Athena Pelton gasped for air when she read the news: Brock Turner, a Stanford star swimmer, had been sentenced to just six months for raping an unconscious woman.

As the story erupted online, Pelton lost her appetite and couldn't sleep. That's when she decided it was time to tell her own story. In a public blog post Wednesday, Pelton, 35, of Blaine, wrote that she'd been sexually assaulted — three times — and that nobody knew. Until now.

"Giving voice to my story and finally setting it free meant releasing most of the shame and finally starting to heal," she said.

She's one of thousands of victims turning to Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Tumblr to call for an end to the secrecy and the shame surrounding sexual assault. In a country where one in five women have been raped, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Pelton and other victims are hoping their stories will change not just the conversation, but the culture.

"These stories are impactful, and those who are telling them become real people instead of nameless victims," said Jigna Desai, a professor in the Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota.

"Many of them understand the deck is stacked against them in terms of the court system — they told, and nothing happened. With social media, there's a sense of community, an activist sensibility, that gives victims affirmation."

The Stanford rape became a national flash point, especially across the internet after a letter by the victim was posted online last week. The 7,244-word statement has been viewed more than 13.5 million times.

"What's unique about this particular story is that her story is every woman's story," said Jeanne Ronayne, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault. "She talked about common experiences in such a raw and painful way that brings to life the way others feel. That's the gift she's given us through social media."

That gift is turning many sexual assault victims into instant activists as they take to social media to tell their stories and voice support for others. Even those who have not gone public say that the overwhelming response to the case is giving them new hope.

"It feels as if our collective society has opened its eyes and this story has moved enough people that there will likely be more widespread conversation about how sexual crimes change a person," said Jordan, a Twin Cities sexual assault victim who asked that her last name not be used. "There will never be anything that can take back what has happened to me or any other victim," Jordan said, "But seeing the outpouring of support for [Stanford swimmer Brock Turner's] victim is a sweet victory in its own right."

Post with caution

Publicly sharing stories has been a healthy step in the recovery process for many, but it also can invite online backlash and legal troubles.

"Taking your story online can be very empowering, but think about the risks," said Ronayne. "There's a lack of control once you put something like that on social media. We still live in a rape culture, so take time to consider if it might affect you in ways you hadn't expected."

Courtney Blake has experienced some of that backlash. Since the 21-year-old Minneapolis woman shared her rape stories in a Tumblr post and in a YouTube video, she said she's received death threats. Still, she believes that social media is a key weapon in fighting sexual violence. But outing alleged attackers can result in their seeking legal recourse, including defamation lawsuits.

"It's a delicate balance. If someone is putting out their truth, they should be able to do that, but there's a risk in sharing," said Caroline Palmer, legal affairs manager for the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault. Palmer warned that victims need to be prepared to present their cases in court, which can be "an incredibly difficult re-victimization process."

Moving forward

Will the power of social media that victims are harnessing lead to change?

"That's the million-dollar question," Ronayne said. "We've been sending these messages for decades, but now there's a groundswell and everyone is talking about it. It's in the mainstream."

"I'm hoping we're at a turning point," said the university's Desai. "When we push enough, things change."

Blake isn't so optimistic.

"I think this outrage is temporary. Next week there will be another issue for us to be upset about, and we'll forget about Turner and his victim-survivor," she said. "Rape culture permeates every aspect of society, and it's going to take changing policies, laws and news media reporting, but social media is a great foundation for that fight."

Since posting to her blog, Pelton has received messages of support on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

"Thank you from the bottom of my wounded (but finally healing) heart for your compassion," she wrote on her Facebook page. "I should have realized sooner what good my voice could do. But I was afraid. I was ashamed. Mostly, I think I still am. But you're making it easier to ignore those voices and press onward."

Aimee Blanchette • 612-673-1715

Twitter: @aimeeblanchette