So there’s this girl. The girl is 12 years old. The girl goes to school.
There’s this group of boys. They sexually harass her.
The girl’s parents are conservative evangelicals. The girl doesn’t want to talk about it. The girl doesn’t want to make a scene; she thinks, next time, she should just do what they want her to do.
There are these women, in a secret Facebook group for women writers, who wish there were a way to do something, anything, for the girl who is blaming herself for what happened to her. The woman who posted this story in that group wrote:
Is there anything out there like a Girl’s Guide to Rape Culture? That explains it in an accessible, empowering way? I just want her (and all the other kids, of all genders, who are in similar situations) to know: This isn’t your fault. I believe you.
Lindy West, a staff writer Jezebel, said to me by phone, “How do you reach a kid like that? Where they’re getting this really destructive narrative at home, and they don’t have people around them who can provide an alternate narrative about themselves, about their bodies, their rights, the boundaries they’re allowed to maintain?”
Someone had a suggestion: what if all the women wrote this girl letters? “And I think I said, ‘If we don’t want to invade her privacy by having a bunch of weird ladies sending letters about this really personal thing that happened to her, what if we wrote letters that were more generalized and posted them somewhere?” said West.
“And as soon as that idea came up, it was just astonishing. Everyone has a story. Every single person that I talked to about this immediately had a story that they wanted to write.”
Last Thursday, West launched the Tumblr called “I Believe You | It’s Not Your Fault.”
The site is still so young, but what do you hope IBYINYF will grow to be?
[We want to] just to have there be a place and a record somewhere semi-permanently on the internet where it’s just, I’m thinking of it as a wall of solidarity… We’re not going to question anyone’s story. We’re not going to blame anyone. I just want it to feel like a big giant rock: we believe you, it’s not your fault, you didn’t do anything wrong, this has happened to so many people before you, and here’s how we dealt with it. Even if there isn’t any solution right now, just to have someone to tell your story to. We’ve got an anonymous “Ask” box, and I’ve got tons of letters that say: “I just wanted to tell someone this thing that happened to me, because I felt trapped.”
It’s interesting because I think if you hang out in some corners of the internet, you can become hyperaware of these issues—rape culture, street harassment, victim blaming—but that awareness can be its own kind of ignorance. It’s easy to feel like these are terms and ideas that everyone already knows. But it sounds like you’re finding there are huge numbers of young women who never hear about these concepts, who don’t have the vocabulary for what’s happening to them.
There are so many kids where that idea is totally foreign, not just to them but to everyone they know. There’s no one in a hundred mile radius who has ever heard of any of these concepts.
I have a 10 and 12 year old stepdaughter, and they have this idea—and I’m sure I had this idea at their age, too—that I am a million years old, and I couldn’t possibly understand anything that they’re talking about and going through. And I remember my mom saying to me when I was a kid, ‘I don’t feel old. You know I still feel like I’m 20? I feel like I was a teenager the day before yesterday.’ I just feel like there’s not this really stark separation that we think there is. But it’s really hard for adults to talk to kids about difficult, explicit things, because we want kids to be innocent and carefree. And it’s hard to talk about rape culture with your kids. It’s just awkward. And it’s hard for kids, for a lot of the same reasons, to talk to the grown-ups who are around them all the time. But the reality is that there’s just so many similarities. Not only have we gone through the same things, we went through them not that long ago, and also, we’re STILL going through them. We’re still affected by those things everyday. It’s not like when you become an adult, you fix all your problems… it’s a continuum.
Do you have a sense of who is contributing to the site and who is reading it? Is it a mix of genders, ages?
I think [our contributors] are all women so far, although we would be more than happy to accept contributions from people of all genders. But it started as women talking about things that happen to women. And it’s really about, how can we explain rape culture to teenage girls and let them know what’s okay and what’s not okay? Someone described it as an “It Gets Better” project for girls, but I don’t want to exclude boys or non-binary kids.
Have any of the responses, either to the Tumblr’s existence or the stories that are posted, surprised you?
Actually, I was surprised at how much immediate response I got from men. On Twitter, a bunch of men that follow me were RTing it, like, “Oh my God, everyone should read this; this was really hard to read, but I didn’t know that every woman I know has a story like this.”
Is it overwhelming to handle all these stories that come in?
I can’t even keep up with the entries I’m getting. And I’m not even trying that hard [to advertise]… I have 30 more submissions in my inbox that I haven’t even looked at. I’ve been getting at least a couple a day.
How does that feel? Is it empowering to think that every woman has these stories, in a “you are not alone” kind of way? Or is it just really depressing to know every woman has a story like this?
It’s so devastating but really inspiring… It has a lot in common with, and I think it owes a lot to, Yes All Women. It’s the same, but a longer format. That was on Twitter, and this is really women telling stories longform.
So I guess it’s both: it’s definitely devastating, but the act of sharing and compiling those stories all in one place, in a space where people can reach out to each other and be supportive and find solidarity and commonality is really inspiring. And it feels kind of like progress: just the more we talk about this stuff and air it out and raise awareness, [the better]. It defines women’s lives. I guess people could argue that it’s not actually doing anything. But I think it is. I think talking about stuff, naming problems in the open, is always the first step to making progress. Changing minds is the first step to changing actions.
Have any of the stories you’ve gotten been especially shocking or difficult to handle? You’re already well-versed in these issues; is it still possible to be surprised by what you’re reading here?
One of the things that stuck out to me, that I think is really important and kind of under this conversation—we don’t have this conversation enough—is a lot of people writing about these vague circumstances where they have been in relationships where they say, “He never hit me, and I wish maybe that he had, so I could have called it abuse and understood it as abuse.” We’ve had at least 3 or 4 submissions about this so far. Because instead people are in these long term relationships with abusive, manipulative people, but it’s not clear that it fits these stereotypical ideas of what abuse is. Then you have people who are not only being victimized in their relationships but also really doubting themselves or feeling like, maybe they’re making it up or overreacting or that he’s right.
And I don’t think that story gets told that often. Usually it’s “he beat me up” or “he raped me.” I think [it’s important to] explore these things that are a little more confusing and gray, and probably a little more widespread… [We’re] just giving people a place to discuss those feelings. It’s women coming forward and saying, “YES, this was an abusive relationship. If you are going through this and feel like you’re being abused, yes, you are right. And you should take steps to deal with that and call it what it is.” Kind of giving people a vocabulary to talk about those things… That’s been a really common theme so far. It seems to be a big relief for people to talk about it.
Can you talk a bit more about that storytelling need? This idea of IBYINYF as a forum for people who just need to be heard?
I think the thing that struck me the most is people just wanting to tell someone things that have happened to them. We’ve gotten some really, really gut-wrenching stories. And one girl said, she said, I don’t even have a question, I just needed to tell someone.
The idea is to be a really candid safe, space for people to talk about things that have happened to them and women who have been through those things to respond. We’ve gotten a lot of that: women wanting to know that they’re not alone. There’s so much pressure to not tell, especially if it’s a family member who has abused you, or someone that you love, despite the abuse. And people don’t want to ruin their family. So that’s been really, really hard to read but really powerful. Because kids, they’re teenage kids saying, “I just wanted to tell someone, and thank you for providing this forum.”
It seems like it’s also been really therapeutic for the adults involved, too. Pretty much everyone who has written something has said, “This was really hard for me to write and really scary, but it was a relief to write it down, and I wish I’d had this when I was a kid going through this.” I just want to be helpful.
I hope it doesn’t just trickle out. I hope that people keep sending me submissions, and I hope that people are moved by this project, and that people who weren’t aware of how prevalent these issues are learn something, and that in the long run, it contributes to a shift in how our culture talks about abuse and harassment and rape and rape culture. I hope people start to believe us, that rape culture is real. Because I’m so tired of having that conversation. It’s clearly nonsense, if you have any experience being a person.