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Teen alleging rape turns to YouTube

  • Story Highlights
  • 16-year-old Crystal was upset when a prosecutor dropped her case
  • She posted a tearful video on YouTube begging for help
  • Many victims are posting details of their attacks on Facebook and MySpace
  • Victims' advocates say it can be dangerous to give too many personal details
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By Ashley Fantz
CNN
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(CNN) -- The video is hard to turn away from. A sobbing 16-year-old sits in her bedroom and, staring into a camera, says she has been raped.

Crystal, 16, of Florida posted a video on YouTube pleading for help after she allegedly was raped.

"Hi, my name is Crystal. ... I need some help. I didn't want to do it this way, but it's the only way I know that's going to work, that someone out there in the world is gonna listen to me."

The teen, whom CNN interviewed but is not identifying by her last name, is among dozens of young people who are turning to social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace to talk about sexual assault.

For an online generation, the Web offers what traditional counseling does not. It's a chance to communicate without having to face someone or fear their judgment. Some people are seeking legal advice and medical information, and many younger victims believe that they can warn others about their accused attacker, counselors say.

There also are people like Crystal, whose case was dropped by the Orange County, Florida, state attorney's office, who feel slighted by the justice system.

"Young victims, particularly girls, turn inward. They are going to reach out and try to connect in the isolation of their dorm room or their bedrooms," said Jennifer Dritt, the director of the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence. "Most young women feel like they want somebody to know that someone did this to them."

One in four American women under the age of 25 report that they have been sexually assaulted, according to the nation's largest rape crisis counseling organization, RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

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"We noticed that this trend of posting details of an attack really picked up speed a few years ago," said Scott Berkowitz, RAINN's founder and president. "A rape survivor's intention may be to reach out, and we encourage that, but this is a dangerous way to do it."

Advocates worry that victims are divulging too much information. CNN found several Facebook and MySpace profiles on which young people say they have been raped. The postings include their names, photographs and hometowns. But Crystal is probably one of the few who have gone so far as to post a plea for help on YouTube.

Because anything posted on the Web is available forever through an Internet search, a rape survivor must consider how they would feel if that information were dredged up in the future, counselors said. By making themselves -- or their IP address -- available, victims open themselves to unreliable and unprofessional advice and the harsh judgment of their peers.

Perhaps worst of all, they could give their perpetrator a chance to find them again or gain more satisfaction.

In April, RAINN teamed with online security company McAfee Inc. and launched an anonymous and secure chat service where assault survivors can communicate with trained professionals. IP addresses are not tracked and transcripts of conversations -- which look like instant message boxes -- are not recorded. The service has helped more than 10,000 people, Berkowitz said. Go to RAINN's Web hotline

But counselors said survivors are going to look wherever they can to find help and comfort, particularly when they don't get it through the court system.

Fewer than 5 percent of reported cases in Florida make it to a prosecutor's office, Dritt said. Whether because of lack of forensic evidence or because many are he said/she said accounts, rape cases can be very difficult to try.

"What you hear from every rape crisis center from Pensacola to Key West is that there are hardly ever any prosecutions," she said. "Most sexual violence is acquaintance rape, and unfortunately, a lot of juries still think that if a victim had a relationship with their attacker, then they cannot be raped by that person."

Stacy, 25, worried about that when she was raped by a man she knew as a friend in 2001 while attending Ohio State University. Although she has spoken publicly numerous times about her experience, CNN is not using her last name in keeping with its policy of not identifying sexual assault victims.

As is typical of younger survivors, Stacy spent the days and weeks after her assault struggling to assure her friends and family that she was OK. She reported the assault to university authorities, but her attacker continued to go to class. She grew increasingly depressed and anxious. Her grades plummeted, and she gained weight.

"I thought that people who had never been assaulted would never understand. I thought I had no one to talk to, but then I realized, I had the Internet," she said. "Sometimes, talking to people who were not close to me was refreshing because there was no judgment to face. If you talk to someone online, there's no judgment, right? How can they judge you when they don't even know you?"

She began instant messaging in chat rooms but quickly realized that many people who initially seemed sympathetic were only pretending.

"The next thing you know, they are making it seem like they are turned on. They were asking me for details of my rape. It was very disturbing," she said. "I had to block several people. After that, I thought the worst of the world. I thought everyone was a perpetrator, and I trusted no one."

After years of face-to-face therapy, Stacy began to heal and feel more confident. She partly credits RAINN, which she found via an Internet search, for helping her recover. Other female students came forward to say they, too, had been assaulted by her attacker. He was expelled from the university and pleaded guilty to a lesser charge -- sexual imposition, a misdemeanor -- and was placed on probation.

Stacy watched Crystal's video.

"That's just heartbreaking," she said. "I feel really sad for her because no one seems to have explained that the justice system isn't always going to help. I understand why she's outraged. That's exactly how I felt, too."

Orange County authorities charged the 23-year-old man Crystal accused of assaulting her with lewd or lascivious battery. According to court documents, Crystal and the man both said they had an ongoing sexual relationship.

The prosecutor, who declined to comment to CNN, concluded that the teen and the 23-year-old had consensual sex, according to the case file.

Florida law states that a 15-year-old cannot give consent to sex. And though Crystal was 15 at the time of the alleged forced encounter, the prosecutor wrote that the case would not be prosecuted because Crystal was "a mere 1 month away" from turning 16, when it would be "legal to give consent," according to documents.

A spokeswoman for the Orange County state attorney's office declined to comment further.

Stacy had some advice for Crystal: Get counseling and keep talking.

"You're not always going to get what you want from the court system," she said. "So you've got to think about yourself, figure out who you are and realize that you're stronger than what he did to you."

CNN's Special Investigations Unit's Abbie Boudreau and Scott Zamost contributed to this report.

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