Daphne Simone thought long and hard before sending that tweet.
He pushed me on the couch and said: “you can’t say no, you’re my girlfriend.” — I cried all that night. Many after.
The moment the 38-year-old’s fingers left the keyboard, she considered deleting it. Since becoming involved in 2007 with V-Day — a global movement to end violence against females — she had started telling family and close friends about what had happened years ago. But she worried about going public on Twitter.
“I was scared that people I knew, acquaintances who didn’t know me very well, would judge me differently or pity me,” says Simone, a senior videoproducer at Sheridan College in Oakville. “I didn’t want pity.”
But she didn’t hit delete. She was buoyed by the courage of those sharing experiences of rape and sexual assault using the Twitter hashtag #BeenRapedNeverReported, which has sparked a global discussion since its creation last week. Countless women are going public with experiences of sexual assault — and many, like Simone, are using their real names.
“Putting our survival stories out there can only continue to invoke stigma if we continue to fear negative repercussion, so I strongly believe that a big part of the battle right now is to take the risk, lay our truths on the table, and hope that in doing so we can chip away at the ignorance surrounding rape-culture. Hopefully (that will) make the entire space safer for women with each new voice.
“There has to be a way to change perceptions, and talking loudly and publicly about it is probably the most impactful,” she said, adding “It’s vital women support each other and help create spaces for other women to come forward.”
People are indeed speaking out, spurred in part by allegations against former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi, who was fired Oct 26. Since then, the Toronto Star, and other media outlets, have reported on the accounts of nine women accusing him of harassment, physical abuse and sexual assault. None of the allegations have been proven in court.
Angry over the public backlash against the women, the hashtag was cocreated by Toronto Star reporter Antonia Zerbisias — a day before taking early retirement and capping a 40-year career with the CBC and Star — and Montreal Gazette justice reporter Sue Montgomery.
The friends decided to publicly share their own experiences of assault and on Oct. 30 started the hashtag, which began trending within hours. To date, there have been tens of millions of tweets, retweets and replies. Numerous media outlets, including the BBC and Al-Jazeera, have reported on it.
Zerbisias has been “overwhelmed” by messages of support after her Twitter disclosure of having been raped on two separate occasions — something she wouldn’t have revealed if her mother was still alive. And she’s received a flood of Facebook messages from people worldwide sharing their own experiences. Even while at the local vet with her sick dog, the technician sought her out and exclaimed: “You’ve changed the world.”
“A kind of dam burst,” says Zerbisias, who’s still “stunned” by the discussion generated by the hashtag. “It hit a nerve with women all over the world who suddenly saw a space and a place where they could come out and say, ‘Yes, this happened to me and I’m not going to be silent about it anymore because all my sisters are rising up and doing it too.’”
Statistics show almost all women stay silent. According to the 1993 landmark Violence Against Women Survey by Statistics Canada, only six per cent of women who had been sexually assaulted reported it to police. Other research indicates less than half the complaints made to police result in a charge being laid, and of those about 25 to 30 per cent result in a guilty verdict, often for lesser charges such as assault.
“Race also becomes an issue,” Zerbisias says. “As the statistics show, the justice system is not particularly effective for or easy on white women but it’s downright brutal on women of colour and, in particular, Canada’s indigenous women.”
On Monday, after hearing a radio report about the hashtag, Sarah Baker, a 50-year-old registered nurse in Vancouver, says “something just clicked.” New to Twitter, she required her daughter’s help to tweet: Thought it was safe to go to his place b/c he is a fellow RN. Blamed myself for being stupid. Never reported it.
Only six months ago did she start confiding in close friends about what transpired with someone she had met online. She has also told her 22-year-old daughter, “to impress upon her how cautious one has to be.”
Speaking about what happened has helped Baker erase some of the “shame and responsibility” she has felt. After tweeting, she did worry that her younger kids, aged 18 and 19, would read about it online, so she plans to speak with them about it.
And because she’s now gone public, Baker says she may have to tell other family.
Since Monday, Baker’s tweet has been retweeted and favourited — something that has provided her with comfort.
“I feel good,” she says. “Strong.”
That’s not a surprise to Tonia Richard, a crisis line co-ordinator and a counsellor at Toronto Rape Crisis Centre /Multicultural Women Against Rape.
“Breaking the silence and secrecy surrounding sexual violence, and being able to do so in a public way, is empowering to a lot of survivors, despite the fact that there might be backlash or negative repercussions.”
Among the repercussions, says Richard, is that society tends to see survivors of sexual violence as broken: “We don’t see them as strong, capable individuals so there’s a lot of stigma surrounding that. And that can be some of the reason why individuals tend not to disclose.”
Many women don’t come forward about sexual assault because they fear being blamed and not believed, particularly if the assault occurred when they were engaged in so-called risk-taking behaviours, such as drinking, using drugs or partying, says Janice Du Mont, a scientist at Women’s College Research Institute.
But what’s been different in the last week is that women have had the courage to disclose because they have received considerable online support, says Du Mont, who studies sexual assault and domestic violence.
“Being believed and supported can be a very powerful healing experience. There is also strength in feeling that you’re part of the collective and you’re not alone ... When somebody shares an experience that others can resonate with, it can be very powerful.”
Winnipeg yoga teacher Marlo Boux worries that the man who assaulted her, leaving her bruised and bleeding, will see her tweet: After the attack, he texts me the next day ‘sorry about yesterday, you shouldn’t look so good. Still friends?’
She never reported it to police because she didn’t want to risk being “maligned and dragged through the mud and feeling ashamed.” But she felt compelled to share her experience on Twitter.
“I feel like my justice and my healing will come through being able to lend a voice to this,” says the 40-year-old. “And if it empowers another survivor, of any gender in any way, if it makes someone feel like they’re not alone, adds positively to a conversation or enlightens someone who’s thinking about rape culture differently, for me that is justice. That is healing.”
For Simone, the Sheridan College producer, it was many years before she felt comfortable sharing what had happened to her because she was ashamed, embarrassed and fearful of not being believed.
But she has no regrets about going public and tweeting. There’s been some backlash, but overall the response has been supportive. Some friends have surprisingly remained silent, which she suspects is because they don’t know how to broach the issue.
Her father, however, was worried about her public admission on Twitter, concerned about how it might affect her career.
“He just looked at me and shook his head. And I said, ‘Dad, at a certain point, we have to be brave enough to go public and stop this culture. The reason that you’re shaking your head at me right now, is the reason that I did it.’ ”