This essay originally appeared in the Privacy & Perception Issue of Vice Magazine, created in collaboration with Broadly. You can read more stories from the issue here."Why don’t you want to have sex? I don’t understand.” Fifteen-year-old me is in the backseat of a classmate’s car. I would call him a friend, but he never really was that. We are half-dressed, eager, and young enough to think this is cool.
I blink, stalling for time. I try to explain to him that I am a virgin, that having sex right now just doesn’t interest me, that I simply do not want to. The concept goes right over his head.“I don’t get it. It totally looks like you’re down. Why else would you post pictures of your boobs, like, bursting out of bikinis on Facebook?”My whole life has been caught in a feedback loop of battling the public perceptions of the very internet persona I created to feel safe.The slut-shaming began in high school, when I transferred to a new school district at age 14. Middle school was incontestably my awkward phase: I had a mouthful of braces, square glasses that didn’t quite fit my face, and a nose I hadn’t yet grown into. But after ordering a year’s worth of contact lenses and shedding the metal from my teeth, I was finally pretty for the first time in my life—or so I’d like to think—when I walked in as the new girl my freshman year of high school.Boys liked me. That much was undeniable. They asked me to be their dates at dances, hit me up on AOL Instant Messenger, and tried to talk to me in class. Most often, they friended me on Facebook—even if I’d never spoken a word to them in my life.As the girls at school caught on, they did what catty teen girls normally do when they feel threatened: They dragged my name through the mud.
“Did you hear?” says Lizzy, a close friend of 15-year-old me. “Brittany’s been telling people you’ve had sex. Like, a lot of people. And, like, a lot of sex.”
We’re at her house, idly scrolling through Facebook one weekday afternoon. She’s stalking the best friend of my boyfriend at the time, a popular, older Spanish boy whom half the school wants to date. Florence and the Machine blasts from her laptop speakers.“What?” I sputter, taken aback. “That makes no sense. I legit haven’t even had sex.”Lizzy shrugs nonchalantly, clicking on another one of the friend’s tagged photos. I know she’s telling me what Brittany said just to get a rise out of me; I know she’s jealous that I’m with my boyfriend, that she has the biggest crush on his best friend. I know. But the raw hurt comes tearing at my skin all the same.“Well, she’s telling people you’ve had sex with seven guys before. Like you’re a slut or something.”“I haven’t,” I deny profusely, stung. The word “slut” rings in my ears. “I’m still a virgin. Why would she do that?”Lizzy shrugs again. Her eyes don’t leave the screen. She keeps scrolling.
When the names and rumors started rolling in, I was hurt in a way I’d never been. I was deemed too promiscuous, deemed too prudish, called a bitch, despised, desired, and rejected—all at once.But thank god for the internet. It let me correct those things.In response to the girls who talked smack about me, I decided to present a rare, impenetrable version of myself online—the more openly sexualized persona that people seemed to want me to be.The person I created on the internet shielded me from the slurs of promiscuity high school bullies kept whispering in my ear. Rather than let their words break me, I molded my online image to embody sexuality, even if I didn’t always feel much like that person in reality. It seems silly now, but I thrived on such simple things: I loved friending my ex’s friends and watching them like my photos. I loved posting suggestive photos of myself and seeing others leave flirtatious comments, sometimes even bringing up how “hot” my photos were when I met them in person.
I loved knowing that the internet was a public forum, and that I was using my sexuality—something originally employed against me—as a source of power. It was my greatest weapon.But the big, gaping hole in my online creation was easy to spot if you looked closely enough: I simply wasn’t that girl.The foundations of my carefully constructed online presence began crumbling in my first serious, longterm relationship. I fell in love with a boy. He fell in love with me. And his friends—many of whom I had previously rejected—lashed out in jealousy.
Seventeen-year-old me and my then-boyfriend are parked in his car on one of the many indistinguishable streets around my suburban childhood home. It is summer. I am in love for the first time. And I am angry.“Why the fuck did Tony call me a whore?” I yell. “Like, you really let him say, ‘Yeah, I bet she’s good at sucking dick’ without punching him in the face?”My then-boyfriend sighs. We’ve been arguing for hours now.“I don’t know, Eda. I told him to shut the fuck up—you know I even fought him about it.” Tears start streaming down my face. I don’t understand how this is still happening to me years later.“I’ve been with you for almost seven months.” My voice cracks. I think I am breaking from the weight of the person I have been pretending to be.“Why didn’t you stand up for me? He’s your friend. He’s just fucking butt-hurt I didn’t want to hook up with him that time on the roof.”
Something in him snaps.“Look, Eda, I did, OK?” he barks. “I can’t do anything else. People just think that ’cause you’ve been with a lot of people. I can’t change that.”
My first serious relationship, although toxic at times, helped bring me to a pivotal realization: The person I put forth as myself on the internet—and the perceptions around my sexuality others had of me—wasn’t true to who I really was. After being slut-shamed for years—a slander initially vocalized by the women in my life and later perpetuated by the men—I was finished letting others determine the extent of my promiscuity or sexuality.The persona of the overly promiscuous person I had propagated on the internet was no longer a source of power. Rather, it had become an overstatement of my actual sexual desires.
And so, I began to define who I was and share my own truth. Gradually, I transitioned from simply posting promiscuous photos on Facebook to telling my actual experiences. I wrote about my sexual assault, my views on consent, my relationships— regardless of whether they were healthy or wholly rooted in sex.By sharing my own truth, I began reclaiming my online image from the kids who had stolen it from me years ago and—finally—started showing who I was.A part of me will always navigate that precarious balance between sharing what people want to see and remaining honest about who I am. But, for now, I’m grateful that the person I’m establishing myself to be on the internet is, more or less, just me. And that’s exactly who I want to be.