For an increasing number of young women, the Internet has become not only a place to exchange e-mails with friends or navigate social networking sites but also a destination to share their most intimate secrets: their stories of rape.
With just a few clicks of a mouse, Web surfers can find a Florida teen detailing her rape on YouTube, sobbing and pleading for help and answers after the state dropped her case against the 23-year-old man who she says forced her to have sex with him.
"I need some help, I didn't want to do it this way but it's the only way I know it's going to work, and that someone out there in the world is going to listen to me," said the self-identified 16- year-old Crystal, who sits perched on the edge of her childhood bed as she tapes herself crying hysterically.
"He took advantage of me and drugged me and raped me,"' said Crystal, adding that she's "so messed up" she no longer attends school.
"And I told him to stop, I told him to stop," she pleads into the camera, never revealing her last name.
Crystal's story is not uncommon; there are several other teens and young adults who are turning to YouTube, MySpace and Facebook to talk about their assaults.
"About half the victims of rape are under 18, and that is a generation that is doing practically everything online," said Scott Berkowitz, the president and founder of the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, RAINN, the nation's largest anti-sexual assault organization. "We found that younger victims were overwhelmingly saying they have a hard time talking about [rape] -- even to their best friends.
"Online is where they want to do it," Berkowitz said. "It's the format they're most comfortable communicating in."
Online Therapy Attracts Teen Victims
RAINN estimates an American is sexually assaulted every two minutes and half of them are under the age of 18. Data also shows that only one in four women under the age of 25 will report her assault.
Those alarming statistics have pushed RAINN to do whatever it can to reach the youngest victims, even if it means becoming technologically savvy and logging online.
While their phone hot line helps about 400 victims a day, their newly launched online hot line, the only one in the country of its kind, offers victims a Web-based approach to getting help.
Victims can log on during a 12-hour time period and start chatting with trained rape counselors on a program that is similar to instant messenger. Since it's inception in 2006, 10,000 victims have been helped, according to Berkowitz, about 100 cases a day.
"The [hot line] users say that they would never have gotten help through another means like picking up the phone," said Berkowitz, who said that one of the motivators for developing the online hot line was to discourage teens like Florida's Crystal from using less secure means for telling their stories.
"A lot of the victims are very young and don't fully understand the consequences of revealing their identity and intimate details," said Berkowitz, whose online hot line scrambles Internet provider addresses to maintain its users' anonymity. "People were reaching out and trying to help them, but while they were well-intentioned they were unqualified and had no training."
Jerry Finn, a social work professor at the University of Washington–Tacoma, has researched information technology and human services for more than 20 years. He told ABCNEWS.com that online therapy has shown to be more effective than its critics may suggest.
"Research is starting to come back saying that e-therapy is just as good as face to face and better than doing nothing for certain issues," said Finn, who added that individuals battling suicide and those with chronic mental illness are best treated in person.
"You don't want kids talking about rape with just anyone online on some weird Web site where you don't know who you're talking to," said Finn, who said he expects this kind of online counseling to expand into other fields.
Teen: Online Counseling 'Saved My Life'
For 23-year-old Kaley, finding an online outlet meant the difference between life and death after she was drugged and raped nine months ago.
"It's easier for me to go online because I was very emotional and whenever I talk about it, I just start balling, so it's easier to just type it," said Kaley, who said that the last thing she remembered about the night she was raped by a police officer was sitting down at a table at a bar to have a drink. The next thing she knew she was waking up in a pool of her own blood.
Kaley, in a telephone interview with ABCNEWS.com, said her doctor later told her she had extensive vaginal tearing and lesions that were still bleeding even days after the rape occurred.
"It's less judgmental online, and since we're such a technology driven world right now, it's easier in that way," said Kaley, who used RAINN's online hot line and hopes to start a similar system that uses victims as counselors. "And you don't have to hide wherever you are, you can just close the [site] if someone comes up behind you. On the phone you have to find a place where nobody can hear what you're saying."
Like so many rape cases, lack of evidence defeated Kaley's attempt to press charges against her rapist.
"[The online hot line] pretty much saved my life. I wouldn't be where I am today without it," said Kaley, who has yet to finish school -– she dropped out in the aftermath of her rape -– and said she has plans to move to Arizona with friends she met through RAINN. "There were times that were so dark, and I didn't want to talk to anyone so I just went straight online. Afterwards, I felt 10 times better."