I feel for BuzzFeed writer Jessica Testa. While our blog may not get the massive traffic that BF does, I’ve still experienced brief bouts of hundreds of people being furious with me because I wrote something that genuinely held no ill-intent. I think that no matter how obvious it is that the Internet is full of millions of humans who disagree with you–who can and will let you know that in a heartbeat–it is still stressful when your words become a source of both brief and lengthy critical thought.
In case you missed it, this morning we wrote about a very incredible conversation started by Christine Fox (@steenfox). She asked survivors to tell her what they had been wearing when they were sexually assaulted, and the outpouring of responses were amazing. While we all knew the conclusion–it doesn’t matter what you were wearing, nothing you do attracts or invites rape–it was just so much more powerful when it came from survivors themselves.
So, when Jessica Testa compiled a list of these tweets for BuzzFeed, stating she had explicit permission from every user whom she quoted, many of the discussion’s participants and outsiders alike were upset about the amount of exposure these extremely personal details were getting. Christine Fox was asked permission regarding Testa’s use of her Twitter conversation, but apparently never gave it.
— Adele Dazeem (@steenfox) March 13, 2014
The amount of exposure the thread was getting was likely unexpected, as writer Anil Dash noted.
Billions of people know “visible on the web” doesn’t always equal “I want this published in the media with ads around it”. Respect that.
— Anil Dash (@anildash) March 13, 2014
Rewind: To be honest, I missed all this was going down last night. I wish I had seen it, though I have little doubt in my mind that it would have made my night a rough one; I don’t have very much memory of my rapes because my brain blocked large chunks of my childhood and teen years out. Once upon a time nearly two years ago, I wrote about this for The Gloss. It was the first time I had ever talked about it on such a public level. Sure, people who knew me were aware of my PTSD, or at least that I was “crazy”–I was a raging drunk who had frequent panic attacks and a very poor handle on reality–but I had not yet written it out all at once that way. The guilt and regret I had experienced on a daily basis for nearly a decade were desperate to come out, so they did.
After I sent my piece in and it was published, I felt profound sense of relief. I was crying and I was sick, sure, but I was relieved. I chose to tell my story, I chose to have my article published, I chose to have strangers read it. In doing so, I shared one of my most personal, painful stories and wound up communicating with many other survivors in the process–something that made me feel less fucked up, less lonely, less guilty.
When I read through the tweets from last night’s discussion, I felt that same sort of relief and warmth, like a blanket of knowledge reminding me that I’m still not alone. Of course, I do not know the motivations of the survivors who participated in @steenfox’s discussion because I don’t get to speak for them. Yes, I’m a survivor too, but we all have our own stories and even among those who have experiences, there are so many different opinions and feelings toward how others talk about our stories. And that brings me back around to the “ethics” debate.
Here’s the problem with public social media: it’s public, and that makes it fair game to talk about. To write about. To argue about. If there was no such thing as public information, I would likely have very little to write about throughout my day except what I’m eating, and you can all find that out via my stupid Instagram regardless. While the articles and tweets reminding everybody that Twitter is public are obviously correct, that isn’t really the argument here.
The problem with public information is also one of the most wonderful things about its nature. It’s public! That means you have access to so many human beings and their thoughts in a way you would never be able to otherwise. Because of social media’s openness, we are able to talk to all these people with similar experiences without having to attend awkward IRL group meetings recommended by our guidance counselor. It would be so lovely to just pop the phone up to our ears and magically be on the line with someone who understands the literal worst day(s) of our lives, but that’s not how it works. Tumblr, Twitter and message boards offer so much more support.
When you quote a person’s tweet in an article, you can literally change their life. That’s the world we live in now, what with the Justine Sacco-type fiascos and the way specific Internet communities pounce on people to troll them, even if their victims may be actual victims. There is a massive difference between quoting somebody who willingly presents their story to be quoted and somebody simply trying to communicate with other people whom they can relate to in a way they may desperately need. If another writer quotes and criticizes my story about being raped, or their readers criticize it, well, that will absolutely suck but I knew it was a possibility.
Nearly every female blogger I know has had somebody call them a cunt, a bitch, or an ugly fucking slut at least five times. One of my former coworkers has a thread dedicated to the idea of raping her; one of my current coworkers has a thread all about murdering her. These are disgusting, repugnant problems that deserve a whole other conversation, but when it comes down to it, we are much more prepared for this type of e-cruelty than, say, a survivor with 86 followers whose first time telling her story was this conversation. The Internet is full of MRAs and other such assholes just waiting for an excuse.
I don’t think that Fox owns those stories any more or less than Testa does; neither can give permission to post about them. The only people who can do that are the survivors themselves. When it comes down to it, there is a certain moral responsibility that people can choose to have or choose to ignore here. Either way, they are not inherently awful people and they’re certainly not doing anything illegal.
The fact that she positively covered the story for such a giant website is great in my opinion, and it shows that writers like her and trying to keep these conversations going strong. However, when it comes to consent, social media and sexual assault, we still need to ensure that the people come before the story. And while Testa seems displeased at how much attention her article is getting rather than the tweets themselves, I’m not; I think the sense of community and catharsis those survivors felt is spectacular, and simply because we are now turning the conversation onto the media’s ethics does not negate that. All of this is important to talk about, particularly now that so many survivors are seeking support online.