I know as a writer you’re not supposed to read the comments section (for your own personal sanity) but I’m fascinated by it. I love the way articles often provide more of a soapbox for the commenter to air some long-held grievance that they either can’t share in person or want to promote to a larger audience (“Alcohol is bad!” “Women are liars!” “Go vegan!”). It’s like eavesdropping. I love eavesdropping.
When I started writing an article for Aeon about my experience as the victim of a non-violent sexual assault, I knew there was going to be some backlash. I knew the comments section would likely be one of the more, shall I say, “heated” I’ve ever dealt with. Unfortunately, it’s pretty well documented that females with strong opinions on the internet are going to get some haters. It was a more delicate situation still since at the time I began the first draft, I had only told three people about this experience. And here I was getting ready to share it with the faceless World Wide Web.
On August 24, 2015, the article went up with the title “Was I Raped?” Comments were mostly benign for the first day. Then they got a little less so. I put them into three categories:
Kids these days!
“I’m almost 50, and when I was younger, the level of promiscuity was nothing like what occurs today. You can’t be casual about sex when it works for you and then cry rape when it doesn’t. A little self respect would go a long way for these young women.” -D’Arcy
What is America coming to?
“If we took your definition, 99% of sex is rape. Nobody is laying [sic] in bed with another person and saying, ‘Excuse me, madam, is it OK if I have sex with you now? Please sign this contract here and here’” -MoralsAndDogma
Nothing is rape!
“I still feel uncomfortable saying the words ‘I was raped’ out loud.” Good. Because you weren’t.” -Althea Ann
“That lying bitch was clearly NOT raped. Silence denotes consent…. Are you fucking kidding me? She’s a slut.” -Hereticdrummer
“In my day if a girl climbed into bed with you she expected to have sex. I don’t know what they expect now. A game of checkers?” -Andino Mining
“We’ll be soon in a “almost-rape” situation by your own dildo.” -Ydre
Sadly the third quickly became the most popular category. And the ones mentioned here are just the particularly original phrasings. (Good job, Kiddos. You get a gold star!)
But many of the commenters were not like these people. People had kind things to say or argued on my behalf. (As a rule, I never participate in the comments section of my articles — it’s like trying to hang with the wildlife you’re attempting to study. Messes up the whole natural environment.)
Yet I soon noticed an interesting theme. If one commenter said something hateful, something worse would be said within a few hours. Murphy’s Law of the Internet: anything mean that can be said, will be said.
“Is there such a thing as an ‘almost-rape’? Just the tip?”
“She wasn’t even drunk. She just didn’t say anything when he started touching her. It’s almost like she wanted to be almost raped.”
Meanwhile, I started getting private messages and emails, both from old friends and strangers, telling me that they’d had similar experiences. Some even told me that reading the essay had helped them see what had happened to them more clearly. These people rarely commented anywhere remotely public — not even on my Facebook wall. Internet culture has made sure of that. If you comment, you might be attacked. Even linking to the article might be an invitation for some thoughts you may not be comfortable hearing. And nasty words from some anonymous commenter can feel just as bad whether you give your full name or are also hiding behind the curtain.
Putting something in print or writing about it on the internet doesn’t seem like a big deal but when the result for anyone (male, female, or other) who does choose to speak about their sexual assault are comments like these, I can understand why so many people bow out instead.
But for anyone thinking about opening up — whatever the size of your audience — I will say that the hardest part of this process wasn’t writing the first draft or reading the comments section. It wasn’t even the slightly emotional experience of hearing experts talk about victims they’ve encountered and realizing that the descriptions fit me perfectly. It was when my editor sent me the first round of edits and told me to be more honest and more direct about what I used to think about what happened to me versus what I believe now — more than six years later. Being completely naked before yourself (and I’m not talking about looking in the mirror) is hard and draining and an ultimately powerful experience. It’s hard to take much stock in what some nut butter on the interwebz is whining about after that.
“Knock this nonsense off, stop acting like sluts and the so-called rape “problem” will solve itself.” – Andino Mining (Hey! It’s you again. Because one comment in the span of five minutes just isn’t enough!)
I’m not going to say that anyone’s sense of self is what “scares” other people because their issues have just as little to do with you as yours do to them. (A jerk is gonna jerk whether you’re shy or loud, second-guessing yourself or always right.) You can poll other people for a million years about whether or not you were raped or your relationship was abusive or whether a comment was sexist or just plain mean and never get 100% of the vote.
If you’re even a little bit like me, what you’re looking for is validation of a feeling or suspicion that you already have. Sure, maybe you actually suffer from medical-grade delusions and need a second opinion on reality. But if that does not sound like you, then allow yourself to walk through the experience and define the situation for yourself. It’s scary but potent. And it can take a while — weeks, months, or years. But when things do fall together for you, you can take your badass self and make fun of these scrubs too. (Whether they’re on the internet, real life, or just the criticism in your head.)
Come on, they’re just asking for it.