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Speaking out over Twitter

Rape Survivors Talk About Why They Tweeted Their Stories, via TIME:


A spontaneous conversation about sexual assault on social media sparks a debate over whether public sharing helps victims heal or hurts them.

JoAnne Cusick was wearing a pink floral sundress and jelly sandals when she was sexually assaulted at the age of eight by a group of neighborhood boys. Believing that she was to blame, she kept the secret for nine years until she told a priest about the attack during confession. He assured her that she was innocent in the eyes of God, and the eyes of the world.

Twenty-eight years later, Cusick, now a 37-year-old nurse living in Colorado, shared that secret on social media joining hundreds of other victims who tweeted their stories of assault. These women (and a number of men) were responding to a simple question that went viral on Twitter Wednesday night asking victims what they were wearing when they were assaulted. Within hours, a long list of outfits—ranging from sweatshirts to pajamas to bathing suits—accompanied by stories of rape and assault filled Twitter feeds, replacing the normal news items and GIFs.

The huge response ignited a conversation on social media and blogsamong victims and health professionals as to whether sharing stories on highly public, semi-anonymous social media forums could be a healthy step in the recovery process—a way to make those who’ve been assaulted feel less alone, less stigmatized and shamed. Or does sharing leave survivors open to online shaming and undermine a more traditional route of coping, like therapy?

The debate started when Christine Fox, a young woman who tweets under the handle @steenfox, got into an argument on Twitter with a follower who insisted that women who wear revealing outfits are at fault if they are sexually assaulted. Fox invited those on the social media network who had been victims of rape or sexual assault to tweet the outfits they wore at the time of the attack in hopes of convincing this man not to victim blame.

“I was trying to make him understand that it absolutely does not make a difference, and that the responsibility does not lie on women,” she told The Root. Over the next several hours, Fox received hundreds of replies. With the users’ permission, she retweeted stories as she received them.

The campaign of sorts took on another life when Adrienne Simpson from Philadelphia, who has never been a victim of sexual assault, saw the conversation on Twitter and thought that it could take on a new visual format. “I am a marketer, so I think in campaigns and imagery,” she tells TIME. “I was thinking they need pictures with this because that’s what’s going to drive home the idea that you can have on corduroy pants and a camouflage shirt—there’s nothing remotely sexual about that—and this can still happen to you.”

She created five images from the texts of five tweets that caught her attention: the camouflage shirt and cords a 15-year-old had been wearing; a school uniform (buttoned-up polo, knee-length khaki shorts) worn by a 13-year-old; a sundress a 19-year-old was wearing to Church on Sunday when she was raped by her 50-year-old minister; jeans and a hoodie for a 22-year-old girl who was acting as a designated driver at a party and whose soda was roofied; and—the one that got the most retweets all night—the Barney pajamas worn by a seven-year-old when she was raped.

She added a hashtag: #RapeHasNoUniform. “I think as a victim, when you speak out, you want it to matter. The bigger this gets, the more it matters. I think it should be an organized, public campaign.”

But without expecting attention or publicity, many just tweeted in the hopes of helping others. “[The assault] had nothing to do with anything I did. And I think hearing one survivor being able to say that is a good for people who may still be blaming themselves,” Cusick tells TIME. She has shared her story with friends before, and says she felt comfortable opening up on Twitter.

Sarah Webster said she tweeted with a similar motive. Webster has tweeted about her assault in the past and says that nothing is too private for her to share on her account, which is focused on sex and body image. During the course of the Twitter conversation, the question of whether most assailants are strangers or not arose, and Webster decided it was important to share her story. Webster says she was raped by someone she was very close to and hoped her experience would show others that even those you trust can be perpetrators. “I was sexually assaulted by someone I knew, and at the time I wasn’t wearing anything at all. It was in my home by someone who was never supposed to do that to me,” she says. “I wanted to contribute another side of the story.”

Scott Berkowitz, the President and Founder of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) was not surprised that seeing so many people share the same experience on Twitter motivated people to share their stories for the first time. “Having this whole community of other people who have been through something similar can be really empowering for people,” he says. “I think there’s safety in numbers. We see that in a lot of scenarios with sexual assault survivors. When there’s allegations, say, against a particular priest that becomes public, suddenly many other people who were abused by that person are okay with coming forward.”

Those who posted compared the spontaneous movement to Take Back the Night and Slut Walk—two organized campaigns that have aimed to create safe environments for rape victims to share their stories, debunk the notion of victim blaming and restore safety to campuses and neighborhoods. The popularity of such projects proves that large groups of victims speaking out can bolster other survivors’ confidence. But unlike past movements, this one took place on social media, which can be simultaneously both anonymous and extremely public.

Anyone on the Internet can read your tweets; and anyone on Twitter can respond to them. You can choose how much information you share about your real identity in your Twitter profile. Some shared their experiences anonymously; others had names and faces attached to their profiles and hence, their stories. Either way many thousands of strangers read their tweets, a fact that became controversial when some media outlets reprinted the tweets and were accused of doing so without everyone’s permission. An argument ensued as to whether tweets are public or private and whether extra consideration should be given to sensitive cases such as this one.

The anonymity, after all, is exactly what convinced some victims to share their stories. Many of those who posted who I interviewed said that though Twitter was public, their family didn’t know that they tweeted and were unlikely to see the tweets. Sharing their story on Twitter with other survivors felt safer than sharing on someplace like Facebook where their tight circle, that might include family members who don’t know about the assault or even the assailant him or herself, might be able to see.

RAINN has found that some anonymity helps those who have never shared before. “We launched an online hotline in 2006 to compliment our telephone hotline because we were finding that younger victims in particular just weren’t comfortable picking up the phone and saying out loud what happened to them,” says Berkowitz. “But that sitting in the privacy of their room at their computer with at least a measure of anonymity there that they tend to open up much more.”

But that’s an anonymous hotline. Twitter is a public forum, where there’s always going to be backlash. “In a [therapy] group, you generally sign a confidentiality agreement. There are no agreements on Twitter. Nobody cares about you. It’s the Internet,” says Nicole Aghaaliandastjerdi who shared her experience and now runs a women’s abuse support group in Louisville, KY. Along with all the supportive messages came the the kind of slut-shaming that originally spurred the conversation. “I remember someone was tweeting, ‘Look at all the damaged goods.’ That was really hard for even me to read, and I’m pretty far along in my healing process.”

Despite such comments, Aghaaliandastjerdi focuses on the good that came out of it, like her friend who had only shared once before but decided to participate on Twitter. “That was huge for her. For a lot of people, they’re taking back whatever had been taken from them. They’re claiming it and giving the story a different kind of power.”

Indeed, many first-time sharers found safety in numbers. Clifford Johnson, 31, hadn’t shared his story before except with a few close family members. “When I think about it, it kind me feel like a little less than a man—just the fact that it happened.”

But seeing others share their story and the ease of tweeting allowed him to post. “I don’t think I intended to go that deep. I almost deleted it because I didn’t know if I wanted this out there.” But as people began to respond he changed his mind. “It was a forum for the first time I was able to say what happened and get feedback from other people who went through the same thing. Plus, everyone there was a woman, you know? And it just kind of got me to thinking about things that happened to me as a child, and I wanted to put it out there to say, ‘It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing. It doesn’t even matter your race or sex. It could happen to anybody.’”

The experience made him want to become involved in advocacy for male victims of rape.

The Twitter conversation was a healing process for many of those who participated. The majority of responses were ones of love and support from strangers.

“What made me feel okay is that it’s so much more prevalent than one might initially think. Even though in my personal network that I follow I didn’t see anyone else respond, the fact that there were so many people responding to the question made me realize it’s not an uncommon thing,” says Ayanna who wanted her last name to be withheld and tweeted despite the fact that her ex-boyfriend and assailant still follows her on social media. “Some women tweeted at me who had been through the same thing. They really identified with what I said and it made me feel validated in my decision.”

Of the seven assault survivors I interviewed, none regretted having tweeted.

“I’m sure hundreds of people probably woke up today with a heavy burden lifted off them,” Johnson says.



Dr. Phil’s quickly deleted “tweet”

Dr. Phil recently posted this on Twitter…

Dr. Phil's tweet

Five Problems with Dr. Phil’s Tweet, via feministing: 

Last night, Dr. Phil sent out a quickly deleted — but more quickly screen-grabbed — tweet about sexual violence and alcohol. “If a girl is drunk, is it OK to have sex with her? Reply yes or no to @drphil #teensaccused.” Rightfully so, the feminist internet erupted in outrage, forcing a representative to justify Dr. Phil’s tweet as promotion for an upcoming show, as though somehow everything is excusable so long as you’re trying to get people to stare at your face on a screen.

Unsurprisingly, the rep’s non-apology — “[the tweet] was not intended to be taken lightly” –missed the source of the protest. We weren’t angry that the tweet was too flip. We were angry because it promotes sexual violence. Here are my five biggest objections to Dr. Phil’s question; tell me what yours are in the comments.

1. The tweet perpetuates the idea that rape is blurry.

Let’s start with a story. During my collegiate freshman orientation five years ago, my classmates and I were hoarded into an auditorium to learn about consent. On the stage two actors pantomimed a date rape (why anyone thought any of this was a good idea, I have no idea): girl comes to boy’s room to study, they make out, girl takes off her shirt, boy ignores her refusal to have sex and rapes her. Each student was given a little stop sign, which we were supposed to raise when we thought the boy had crossed the line: essentially, when the violence had begun. Afterward, we broke into little discussion groups to talk about our personal opinions on whether what had happened was rape and why. I said it was. The guy who lived downstairs in my dorm said it wasn’t. The facilitator gave our opinions equal weight.

There are obviously a whole ton of reasons this orientation activity was terrible, but the thing that particularly worried me was the program’s messaging that there wasn’t a right answer. If everyone’s definition of rape is equally valid, rape doesn’t really exist: how can we name violence if anyone’s “but I don’t think it is” works as an accepted counterargument? When every student’s decision as to when to raise the little red stop sign, if at all, is correct, the category of rape dissolves quite literally into a series of blurred lines, about which some of us will have Happy Feelings and some of us will have Sad Feelings, and isn’t that interesting.

Dr. Phil’s tweet reminded me a lot of my freshman consent education. The phrasing of the question, and invitation for all of us to respond with our one-word judgments, presented consent as an ultimately unresolvable dilemma. Some will say yes, some will say no. Who can ever really tell? What an ageless question.

The stakes are high. The more we talk as though rape is blurry, the more likely it is to occur. Implicit in Dr. Phil’s tweet was the suggestion that, you know, maybe it is fine to sleep with an incapacitated person. Maybe this is all just up for debate.

2. The question is too simple for the problem.

As Angus Johnston pointed out on Twitter last night, there are actually a number of important questions to ask about sex, sexual violence, consent, and alcohol. After all, it isn’t always rape to sleep with someone who has been drinking; the line for judging whether someone can give consent is incapacitation, not the existence of any alcohol in our blood. “Drunk” isn’t a precise term, so if we use it to mean a wider range of mental states than just incapacitation, there’s a real discussion to be had here. How drunk is too drunk for consent to be meaningful? How can we best respond to our partners’ desires when they’ve been drinking?

These are helpful questions — vital questions –  that we need to talk about with nuance and care. “If a girl is drunk, is it OK to have sex with her? Reply yes or no” doesn’t ask us to grapple with the serious issue at hand but instead to pass a thoughtless one-word judgement.

3. The question assumes all victims are women.

Dr. Phil didn’t ask about whether it’s “OK” to have sex with a drunk person: he could only imagine a “drunk girl” as a potential maybe-victim. The assumption that survivors are women and perpetrators are men helps no one. It ignores the experiences and particular needs of male and gender non-conforming survivors and glosses over same-sex violence. The idea also hurts women, too: the more we conflate femininity and vulnerability, the more vulnerable we become. When we’ve internalized that to be a woman is to be a victim, it’s much harder to stand up for ourselves and articulate our desires.

4. The tweet focused on offenders rather than survivors.

Dr. Phil was very clearly tweeting at an audience of potential rapists, rather than survivors present or future. That “you” (“can you have sex with her”) is telling: the agent and intended responder is the maybe-offender, not the drunk girl. And Dr. Phil’s concern for the assailant over concern for the harm done or well-being of the survivor is underscored by the #teensaccused hashtag. As my friend Wagatwe Wanjuki said, “what about #teensraping or #teensraped?”

It’s a mark of remarkable privilege to assume that you’re talking to a world of people more likely to commit violence than sustain it. Of course these categories aren’t mutually exclusive – victims can be perpetrators – but only those shielded from harm, who can identify more with offenders than their targets, can possibly forget the survivors in the audience.

That fact of forgetting is disturbing in itself, but it’s also profoundly unproductive. Want to have a conversation about rape? Maybe you should talk to survivors! We’ll learn a lot more about defining violence from those who have experienced it than from potential offenders trying to figure out if their own actions were criminal or not.

5. Dr. Phil is concerned with “can” rather than “should.”

From Dr. Phil’s tweet, you’d think that rape is just a kind of sex that we’re not allowed to have. Dr. Phil’s question looks to define what we can get away with in our pursuit of pleasure rather than how we should interact with our partners to make sure we’re all happy and safe. The focus on what we “can” do again centers us on the potential offender’s well-being rather than the potential survivor’s and makes room for more violence.

I saw this idea best articulated on the blog A Radical TransFeminist last year (hat tip Kate Sim) when the writer dissected the question “Is it rape if somebody has sex while drunk?” I’ll never articulate it as well, so I’d rather just quote at length. Lisa writes:

Asking, “Is this legally rape?” carries an undertone of, “If you say it’s not, I’ll go ahead and do it”, and is a question which should be turned around and asked back as: Why are you so relaxed – and even enthusiastic – about maybe raping someone?

You don’t get this in other contexts. You don’t get folks saying, “Well, I’m going to do this thing which may or may not kill somebody. It’s probably fine as long as it’s legal.” … We can solve this apparent contradiction by clarifying what our questioner is actually worried about. They aren’t worried about raping. They are worried about social consequences of rape. They are worried about being named a rapist. They are okay with “maybe” being a rapist as long as it won’t come back to bite them…

If you care about not raping, because you care about not raping, then the only way to be sure you’re not raping is to be sure you’re not raping. This means not having sex when you’re not sure whether it’s rape or not. This means that if you’re asking the question, “Is it rape if I…?” then you may not know the answer, but you know what you should do.

What did you think about Dr. Phil’s tweet? What problems did you see? (Don’t reply yes or no)