The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I went public with my sexual assault. And then the trolls came for me.

I worry that some women will learn, like I did, that saying #MeToo attracts people determined to discount your assault.

(Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

A little over a year-and-a-half ago, I wrote an essay about my sexual assault. I referred to my assault as rape, even though what happened to me does not fit the societal definition of rape. That is to say, it is not “real rape,” I’ve been told. Possibly because I didn’t say “no,” at least not forcefully enough and not in context. And anyway, I was with my boyfriend at the time, which I later learned makes it count less. There are a lot of things, I learned, that make my assault count less than other assaults.

When I wrote this essay, I was naive about the repercussions women who write about sexual assault face. I shrugged off a friend who warned me about “trolls” because I thought trolls were Internet bots, not actual people who turn out to be kind of awful and might also threaten to kill you. On Facebook, where my essay was shared more than 10,000 times, commenters argued that what I wrote about was not rape but regret, that I was selfish, that I was a pathetic slut. A few were savvy enough to tag my personal accounts on both Facebook and Twitter, just in case I missed their comments on one platform (which I did not, because I could not stop obsessing over them).

I had been certain about what my now ex-boyfriend had done to me, but the moment I opened it up to interpretation, I became suddenly less certain. My account was so vehemently contradicted by perfect strangers, I began to wonder if perhaps they had more information about the incident than I. Had I, I wondered, made it all up as they suggested? I write these facetious words even knowing that someone, somewhere — possibly even a friend or family member — will point to this and say, “See. You said it right there. You aren’t even sure if you made it all up.” The truth is that while I am sure about what happened to me, I’m still not really sure what it means.

In the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein allegations, women have been blanketing social media with their stories of assault using the hashtag #MeToo, despite the repercussions of going public. I have read accounts of all sorts by women who, by the standards of my detractors, were not “really raped,” but have stood up anyway to say #MeToo. I applaud these women, and I also fear for them. I fear that they will be beaten down by the slut-shamers, and the victim-blamers, by the Internet trolls, and the possible real-life trolls. I fear that friends and family members will blindside them with their lack of support or, worst of all, their silence. I worry that the aftermath of #MeToo will be “Me too?” Followed by other nagging thoughts, like: Did I overreact? Should I have said nothing? Did it even happen at all?

After Hollywood actresses revealed stories of sexual harassment and assault, women everywhere are saying #MeToo. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

Almost immediately after my essay was published, I was attacked online and off. People, extremely well-meaning and loving people I know in real life, to my utter shock, took the mess of what happened to me, wrapped it in a neat little bow, handed it back to me and said, “Oh, is that all?” It happened, they said, because I did not read the situation properly. They said: It happened because I was too nice and accommodating to the person who assaulted me. They said: It happened because I was not forceful enough. Or maybe, it didn’t happen at all.

I also received a few private messages, heartbreaking notes from young women across the country, who told me that my experience mirrored their own, but they had never been able to put their own to words. As they thanked me for my voice, I wanted to tell them I wished I had stayed quiet. As they marveled at my strength, I wanted to tell them that if I had known that writing my essay made me strong, I would have chosen to be weak instead. As they created a heroic idea of who I was, I wanted to tell them that I had no idea who I was. The way I viewed myself had changed. I didn’t know what was real or what had happened to me, or if I was good or bad, or wrong or right for writing about it. The only thing I knew was that I should never, never, never have written about my assault. And so, I did what I should have done from the beginning. I said nothing.

My worry is that some women, like me, will learn this week what happens when you say #MeToo, and that it might stop them from ever saying #MeToo again. Or, that other women will see vitriolic responses to #MeToo (and they are out there) and therefore will not say it themselves. I don’t blame those women. I have wished for nearly two years that I never said “me too.” I have wished I had just shut up.

And yet.

When we don’t talk about our rape, or our assault, or our experience that we know was not okay but do not know exactly how to classify, this is what happens: nothing. Nothing is reported and nothing is talked about. So  in fact, maybe nothing actually happened at all. And the nothing sits there inside of us and then grows and expands, until there is nowhere else for it to go but maybe outside of us, onto a page or into a tweet. And suddenly, nothing is now something. And maybe all of the other people who chose not to speak about their nothing now see it as something, too. And maybe their somethings won’t weigh so heavily anymore in the company of the hundreds of thousands of other somethings floating around the universe declaring that something is not nothing.

When I wrote my essay about my sexual assault, #MeToo was not trending on social media. Inspiring icons and celebrities were not coming forth in droves to share their incidents of assault; the media was not, in turn, surrounding these women like a protective fortress from the trolls who might try to scare them away from revealing what happened to them. I wish #MeToo had been trending when I wrote my essay, but much more than that, I hope that #MeToo never stops trending. Women being assaulted is not and never has been a passing trend. And it never will be unless we keep fighting it.

So, while I didn’t go on Twitter and write #MeToo this week, I just wanted you to know, for whatever it’s worth: Me Too. (And probably — though it’s okay if you don’t say it — you, too.)