after her assault.

“During the first year I only had about 100 followers and it was just my close friends who cut a few chances, but now 90% of the people who follow me, I have no idea who they are. I sometimes meet people and they say, “Oh, I’m your Flourish account.”

“I just get random messages from people saying ‘thank you so much for speaking up, you’ve inspired me to get help’. And that’s an amazing feeling.”

Laura Eustace as a child.  Picture/File
Laura Eustace as a child. Picture/File

For so long she thought the assault defined who she was, but over time talking about what happened to others who were affected proved to her that she isn’t defined by the trauma that she was. she underwent.

“I can find fulfillment, I can find happiness, I can be in a healthy relationship and not be in, you know, abusive relationships anymore. I can take note of that and I think Flourish has helped me take step back and reflect on things and share things when I’m ready to.”

There were also a number of physical effects resulting from the trauma, including vaginismus and an overactive pelvic floor.

“My body finally felt comfortable and safe with someone to finally relax and that’s when all these issues started to come up.”

Vaginismus can present in two different ways – primary or secondary. For people with primary vaginismus, fully penetrative sex will seem physically impossible, despite repeated attempts.

On the other hand, secondary vaginismus is an unexplained and ongoing sexual tightness, where there may have been a history of normal sexual intercourse.

The condition is something Eustace has recently become more vocal about, as she believes the trauma response to physical sexual abuse is not talked about enough.

Laura Eustace uses social media to talk about the impacts of sexual violence.  Photo / Provided
Laura Eustace uses social media to talk about the impacts of sexual violence. Photo / Provided

“In previous generations there’s always been this kind of ‘go ahead, don’t really think about it’, whereas I think now with social media where you can connect to so many more people, there’s has that opening of vulnerability.”

On top of that, Eustace says the beauty of social media is that when you see other people sharing, you also feel like you can tell your story.

Online empowerment

Ekant Veer, professor of marketing at the University of Canterbury, studies how online communities, largely about stigmatized topics, are formed and maintained.

He says people may not feel safe talking about these issues with friends offline, and may feel empowered and empowered to talk about them with others experiencing similar issues online.

Although he hasn’t studied sexual assault, Veer says now more than ever, people are using social media to connect and talk about typically stigmatized topics.

“The younger generation is less likely to feel bad about talking about this stuff online compared to the older generation.”

While he says there are many positives to these communities, he cautioned that some followers might not take the key step of getting professional help.

“Most sane content creators will do things in a way that says, reaches out, makes sure you get help, does all of that.”

In 2020, Mason started a community organization called Neighborhood to help improve the wellbeing and mental health of all young people in New Zealand.

The positive reception she received after sharing her experience of sexual assault led her to create Neighborhood’s Coming Home campaign, “about reconnecting with intimacy and yourself, and your truth after the sexual abuse”.

Mason says everything she does now is with the intention of helping and creating spaces that her younger self needed.

“I sincerely think that if the 14-year-old girl I once was could see someone like me who went to college, graduated now. Is in her second degree and really doing her best to be thrilled and grab life by the reins…if my past self could see it, I would have so much hope.”

SEXUAL DAMAGE – DO YOU NEED HELP?

If it is an emergency and you think you or someone else is in danger, call 111.
If you have ever been the victim of sexual assault or abuse and need to talk to someone, contact the confidential Safe to Talk helpline at:

• Text 4334 and they’ll get back to you
• Email [email protected]
• Visit https://safetotalk.nz/contact-us/ for online chat
Otherwise, contact your local police station.
If you’ve been abused, remember it’s not your fault.