_Hidden in Plain Site

The anonymity of online forums may be a unique source of support, guidance and healing for survivors of sexual abuse.

_Nazanin Andalibi

Andalibi is a doctoral candidate in information studies in the College of Computing & Informatics.

The private and personal nature of sexual assault means that more than half of survivors don’t report the abuse or seek outside help, even when talking about their experiences with others could help them cope.

A new study finds that anonymous online forums may fulfill that unmet need.

In a study of how sexual abuse survivors interact online when they are able to mask their identity, a multi-institutional team led by Drexel doctoral candidate Nazanin Andalibi and advised by the College of Computing & Informatics’ Assistant Professor Andrea Forte found that people are willing to ask for help — both emotional support and information — sometimes for the very first time.

Additionally, men are more likely to disclose that they’ve been victims of sexual abuse if they can post about it without identifying themselves.


People are more comfortable disclosing sexual abuse and seeking help anonymously online.

“We found that people sometimes referred to unmet disclosure-related needs when posting online,” Andalibi says. “Sometimes people have never shared these experiences with anyone before online or off and they feel they need to.”

The team looked at publicly available posts on the social networking/news website Reddit in three abuse-related forums, called subreddits. The messages were posted over the course of 10 months in 2014.

“This suggests the potential of designing new kinds of provisions that subreddit moderators could use to identify potential support-seeking and sensitive disclosures by throwaway accounts, so they can direct timely help and support,” the authors wrote.

The paper was published in the Proceedings of the 33rd Annual Association for Computing Machinery’s Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.