It took me over three years before I shared my story online.
I was sexually assaulted in November 2011 by my roommate, who was also one of my best friends. The trust issues it left me with bled into nearly every aspect of my life, but the strength I gained from dealing with the pain and guilt and confusion helped to build me into the person I am today. It was a pivotal event in my life, and a large part of the reason I became a feminist blogger and activist. I knew it was important to share with my readers in the way a superhero’s origin story is important to share. Not that I considered myself anything like a superhero. But anyone with a passion has more influence if they share one of the major sources of that passion.
But I hesitated to share my story on my blog, not because I was ashamed or because I didn’t think I was ready–I’d already shared it with most of the people I knew in person–but because I knew I’d be treated like dirt. I’m a feminist blogger, after all. We get crap for pretty much everything we say. MRAs troll #feminism on Twitter constantly, and they are shameless. I’d been called a “feminist cunt” for far less. I didn’t think I could take the slut-shaming, victim-blaming attitude that I knew would be unleashed on me as soon as I released my story.
As a blogger who discusses difficult topics such as feminism, politics, and social issues, I was no stranger to being vulnerable online. But as frank as I could be about sex, religion, race, and even my period, dealing with the hateful backlash and powering through it, talking about this horrible thing that happened to me was on its own level entirely. And it wasn’t a level I was at yet, despite having no trouble talking about it in person. The topic itself was my subconscious line separating “internet people” from “real people.” If you’d have asked me outright, I’d have said I didn’t think there was a difference. But deep down, I really did.
So I wrote drafts of it over and over for years, never hitting publish, chickening out every time at various points in the process. I just kept putting it off, telling myself I wasn’t ready for one reason or another.
One day, out of nowhere, a little voice in my head said “it’s time.” I hadn’t even been thinking about it, it came into my head while I was running errands on a completely normal day. Still I knew it was true. And I listened to that voice. I found an old draft, edited it, formatted it, and set it up for SEO. It told the story like a narrative, bluntly and honestly, but not shying away from the emotions I was feeling during it. I read it through, hesitated, and then went back through and changed his name to a fake one, telling myself as I did it that he was lucky because he didn’t deserve to have his identity protected. I read it through again, breathed deeply, and hit publish.
Then I waited. And an hour later, the storm fell.
I was right about Twitter. I was attacked mercilessly. I spent a whole day trying to explain to men’s rights trolls why it really was assault, why it wasn’t my fault, why people too weak to defend themselves didn’t deserve to be assaulted. I explained why my story wasn’t invalid because some women experienced far worse. I got accused of “cheating” and “having an affair” (Derek was married, I was not). I was called all kinds of names, especially coward, because part of my assault story was saying no over and over again but being too afraid of being harmed to scream or fight. I felt like I was going to crumble into little tiny bits. I felt alone. I began to wish I had never posted it, thinking it didn’t help anyone, and all I’d gotten out of it was harassed. I began to suspect that I was right all along to be afraid of that soulless, evil place called the internet.
Sinking deep into all this hurt and depression, wondering if I’d miscommunicated something in my story somehow that made all these people attack me, I added a long afterword to the post. I clarified that Derek had been physically terrifying and that I had reason not to fight him, I explained why I hadn’t gone to the police, and I shared some of the things people had said to me that made me feel obliged to share all these defenses. I reached into an already vulnerable heart and dug up all that was left–laying out every bit of the fear I’d felt and what I’d gone through on the table. “Here,” I’d said, “have it all. Maybe then you’ll understand.”
Looking back, I probably didn’t need to clarify any of it. The story told itself, and anyone with a heart and/or brain would realize upon reading it why I would’ve been afraid to fight back or go to the police. Those people on Twitter were just assholes, really and truly. But I was feeling beaten down and I was desperate for people to understand me. It was my last, flailing attempt to reach for humanity in this strange virtual space.
Shortly after I posted the update to the post, about ready to give up entirely, my blog filled with comments from my readers and blog friends. Every single one of them was supportive. They told me that what happened to me was awful, that it wasn’t my fault, and that I should ignore the Twitter cretin. They told me they loved me–people I’d never met in person. They told me I was okay, and they lifted me up. The clouds began to clear in my heart. I felt loved again. I felt like there were actual human beings out there on the internet. And I started to feel less alone.
One or two women messaged me privately to tell me how much I had helped them through their own issues with sexual assault–how just reading another woman’s story, just knowing someone else understood what they’d gone through, was huge for them. The clouds parted some more. Another woman told me she was inspired to share her own story on her blog after reading mine, and shared the link with me. I cried reading her story, but I felt encouraged afterward. It was all being paid forward. My vulnerability and my pain weren’t for nothing, and neither were hers.
I discovered something beautiful about the internet through this experience. It isn’t simply a hotbed of evil, nor is it a place of pure goodness. It is a reflection of the best and the worst of humanity, made up of millions of very real people, and at the end of the day, the good means far more than the bad. I now have faith in the internet the same way I have faith in people–some parts are horrible, and lots are mediocre, but its capacity for beauty far outweighs all of it.
And maybe it took a terrible experience to realize this, but isn’t that how we arrive at most beautiful epiphanies? I wouldn’t take it back for the world, because the love that picked me up after being broken down not only brought me closer to my digital friends and encouraged me to continue to be brave and open online, it also taught me a valuable lesson: people are just people, whether in person or on this weird virtual reality called the internet.