[CN: rape, sexual assault]
If you are going to write about sexual assault, and particularly publish first-person accounts of the intimate details about one’s assault, you’d better do it right. I read The Root’s coverage on the hundreds of responses to “what were you wearing when you were assaulted?” last night on Twitter. I felt they did a tasteful job and noted that Christina Fox (@Steenfox), who led the discussion, was interviewed for the piece. Desmond-Harris’ writing reflected her concern for the victims, and ensured their privacy while still telling the story. I read the Buzzfeed* one next, and it just didn’t feel right. It was presented, like all things on Buzzfeed in a list-format. Throwing tweets on top of sexual assault stats, it was really awful.
Worse still, were people’s claims they did not give permission to have their tweets published. I’m not here to argue that, other people on Twitter are doing a better job explaining the ethics involved if that is the case. Whatever permission may or may not have been given, the Buzzfeed piece was slapped together and published while people on Twitter were still sending in their responses to Fox! I would like to think that hundreds of sexual assault and rape victims having such an important and relevant discussion would be seen as more than buzz-worthy. Buzzfeed was far more interested in publishing their click-bait before anyone else could profit from it. That is disturbing. The Root piece has substance and opens the discussion further to its readers. This is a vital part of the dialogue we must be having in order to end rape culture. The Buzzfeed one carelessly spit a list out. There is a time and a place for “breaking buzz,” last night was not one of those moments.
Here’s my concern. Last night, I, along with many other people, felt deep emotions as we read accounts of abuse and discussed our own. I know how my own feelings were all over the place, and saw other women on my timeline expressing the same. In that moment, it was not the time to ask a victim permission to use their most personal of stories for a piece, let alone a Buzzfeed list. That is beyond classless. For this argument, I’m going to assume every single person who was part of it, was asked and gave Buzzfeed permission. You have to remember they gave this permission last night, right in the middle of all this. Don’t write about the victim/survivor experience unless you have some understanding of it and are empathetic to the people you are writing about. These are real people, speaking of painful pasts, many facing psychological issues from their assault and the PTSD that follows. In the midst of an emotional and empowering night like it was, we can feel more outspoken, especially when surrounded by others. If a victim feels she is in a safe space and has people supporting her (I received and saw others get “thinking of you,” “take care of yourself” etc. tweets throughout the night), one may feel more encouraged than usual and might continue to speak out. One can get lost in the moment, feeling uplifted and brave, your emotions and story being legitimized. For some, last night was the first they’d admitted their sexual assaults. For others, it was the first time they spoke publicly about them. Until you understand the ramifications of this, you should not be writing about sexual assault victims at all.
While many were exhaling and feeling solidarity (realizing you’re not alone is a hell of a thing), they started to feel the backlash to speaking out. The trolls came. A lot of women may never have discussed rape, or anything like it on Twitter before. Being trolled may be something they never experienced. How many said okay to Buzzfeed before seeing the absolute filth appear in their mentions? Asking them the next day, the next week, when things settled down would have been more appropriate. Someone might be fine sharing until they witness or are victims of harassment. That changes everything. If you are not familiar with rape culture and the harassment and stalking that occurs when women (and particularly black women) speak out about it online (from their own experiences of sexual harassment to rape), you shouldn’t be touching the topic.
Understanding trauma and triggering is also necessary if you are going to ask victims to be a part of a publication where they discuss personal details of their assault. Sometimes the heaviness of that catches up with us later. We may tweet or blog about it, and then feel regret or worse. We’ve been told all our lives to not get sexually assaulted, when it happens, aside from many times being blamed, we are also told to hush up about it. When we finally do speak out, it is invigorating, but also terrifying. How many of us were left with a heavy heart and a racing mind last night? Hours pass and you’re alone with your own thoughts. Saying yes earlier, when you felt fire inside you, lifted up by other victims speaking out (strength in numbers, remember!), turns to a no when you’re allowed the time to come down from that. Responsible reporting acknowledges this and allows a victim time to process what occurred. In the whirl that was last night, the fact that Buzzfeed is seen internationally and read by millions, may not have occurred to anyone who was asked if their admissions could be posted there. Who was considering the ramifications of such publicity, and the harassment that might arise from that? I’m not sure if I would’ve considered that I might have my name, picture, and Twitter handle out there for all to see. I would have needed to contemplate that after a night’s sleep and some tea this morning. Buzzfeed should have considered all of this before approaching those women and publishing in the middle of the night for the sake of clicks. I beg Buzzfeed to stick to pop culture lists and quizzes. Leave our stories to journalists who will follow a code of ethics and grant us the respect we deserve.
*I believe Buzzfeed did the right thing–took their piece down (I would never have linked to it). I wish it had never been out there in the first place and we must all, especially writers and publishers, learn from it.