Is 2015 the year we finally started listening to survivors?

Author’s Note: This essay was originally published on Hamilton and Griffin on Rights, a site run by Professor Marci Hamilton and Professor Leslie Griffin, which is dedicated to the healthy separation of church and state and the rights of women and children (specifically surrounding childhood sexual abuse). I encourage you to check out the site and the amazing work these women are doing. It is currently the only legal blog that has the majority of content authored by women, and you can find my writing there on the last Tuesday of each month. This post has been republished with permission. 

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I distinctly remember the moment I knew I had to come out publicly as a rape survivor. I was appalled over the Steubenville rape case, and the subsequent fallout from CNN reporter Poppy Harlow’s reaction to the verdict. I wrote a tearful open letter at 2 A.M., and just two days later, after discussing it with my family, my words were out in the world on Hypervocal. It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done in my life. I was worried about being shouted down, accused of lying, insulted and harassed. Yet I felt overwhelmingly compelled to publish anyway, with my full name and picture attached.

At that time, it seemed like survivor voices were few and far in between; that the majority of our words were hidden in the depths of the Internet on anonymous message boards, rather than where they should be: front and center in the discussion of sexual assault and rape culture. It felt like nobody was listening.

I was sick of seeing women’s stories called into question — “well, if she was really raped, she’d come forward, wouldn’t she?!” As if these things are so simple. As if there aren’t a million reasons victims stay silent and anonymous. As if publicly coming forward guarantees that people will believe you. As if we don’t all harbor the fear that we will be dismissed as false accusers; our lives torn apart all over again.

I was tired of being silent and seething every time a new case came into the public discourse; of comments sections labeling women as money-grabbing, manipulative, system-playing hussies who don’t seem to understand that they obviously only get what’s coming to them.

I clearly wasn’t alone in these sentiments. In the last few years, I’ve watched as a veritable avalanche of survivors has come forward to bravely share their stories. Each time, a little bit of the narrative around sexual assault is reclaimed. Our whispers are turning into soapbox screams and we refuse to let our stories be defined by our attackers and retractors.

I’ve also noticed a tide turning in the way our stories are received. Back in 2006, when the public was first learning that Bill Cosby was accused of sexual assault, his actions were swept under the rug; his accusers scorned. How could somebody so powerful, and who built his reputation on being America’s good guy, do such awful things? It was unfathomable. So the survivors were pushed back into silence and labeled opportunistic, ruinous liars. It took a re-airing of the rape accusations, extensive media coverage and an excruciatingly long list of survivors coming forward before the public opinion finally started to shift. A powerful man, who was once protected by so many with the all-too-common refrains “we don’t know what really happened” and “innocent until proven guilty,” had finally fallen from grace.

Since Cosby’s downslide, I’ve noticed that more people seem to be believing survivors at the outset, which is further empowering even more women to come forward. When adult film star James Deen was accused of sexually assaulting his co-star and former girlfriend, Stoya, the reaction was swift. Several other women in the industry immediately shouted out their support for Stoya, and eight more accusers have come forward to share their stories of assault at Deen’s hands. Rather than responding with doubt, the adult film industry has taken decisive action: Deen has lost profitable deals with production company Kink.com and sex toy manufacturer Doc Johnson. Further, websites such as Oh Joy Sex Toy are pulling advertisements and links to Deen’s website. Most importantly, the victims have been overwhelmingly believed and supported.

There is still an undoubtedly long road to walk before victims are treated with the empathy, respect and trust that we deserve, but it’s deeply gratifying to see that small, incremental change is happening. With 2015 coming to a close, it feels like people are finally listening.

We survivors will continue speaking out, both for ourselves and for those who can’t or aren’t ready. We will not be relegated to the shadows. We will find strength in each other, and keep pushing towards truth, justice and progress.

 

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Writing while female: the very real threat of online harassment and how it’s held me back

Author’s Note: This essay was originally published on Hamilton and Griffin on Rights, a site run by Professor Marci Hamilton and Professor Leslie Griffin, which is dedicated to the healthy separation of church and state and the rights of women and children (specifically surrounding childhood sexual abuse). I encourage you to check out the site and the amazing work these women are doing. It is currently the only legal blog that has the majority of content authored by women, and you can find my writing there on the last Tuesday of each month. This post has been republished with permission. 

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Last week, one of my blog entries, “How I’m Learning to Break My Silence and Fight Racism” was picked up to be republished by Thought Catalog. I was thrilled for the exposure and hoped that it would potentially lead to new blog followers. But truthfully, I was also apprehensive — the potential for a hostile comments section terrified me. This would be my first time diving into the world of anonymous commenters. Up until this point, I’ve held a strict publishing policy: I only allow my work on websites where the comments sections have full names attached to each commenter, such as those powered through Facebook.

Why do I have this policy, which holds me back from fully pursuing my writing? Fear. Fear of online harassment. Fear of being ripped to shreds and denigrated. Fear of doxxing, stalking and threats. Fear of being treated like I’ve seen so many of my fellow female writers treated.

Lately, as I find my voice and my writing takes flight, the question of dealing with online harassment seems to be more of a “when,” rather than an “if.” It appears that a woman can only rise so far before she is at risk. From my observations, just about every female writer I follow on Twitter deals with online harassment or abuse in one form or another. Some are subject to truly disgusting and terrifying behavior. Lindy West, who often writes on feminism, was featured on This American Life to share her story of an online harasser who created a Twitter account posing as her deceased father, just to hurt her. He later apologized (the first time West had ever received an apology from a “troll”), but the experience was still distressing. Ragen Chastain, a size-acceptance blogger who writesDances with Fat recently shared a particularly harrowing account of her online harassers creating hate websites devoted to her demise, trying to sabotage her sponsorships and speaking engagements, and even going so far as to stalk her and her family in-person at an Ironman event she was competing in. Anita Sarkeesian, a media critic who foundedFeminist Frequency, became the target of an online harassment campaign over her video series “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games,” which examines gender tropes in video games. The harassment has been so disruptive to Sarkeesian that she has had to vacate her home, and even cancel a speaking engagement amidst the threat of a mass shooting.

And it’s not just female writers that dare to write about controversial topics like feminism, body acceptance or racism who are targeted. Mia Matsumiya, a professional violinist, has amassed more than 1,000 lewd and inappropriate messages online, which she’s sharing on Instagram to fight back. Chicago sports anchor Julie Dicaro has spoken out about being harassed and threatened with rape simply for sharing her professional opinions while female. Just look at the Twitter replies of any famous or even noteworthy female and you’ll see a litany of disgusting, graphic and insulting comments. By my observations, social media is a verifiable minefield for women to navigate, no matter what kind of work they do or opinions they share.

So it was with great apprehension that I allowed Thought Catalog to publish my piece. The essay had gotten mostly good feedback from the WordPress community, and my own Facebook friends, but I had no idea what to expect when it came to the anonymous commenting world of Disqus. What awaited me did not disappoint. My piece garnered 45 comments, most of which were racist, some of which were misogynist, and pretty much all of which were downright bizarre. Upon reading them, I felt my heart quicken and a lump rise in my throat, especially as I saw a few commenters using my full name. Thankfully there were no threats or outward insults, yet my impulse was to immediately regret my decision to go against my no-anonymous commenters policy.

After giving myself a few moments to calm down, I was able to talk some sense into myself. I realized that if I allow my voice to be silenced, then I am letting potential harassers win before they’ve even struck. By creating policies around what they might do, I’m giving these pathetic people more power than they deserve. I’m holding myself back both personally and professionally and letting fear be my guide, rather than what feels right to me. Besides, even if I can protect myself from nasty comments sections on my articles, there’s really no stopping anyone from harassing me elsewhere on the internet, so my policy is actually moot. If the only shield I have is my silence, then it’s not one I’m willing to bare any longer. I will not acquiesce that women should be seen and not heard.

I took a few deep breaths, closed the tab on my browser, and vowed to myself to stop obsessing over the words of others. More importantly, I vowed not to let hate win — not today, not tomorrow, not ever again.

How I’m learning to break my silence and fight racism

King-Martin-Luther-slience

“If they aren’t doing anything unlawful, then they shouldn’t have anything to worry about.” 

It’s a common refrain used by defensive white people who would like to pretend that minorities, specifically black people, are not targeted by law enforcement. I’m sorry to say there was an ignorant time in my life when I believed this too.

For much of my teens and twenties, even as I consumed black culture, co-opted and appropriated it because it was “oh-so-cool-and-different,” I bought in to boot-strapping black respectability politics. I thought if black people would just “act right” then they wouldn’t get into trouble. I thought that being “colorblind” meant not being racist; that if we willed the differences away, they’d slink to the furthest reaches of the earth, never to be seen again.

I am embarrassed about my past ignorance (and am still learning), but it also makes sense. I was privileged, grew up in a nearly all-white town, and came up in an age of “colorblind” racial politics, which really just translated into never talking about race. It all made perfect sense to me: “we’re all the same underneath it all! Sure, slavery was terrible and it’s pretty fucked up that segregation was only undone a few decades ago, but what’s past is past, amirite? All that is behind us now! Besides, I’ve been persecuted, too! My grandfather escaped Nazi Germany and one time a guy painted a swastika on my locker at school, so racism and oppression can happen to anyone! I totally get everything!”

Sigh. Back then, I never really examined how insidious racism can be, or how complexly its woven into the fabric of our society. It wasn’t really until I became a law student and a feminist that I started to open my eyes (by the way, my former misogyny was just as ignorant and laughable as my former racism, but more on that another time). With critical examination, I started to become more aware of all of the ways both large and small that women are discriminated against. I could see how sexism colored many of my interactions, and I was furious. Once I held that same introspective lens up to racial issues, my colorblind politics suddenly couldn’t hold water anymore.

On top of that introspection, I was seeing first hand how racism was affecting my own black friends. My college and law school classmates were fighting back against stop-and-frisks, workplace discrimination, and everyday microaggressions that I could only understand and empathize with in a very limited way. I started to see the injustices in plain day. If my black friends who, for all intents and purposes were both educated and “acting right,” were still having these awful experiences, how could I turn a blind eye?

I started reading up on racial politics, and learning as much as I could. I “liked” other peoples’ Facebook shares, and commented here and there to show my solidarity and support, but, until this week, I could not convince myself to speak out. I was afraid of being shouted down by fellow white people who are quite comfortable with the status quo, and even more fearful of offending black people. I didn’t want to speak over them, co-opt the conversation, or pretend like I’m so enlightened that of course my thoughts must be heard. Frankly, my inaction was two-fold: I was afraid, and had no idea how to properly engage.

That was, until this week. I was scrolling NextDoor.com checking the goings-on in my community. And then I saw a post under “Crime and Safety” that put my heart right in my throat:

“About 20 minutes ago, we had a strange knock on the door. I answered to find a younger black gentleman standing in front of me. He seemed kind of lost and spoke quietly. He was looking for the “Smith” house to “return a hat”. He was holding a dark cap. He mentioned he forgot to give it back and his friend mentioned he lived down around these houses.He seemed maybe in his younger 20s, maybe 5′ 8″ or so, black sleeveless shirt, black basketball shorts, a little on the slender side. He parked his black Toyota Camry at the end of our neighbor’s driveway. Looked very new, 2013 or newer for sure, 4 door.He left apologizing, then turned left, heading north. Seemed really odd and was a little unsettling. Just a warning in case someone has the same experience. Figured better safe to mention it than shrug it off.”**

I felt really uncomfortable, and couldn’t figure out anything that could be deemed strange or unsettling about this exchange.  It sounded like he just had the wrong house to me. And worse were the responses — folks telling the original poster to go to the police, saying the interaction was “not normal.” All I could think was, what is abnormal about this? And why on earth would anyone call the police on someone who just had the wrong house?! I commented on the thread in that vein, but felt cowardly for not calling out the undercurrent of racism I was sure I was seeing.  I was sick over the way it was all couched in neighborly politeness and assurances of “just to be safe.” I was disgusted.

A few more people responded for the original poster to go to the police. At this point, I was shaking with frustration. “Say something! Don’t be afraid. Do the right thing,” I told myself. I looked up “Smith” in the White Pages, and sure enough — there they were, right around the corner from the original poster.

We, as a society, bark at black people to stop saying “black lives matter” and tell them that if they just act lawfully, the police will leave them alone; that if they’re respectful and apologetic for their existence, they won’t find themselves in trouble. But here was a black man who had done absolutely nothing wrong and had played by all the “rules.” He’d been respectful, polite and apologetic and he was still suspect, not to mention one phone call away from having a run-in with law enforcement.

I summoned up all my courage (shows how “courageous” I am) and responded: “A quick White Pages search found that there is in fact a Smith household at 123 4th Ave, right around the corner from the original poster. I don’t want to sling mud here, but I’m very uncomfortable with the assumptions being made on this thread — that a young man coming to the door looking for his friend is up to no good. I’m sorry, but I just can’t help but think we wouldn’t even be having this conversation if he had been white…”

A flood of responses came in; many were supportive, and many were downright offended. Some accused me of “pulling the race card” (it’s not a “card.” Institutionalized racism is a real, demonstrable thing. Next.),  some were defensive that they’d been “accused” of racism (which is obviously worse than actually being oppressed. Next.) and of course, one guy yelled about America being a free country for anyone to not trust anyone else (yes, sir, and I’m also free to be uncomfortable with the undercurrent of racism happening here. NEXT). The term “extreme political correctness” (AKA, social media has finally given the oppressed an avenue to organize and call people on their shit) came up and made me laugh out loud.

But something else happened: a really productive dialogue about the racial divide in our community, the way we talk about race, and the ways in which the words we choose matter. Many in the community chimed in, and some folks even said the entire discussion had gotten them thinking more about racial politics and the way they choose their own words. Mostly everyone was respectful and neighborly, and we even discussed the possibility of fundraising and organizing for Crossroads Antiracism and Training to come do a workshop in the community to get the ball rolling on these issues.

Further, the fact that my response had by far the highest number of “thanks” (the NextDoor equivalent of “likes”) in the thread makes me think that many people were feeling the same sense of injustice that I was, but sitting on their hands . . . probably for many of the same reasons I usually don’t say anything.

I’m not going to claim I’m some hero for writing a few words. I’m not. I’ve sat in silence far too often as people said ignorant, racist things around me. And other times, I’ve been one of them.

But I realize now that my silence and inaction was hurting the cause. I was being complicit in this racist system that frankly benefits me every day, all while claiming to be an ally. The truth is, I can read articles and retweet black thinkers until the cows come home, but I’m not doing shit if I’m not speaking up when I see injustice. I’m going to stop being afraid and change that in myself.

So my call to action to my fellow white people is: speak up! Your words have more power to effect change than you know. If something doesn’t feel right to you, address it. Be respectful and understanding, but draw the line. Be a true ally and stand up for what is right — we can help turn the tide.

White people, it’s time for US to start acting right.

**All descriptive details and names have been changed to protect the identity of those involved.