It started out as a Facebook conversation on Thursday between two good friends in two different Canadian cities, sharing their frustration with the act of blaming victims of rape in general and the attacks on the alleged victims of Jian Ghomeshi in particular.
Within 24 hours, it had become a global phenomenon, with nearly 8 million people in countries as far away as India and Saudi Arabia taking part in an effort to rid the social stigma that surrounds victims of rape and reminding them that they are not alone, that there is a whole network of people that knows what they are going through and that they can lean on for support.
Toronto Star reporter Antonia Zerbisias, whose 30-plus-career ended on Friday, said she created the Twitter hashtag #BeenRapedNeverReported after her friend Sue Montgomery, justice reporter at the Montreal Gazette, suggested that they share their own stories of being raped and not reporting it to authorities.
Within minutes, countless women and a few men were sharing their own tales, including some putting their names and faces out there for all to see, and empowering others to do so:
“Because I had been drinking, and didn’t remember everything.”
“Because even my ‘friends’ told me I shouldn’t cause I would ruin HIS life.”
“Didn’t know I could say because I was sixteen and he was my boyfriend.”
“Because when you’re young and no one really believes you anyway.”
The hashtag was still trending by Friday afternoon. Their stories were favourited and retweeted around the world, while public figures and ordinary citizens tweeted out praise for their courage, and shock that the problem was so widespread.
Quebec Federation of Women president Alexa Conradi and Council for the Status of Women of Quebec president Julie Miville-Dechêne even got caught up in it, and opened up about sexual assaults in their past.
“It’s not just the whole Jian Ghomeshi story, which has brought to the fore the issue of all these women who have undergone experiences and for whatever reason, were reluctant to either tell anybody about them or go to the police,” said Zerbisias. “It’s not easy to go to the police, and even if you do, there’s no guarantee that the police will treat you humanely or that you will get to the courts and be treated humanely, or that anything will happen.”
Zerbisias tweeted about two of her own rape experiences — one when she was still a teenager and was alone with three boys in a basement recreation room, the other a few years later, when a friend of a friend raped her in his Montreal hotel room.
She had never before told anyone about the incident with the three boys, and never reported it because she felt “ashamed” and worried it would upset her mother.
“People have been saying, ‘Oh, you’ve been so brave,’ but personally, I don’t consider it brave, maybe it’s because it happened 40 years ago,” she said. “I didn’t do anything wrong. What did I do wrong?”
Zerbisias admitted that at the time, she did blame herself, saying it was “stupid” not to listen to her mother’s advice about checking whether there were parents in that recreation room when she was a teenager, or about never going into a man’s hotel room alone. With time, the feelings of blame came to pass.
Montgomery said she was becoming increasingly angry at the people who were questioning the women making allegations of assault and sexual harassment against Ghomeshi.
“I wanted to give a forum for people to, if they felt comfortable, express themselves,” said Montgomery, who says she was sexually assaulted by a relative when she was three, and raped by a colleague when working for an airline in her early 20s.
She didn’t report the rape because she feared no one would believe her and she would lose her job. She said she did report her relative to the police when she was in her 20s, but an investigation never took place. She did, however, feel empowered when she confronted her relative about it.
“I just thought that we need to educate people that a large majority of assaults don’t happen from the scary guy in the bushes. It happens in the workplace, in our homes, where we drink beer,” she said. “The reason I was doing this wasn’t for sympathy or attention, it was to say to young women to talk to a friend, get help, but just don’t hold it in, don’t blame yourself. It shouldn’t have happened to you.”
Tesni Ellis, digital community facilitator at Ryerson University Student Affairs, said that as a social media trend, of which there are many, #BeenRapedNeverReported clearly has a wide reach based on statistics (nearly 7.8 million saw a tweet with the hashtag since Thursday), and has staying power.
“It’s changing people’s perspectives and people are engaging in a conversation that they weren’t having before publicly,” she said. “I think this will have a lasting impression in terms of the narrative that it has created.”
Farrah Khan, a counsellor and advocate who has co-ordinated group therapy sessions at the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, which assists women who have faced violence, said #BeenRapedNeverReported can definitely have a positive impact for healing.
“That’s the power of this,” she said. “It’s to be part of conversation that is challenging power. It’s asking the question: Who actually gets to define my healing? Who gets to define my story?”