Photo courtesy of Lindy West
You know feminist writer Lindy West from her humorous but substantive takes on topics like pop culture, social justice, rape culture, and body image. This week she announced on Twitter that this would be her last week at Jezebel where she's been a staff writer for the past two years, and that she'll be going freelance and working more on personal projects. One of those projects is "I Believe You It's Not Your Fault: Notes From Your Big Sibling" (IBYINYF).
The idea for the project came earlier this summer when a member of a private online writing group she is a part of posed the following question:
My daughter's friend was sexually harassed by some boys at school and feels like it's her fault. She's 12. Her parents are conservative evangelicals, and there's really no adult in her life who's even remotely versed in concepts like victim-blaming and slut-shaming and boundaries and consent. She doesn't want to talk about it and I won't violate that request, but I wish I could slip some resources her way. 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.
Members of the group had a collective and immediate desire to harness their own similar experiences to support young people going through the same thing. Someone asked if writing something in the form of a letter to this girl—as well as others in similar circumstances—would be a good way to do that. But "without coming across like dorky, hand-wringing moms." Hence the name for the project.
IBYINYF is led by Lindy, who at 32 will soon become a stepmother to two girls aged 10 and 12. Contributor Mary Adkins (one of over 30 volunteers) described it as "a blog aimed at teenagers who have been victimized by sexual assault." Younger readers who are currently struggling with abuse submit questions which are responded to by several contributors. Older readers submit letters narrating and reflecting on their past experiences. The result is a very raw collection of very traumatic experiences.
The blog launched on July 15, and within two weeks and had gotten 3,000 followers and 2,300 notes and gathered enough submissions to cover two months. Only two stories a day will be published. I reached out to Lindy to find out more about its progress.
VICE: How would you characterize the feedback you've gotten? Both positive and negative.
Lindy West: I'm thrilled to say that the feedback we've gotten has been nearly 100 percent positive. We've received a very, very small amount of kneejerk anti-feminist pushback—people presenting these ludicrously tortured scenarios like, "I went to a party wearing a sandwich board that said 'PLEASE RAPE ME'—are you sure it isn't my fault?" as though that somehow undermines our mission statement; or people asking, clearly in bad faith, "What about male victims? Why don't you care about them?" which is spurious, because we've been publishing questions and letters from male victims since the blog's inception. Oh, and we've gotten some criticism from anti-BDSM radical feminists for being sex-positive.
But I could pretty much count those messages and comments on one hand, while the positive response has been infinitely more plentiful and more meaningful. As cliche as it sounds, one person writing in to say, "I felt bad about this, and now I feel better about it, now I feel less alone," makes this project worth it to me. And we're getting notes like that all day, every day. Even when I set up the blog, I didn't yet understand how powerful and healing it could be just to be able to tell someone what happened to you. We get so much of that. "I just wanted to tell someone." "No one has ever believed me." "I thought I was the only one."
In the BBC piece, when discussing the possibility that her assaulter might read the blog with her story, Jessica Probus—one of the contributors—says she didn't tell her story for him, but for other girls that might be in the same situation as her. Notwithstanding the fact that survivors are the primary audience, have you gotten any feedback from the other side? Namely, people who recognized certain predatory behavior from their own past or that of their friends/family and maybe it gave them pause?
I haven't gotten that feedback specifically, but I've heard from a lot of men saying, "This was so important for me to read. I had no idea." A lot of people know this stuff is happening, intellectually, but it's a really visceral, eye-opening experience to read all of these first-hand experiences in a row.
A screenshot of one post at IBYINYF
What's surprised you about the project since you launched?
Probably the most significant thing I've learned is that these stories are devastatingly common—more common than you think—and many, many people have been keeping them inside for years. Our society gives victims infinite reasons to keep their traumas to themselves (you're going to break your grandmother's heart, you'll destroy the family, your sexual past will be dredged up, it was probably your fault anyway) and very few incentives and support systems for speaking out about them. When you read this many stories in a row, from people all over the world, it really becomes clear how intense the cultural messaging is that keeps people quiet. The patterns are undeniable.
Is there something more or different that you and your contributors do for self-care now that you're working closely with so many very personal stories of sexual assault?
Well, it's still new. So, at this point, I feel far more energized than burdened by the project. But I definitely feel the sheer volume of these stories weighing me down—the number of submissions, the number of questions, the number of people who feel trapped and lonely and ashamed and confused. We definitely take shifts in answering the ask box questions. People take breaks when they're feeling ragged and come back when they're feeling fortified. And as for general self-care, it's like anything else. Everyone's different. Personally, I turn off the computer and hang out with my family as much as possible. And I find TV binge-watching very therapeutic. Also, wine.
In the FAQ you state that you're accepting submissions from people of all genders and ages. Are there plans to add male contributors that can give advice?
We actually have two cis men and one trans man on our advice panel right now, and I've gotten several queries from men about submitting their stories. I would absolutely love to hear from more men and post their submissions. One of the most heartbreaking letters we've gotten in the ask box was from a young man who'd been raped by his soccer coach, and he was convinced he couldn't tell anyone because men aren't supposed to be vulnerable. Men aren't supposed to cry or ask for help.
That's one of the most pernicious aspects of patriarchy—the idea that weakness and victimization are inherently feminine. That's a horrible paradigm for women, obviously, but it's also massively damaging for men. Hearing from these teenage boys who don't have anywhere to turn—it's just fucking sickening to me. I really do want everyone to know that if you feel like you don't have anyone to talk to, you can talk to us. Please, please, please talk to us.
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