Editor’s note: This story discusses sexual violence. If you need assistance, Utah’s 24-hour sexual violence crisis and information hotline is available at 1-888-421-1100.
One of the first posts is from a woman who says she was raped in a parking lot as a teenager. She and a friend were making out in her beat-up sedan when he became forceful. “I told him ‘no’ repeatedly,” she said.
He went back into their high school afterward. She stayed in the car. When her mom found her hours later, she said, they called police, but a detective told them there wasn’t enough evidence to file a report.
In the next post, a different woman says that she also said “‘no, no, no’ multiple times” while her assailant didn’t listen. “And with my weight and size, I couldn’t shove him off,” she wrote, adding that the friends she told wouldn’t believe her.
Another woman says an attorney advised her that her assault “wasn’t a big enough deal to take to court.” A fourth added that despite turning her attacker in, she’s terrified that he was never arrested and is still out there. A fifth never got the results back from her rape kit.
Hundreds more posts follow, using the #UtahRapists hashtag.
Starting last week, Utah victims and survivors — largely women — have been sharing the details of their sexual assaults on Twitter. In particular, they’re pointing out how they’ve tried to seek justice in the ways considered appropriate, through the state’s criminal justice system and by confiding in people they trust. But for many, they say, those avenues failed them.
Their attackers were not charged or arrested or, in some cases, even questioned.
The hashtag, which collects tweets together and makes them searchable, is meant as a response to a system where prosecuting sex crimes rarely results in what victims consider a win, and telling police can be just as traumatizing as an assault. It has been trending in the state for at least nine days.
Many of the women now are publicly naming the people who allegedly assaulted them. The idea behind the social media movement, they say, is to make public the names of the accused so others will know who to avoid.
“We’re taking the power back,” said Aubrey Penrod, 25, who shared her own account of being assaulted when she was 16 and has been posting for others who want to have their stories included anonymously. “These women deserve to speak out about it.”
The Salt Lake Tribune typically does not name victims of sexual assault. Penrod agreed to the use of her name for this story.
The new hashtag is similar to the #MeToo movement from 2017, where women and men nationwide shared their stories of harassment and assault to show how widespread it is.
But some Utah attorneys feel this is a more malicious version that ignores due process rights for the accused.
‘Nothing has happened’
When Peyton Dees logged on to Twitter last week, her entire feed was flooded with the hashtag.
She could see her friends posting names. And she recognized a few of them. But she didn’t see anyone calling out the man who she says raped her two years ago, so she decided to post his name punctuated by those two words.
“He kidnapped and raped me in 2018 — and I have reason to believe I’m not the only one. #utahrapists,” she wrote.
Dees, who is now 18, agreed to be named in this report. She is pursuing a case against the man in court, and he has been charged with two felony counts of aggravated kidnapping and rape. He is in jail — but has an upcoming release hearing.
“I wanted to get his name out there so people could steer clear of him. I want others to not get hurt,” she said. “That’s what the whole movement is about.”
Since she posted his name, others have also listed him as their assailant and their accounts are similar to hers, Dees said.
Dees said she met the man online, although she’s since learned they had mutual friends. They met in person only once. Then one night in December 2018, she said, he dragged her out of her car after she gave him a ride home and raped her.
Dees reported to police in September 2019 after she continued to suffer from PTSD. He was arrested this last February. She counts herself lucky because she believes her case has been handled well by detectives and the court system. “I know several girls who have reported three, four, five years ago and still nothing has happened,” she said.
But she wonders what will happen if he’s not convicted.
Other women who posted with the hashtag said they have also tried to pursue criminal cases, but most didn’t get as far as Dees. Some were told there wasn’t enough evidence. Or it was a “he said, she said” situation. Or officers never forwarded their report to prosecutors.
One woman wrote: “Yes, we went to the police. I had a rape kit done and the whole 9 yards. They admit that they found his DNA but nothing happened to him.” Another said, “Crazy how #UtahRapists is doing more for me than the cop I shared my entire assault story to.”
One woman’s assailant was sentenced to jail — but when he got out years later, he found her and assaulted her again, she said. State records confirm that account.
The frustration from these women is understandable, said Paul Cassell, a University of Utah professor and lawyer who has represented several women in high-profile assault cases.
“It’s well known that a very small percentage of rape cases are filed in the criminal justice system throughout Utah and the United States,” he said.
Survivors who have tried those “appropriate avenues,” he added, are often left to find justice in other places when the system can’t or doesn’t help them. And that happens in the majority of cases, he believes. Some women chose not to report because they agree.
Some have called for Twitter to ban the hashtag and take down lists that have been created of the accused attackers.
The accounts have no real way of vetting the individuals whose names have been published under #UtahRapists. Individuals could be posting them, too, to falsely accuse someone of assault. Additionally, someone may have committed assault or harassment, but not rape, and still be labeled a rapist.
Paul C. Burke, a Utah attorney now representing a few of the men who have been named, says his clients haven’t been given a chance to respond to the allegations before they were posted and, he believes, they committed no crime. It’s unfair, he said, that they are on the lists. That doesn’t mean that all of the names are inaccurate, Burke added, but he thinks the men he’s talked to are innocent.
“No person should be branded with a scarlet letter ‘R’ by an anonymous Twitter mob,” he said. “There must be accountability for actual rapists, but it should come through our criminal justice system that begins with a presumption of innocence for the accused and operates under the principle of due process for all.”
He has also previously represented those who are victims of sexual assault.
Some of the women who are posting names now say they’ve tried going through the standard legal process. Even still, Burke noted, they are now open to countersuits for defamation in their efforts to get justice elsewhere.
One Twitter account, @ExposedSLC, is sharing stories for those who send direct messages. The person running the account declined to be identified for fear of legal repercussions. They said in a statement that they’d seen a list with their abuser get deleted, so they decided to jump in and get more names out there. They’ve also faced threats for doing so.
They said they “don’t want to make this account focused solely on accusations and I admit that is a fault.”
Certainly, the First Amendment guarantees free speech, noted Cassell, and the right of people to speak out. But there are limitations. Falsely accusing someone of a crime is one of those. Naming a person and not having proof of their actions also can land you in legal trouble, he said.
The #UtahRapists Twitter accounts have taken some names off their lists, saying that they’ve since found evidence that the accused didn’t assault anyone. Those running them believe most of the accounts, though, are true.
Many studies, included one that’s often cited from the University of Colorado, find that about 5% of rape reports, at most, are shown to be false. That’s lower than the percentage of women — 8% to 10% — who are estimated to report their rapes (meaning 90% never do).
Penrod, the 25-year-old who shared her account and other women’s stories, said it’s worth it to her to get the names of the accused out there “even if there’s a few [reporting names] who are being malicious.”
She’s posted about 10 experiences and has another 50 sitting in her inbox from women who have messaged her directly.
The women who have talked to her include a teenager who says she was assaulted by a friend’s older brother and another who says a boy ripped off her bikini top and fondled her. The one that has stuck with Penrod is a woman who says she was raped at a high school party. “I tried to tell him no and he wouldn’t stop,” her post reads.
Penrod said it reminds her of her own story of being assaulted when she was 16. A man came up to her, she said, and “grabbed me where he shouldn’t have” while she was also at a party. She brushed it off at the time as a stupid stunt. But she was later hanging out with him and his friends, and she and the man had sex when she was unconscious after taking some pills. She never reported it because she thinks maybe she nodded her head to consent.
“I didn’t tell anyone exactly what happened until last year,” she said. “A lot of the time, you don’t fully grasp the severity or the weight of what happened to you right then.”
Penrod and others who share their stories can be protected from counterclaims, Cassell said, if they’re sharing the truth. That’s the defense against defamation.
But, just like getting a rape case to be heard in court, it can be hard to have enough proof.
Supporting other women
Unlike with other crimes — such as mortgage fraud — assaults generally don’t have a paper trail and usually happen when two people are alone in a room. That’s why so often, Cassell said, it turns into a “he said, she said” situation.
Cassell says that makes sexual assault cases among the hardest to prosecute. And another barrier is money.
Victims who are brushed off when trying to pursue a criminal case, the professor said, can instead file a civil case on their own. But a person who is attacked may not have the money to file a claim. And a person with money may be able to easily file a countersuit saying they were defamed.
“Someone with resources can hire a lawyer and essentially bankrupt the other person,” he said. “So it’s interesting to see victims trying to make more robust use of these new technologies to get some small amount of justice.”
Burke, the attorney representing those accused on #UtahRapists, believes that doesn’t give survivors the right to use Twitter as a “substitute for our country’s system of justice.”
Those posting say they believe they have few other options. Penrod said the point has always been to create a repository for women to be safer and stay away from those accused. She also hopes some will be able to connect with others who are accusing the same person and possibly strengthen a criminal case.
Cassell said that effort to serve the public interest might provide another safeguard for those posting about their experiences with sexual assault.
For Penrod, sharing her experience has been difficult. It’s also been hard to read the accounts from other women, which have triggered her. So many repeat that the survivor said, “No, no, no.” Many mention they didn’t think anyone would believe them if they spoke out. The one with the beat-up sedan reminds her of her old car.
“In larger groups our voices can be heard,” she said. “I just hope that this becomes bigger than just a hashtag.”
Seeing the stories of #UtahRapists on Twitter can be triggering and difficult for some survivors and victims.
Sonya Martinez-Ortiz, executive director of the Utah Rape Recovery Center, says there are resources for those who want to talk about or report sexual violence. The center’s 24-hour crisis line is open to anyone in the state at 801-467-7273.
The center works with individuals to provide both short-term and long-term counseling — even during the coronavirus pandemic. And there are case managers there who can help a survivor navigate the legal process if they choose. Martinez-Ortiz said the goal is to help each person on a case-by-case basis determine what is best for them.
“We really encourage survivors to make the most empowering decision for themselves,” she said.
For some, that may be sharing their stories. Some may not. That is not an indication, though, of where they are in the process of healing. Martinez-Ortiz added: “Each survivor’s journey toward accountability and justice is different.”
The Utah Department of Health also has other resources for rape survivors at https://bit.ly/2msvaoJ.