This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

March-April 2015


Stephanie Taylor

Illustration by Kris Noelle

Illustration by Kris Noelle

Critics of social media say it’s nothing but white noise—but it can also amplify women’s voices

Antonia Zerbisias walks into the newsroom on what is her second last day before retirement. It’s early evening on October 30, 2014, and somewhere in between saying some of her last hellos and goodbyes to colleagues at One Yonge Street and attending to whatever final bits of business a columnist and writer has left after more than 25 years at the Toronto Star, she types out a tweet: “It was 1969 when, if you found you were the only girl in the rec room and no parents were home, it was your fault”


Then, “#BeenRapedNeverReported.” Send.

Minutes later, two more tweets, divulging memories that time couldn’t erase after 40 years.

“ … 1970: My friend’s friend from out of town ‘forgot his wallet’ in his hotel room …”

Period. “#BeenRapedNeverReported.” Send.

“ … 1974: A half-empty 747 to London. Traveling alone. Fell asleep…”

Period. “#BeenRapedNeverReported.” Send.

Hours before sending out these tweets, Zerbisias was messaging back and forth with longtime friend and Montreal Gazette justice reporter Sue Montgomery, together fuming over public reaction to the women who were then, for the first time, coming forward with their allegations of abuse against CBC’s former golden boy radio host, Jian Ghomeshi.

Zerbisias and Montgomery had watched, stunned, as the subsequent flood of questions on Twitter, Facebook, and the comment sections of online articles came in from coast-to-coast: Why didn’t the women report anything when it first happened? Why were they only coming out now?

The victim-blaming narrative infuriated both women, and Montgomery suggested they start a list with the names of women who had been raped but had never reported it—just to prove a point. She wanted to do something to “remove the fucking stigma” and get people to speak up and act up. Zerbisias agreed, suggesting they use social media to get their message out far and wide, landing on the hashtag: #BeenRapedNeverReported.

And so, at 2:55 p.m. she sent out her first tweet:

“#ibelievelucy #ibelievewomen And yes, I’ve been raped (more than once) and never reported it.”

Period. “#BeenRapedNeverReported.” Send.

“The rest is history as they say,” Zerbisias says with a laugh over the phone from her home in Toronto one evening in January. Three months after co-creating the hashtag that ignited a global conversation on why women don’t report rape, the describing word Zerbisias still uses over and over again is “overwhelmed.”

“I didn’t decide to start anything. It just happened. The time was right,” she says. “It seems to me that all we’ve been talking about on social media for the past two years is rape. That’s what focus of feminism is today. Much of the third wave, as it were, is about rape rage.”

“Social media is not just another way to connect feminist and activist voices—it amplifies our messages as well,” Jessica Valenti told Forbes magazine in 2012. Valenti is a columnist with the U.S Guardian and founder of Feministing, a feminist pop culture website, who, among other accolades, has been credited with bringing feminism online. Indeed, it seems today women’s voices are often heard loudest through our screens—a trend some are calling “hashtag feminism.” Although the term itself may be debatable, the phenomenon it points to is not: #Bringbackourgirls, #WhyIStayed, #WhyIleft, #YesAllWomen, #YouKnowHerName, and #BeenRapedNeverReported.

Odds are if you’re a Twitter user, or at all savvy to social media, you’ve come across these hashtags. Each was born out of public outcry in the wake of high-profile tragedies: The kidnapping of over 200 Nigerian girls by militant rebels Boko Haram; Janay Palmer’s decision to stand by hubby NFL running back Ray Rice after he knocked her unconscious in an elevator; the publication ban on Rehtaeh Parsons’ name; and the Elliot Rodger shooting rampage, in which six University of California, Santa Barbara students were killed. These hashtags were quickly taken up by millions around the world as outraged rallying cries for change—for women to raise their voices in unison and scream “enough is enough.”

Historically, feminists did this by marching and picket lines, staking out their causes with signs and speeches. Today many are turning their campaigning efforts toward the most public of public spheres: social media. But what’s the point of it all? When feminists grab their phones and type out an 140 character message, does it inspire positive change? Do these virtual mantras carry actual power?

Answering the questions surrounding the legitimacy of hashtag campaigns begins with a look back at the very roots of feminism, says Emily Lindin, founder of The UnSlut Project—a multimedia initiative working around cyberbullying and slut shaming. Social media most obviously lends itself to a spirit of solidarity between women, and speaks to the idea of a globalized sisterhood, hardly a new idea to the movement at all.

Lindin says the power of hashtag feminism lies not only in the content of a message, but the number of times that message is retweeted. Within the act of using a hashtag is a real sense of unity, or as Lindin so eloquently puts it: a way to “add your voice to a chorus.”

“It’s easy but impactful,” she explains to me one night in a phone call from California. “Feeling that you’re part of something, part of a movement; you’re not just feeling that way—you really become part of it.” Take the campaign she launched in the fall of 2014, #Okgirls. The hashtag originated from news that three high school girls from the city of Norman, Okla., alleged to have been raped by the same boy at their school, and, unfortunately to no one’s surprise, felt abandoned by the school and larger community once the word broke.

Lindin wanted her campaign to create solidarity for the three girls to connect with a globalized network of other sexual assault survivors—to reach out to the young women who had, unwillingly, opened themselves to bullying and potential triggers, just by being online. After all, as Lindin says, one of the hazards created by merging social media and feminism is the vulnerability of opening yourself to trolls, which at best means a slew of derogatory comments, slander, and hate speech. At its worst: death threats, which Lindin herself has experienced. “It works in the way that terrorism works,” she says. “If you speak out we attack you and we threaten you so just stop. Don’t speak up.”

Thinking of the Oklahoma girls, Lindin devised a plan. After contacting the mothers of the girls who had already began the hashtag #YesAllDaughters, Lindin created #Okgirls and asked people to use the hashtag to write direct messages of support and encouragement to the girls using Facebook and Twitter.

“For the #OKgirls: I was raped and then bullied in high school too. You are not alone. I stand with you. #survivor”

“#OKgirls: There is immutable, unmistakable power in your voices. Hear ours too: We believe you. It’s not your fault. Now, #NotOneMore.”

“#OKgirls: Your voices are strong, brave, clear. It’s okay to sometimes feel afraid, but know that there are so many in your corner now.”

Lindin then collected these, and hundreds of other similar tweets and curated them into a set of emails—partly to weed out the nasty comments, but also to allow the girls to remain offline and take a break from watching their own stories blown up in headlines and news stories. She emailed the girls’ mothers the lists of these tweets, which line after line, read as statements of commitment from survivors and allies to stand up and stand by the three girls as one unified community. “It was amazing,” says Lindin.

In January, 2014 Maisha Z. Johnson sends a tweet criticizing her former high school in California. The school had made headlines after spectators at a basketball game chanted, “USA, USA, USA,” to a Pakistani student while he stood at the free-throw line. Almost three hours later she’s calling out her online harassers with hashtags #OhYouMadHuh #WhyYouMadAboutJusticeTho. As evening rolls on, she switches her focus to a less serious subject matter: “The moon is gorgeous right now! I can’t stop staring at her.”

Twitter is all about expression; a space for free thought to abound, no matter how minuscule, seemingly insignificant, obxinious or profound. The phenomenon of status updates in social media offers a moment-by-moment transference of information from “real life” to whomever is behind a screen in a near instant. A point Johnson, a American-writer-activist-poet-turned-social-media-expert unintentionally proves through her own Twitter account, which is that the platform acts as a global space for women to express what she calls their “lived experience”—uncensored and unfiltered.

“I’m not asking for anyone else’s permission for what I tweet,” she says. “I’m not making sure I have the right terminology or anything like that, I’m just expressing myself.” That relationship between terminology and self-expression is pivotal and oftentimes problematic.

Too often, Johnson says, people, particularly women, are pre-occupied with finding the right wording to describe and define their own experiences and, as a result, remain silent. It’s easy for elitism and academia to dominate conversations about why a woman struggled to find an abortion clinic in her home province with vocabulary like “privilege” or “social transformation.” Twitter, says Johnson, brings us back to our “real selves”.

Real language can be used to connect with people, rather than being stuck in a bubble of academics—people who, says Johnson, may have all the vocabulary, but aren’t necessarily committed to communicating about the everyday.

Criticisms of hashtag feminism cover an array of understandably
troubling aspects of digital culture that threaten to undermine the well-intentioned changes of social justice work: the temptation to make a hashtag go viral, for example, by picking a sensationalist message for the sake of garnering more attention, or even the inherent privilege associated with owning a smart phone, which raises questions of access and barriers to technology.

Freelance writer Meghan Murphy also writes on her own blog, Feminist Current, that hashtag campaigns give rise to the invention of the “feminist celebrity,” by invariably providing more visibility to certain perspectives on the grounds of popularity while silencing other more marginalized voices, which, in turn, she argues, erodes the very ideology of unity within the movement itself.

However, the most dangerous effect of hashtag feminism seen by Johnson today lays in the constraints of the 140 character limit. The threat: Over simplification. Take the issue of domestic violence, which Johnson herself advocates around in her own writings. On its own, the term, “domestic violence,” evokes images of a cis-man, presumably a husband, assaulting his wife, a cis-woman.

What happens to everyone else—LGTBQ folk—who do not fit into this normative understanding of a relationship? How can we communicate the dynamics of violence in an abusive same-sex or trans relationship, such as the fear of being “outed” by a threatening partner under a single blanket term, “domestic abuse”? And how do we do that surrounded by so many other social media campaigns against spousal abuse? The problem is we often can’t—well, at least not right away.

Johnson believes Twitter is an entry point for inevitably larger, more contextualized conversations. It is a tool designed to stay informed and get in the know about what’s happening, as well as to find the right language to talk about or express an issue.

Lindin agrees. Twitter should be recognized as a chance to jump aboard an idea, she says, not ignite any form of back-and-forth exchange. The 140 character limit is plenty to declare, “here I am,” and add your voice to a cause, but there is a deficiency to expound on the nuances of a topic.

“I told my boyfriend and he called me a whore. Broke up with me. #beenrapedneverreported.”

“The first question the police asked was, ‘what were you wearing?’ I was 10. #beenrapedneverreported <3”

“I’ve #BeenRapedNeverReported because I knew I would be blamed because I had been drinking.”

By the time Zerbisias went to sleep on the night of October 30, 2014, the hashtag was trending in the U.S. By morning she was receiving emails from American and European media asking for interviews. Four days later, the hashtag was translated into French—and who knows how many other languages since. “I was thrilled because it meant women were not allowing themselves to be re-victimized,” she says. “That they were saying ‘fuck you,’ I’m gonna say this.” The hashtag gave women and men the power, space and freedom to come out and reclaim their attack, declaring that they were indeed raped like so many, many others. It was exhilarating to watch, Zerbisias recalls.

Yet, she refused most of the interviews, and turned down offers from organizations and advocacy groups asking her to get involved with their projects. “That’s not my responsibility,” she says. “I’m a writer, I’m not a social worker, I’m not a jurist, I’m not a policy maker, I’m not a law maker, I’m not even an organizer.”

Headlines from around the world applauded Zerbisias and Montgomery for inventing the hashtag that ignited a global discussion into why 90 percent of women never report their sexual assaults to police. “The question,” says Zerbisias, “is, ‘What next?”

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