A Story About Processing Sexual Trauma In The Digital Age
It’s 3 a.m. and I get on Twitter because I can’t sleep. I scroll through hundreds of posts, nearly every single one about Bill Cosby or Brett Kavanaugh and the respective sexual assault cases against them. “Believe women!” some people seem to be screaming into the abyss of the Internet. “But why believe women?” others ask in response. I close the app but I’m still restless; an hour later, I reopen it and read the same posts over and over again.
“Maybe you should get off the Internet for a while,” my friend tells me when I talk to her about it. “You need to look out for your own mental health.”
I’ve never been too good at that, if I’m being completely honest. I still can’t seem to speak plainly about the things I’ve been through; instead, I talk in vague euphemisms. A lot of my friends do that, I’ve noticed. They don’t like the word “sexual assault.” Or “rape.” Or “molestation.” Or “violence.” Instead they use phrases like “the thing that happened” or “that one party” or, sometimes, “#MeToo.” Mostly they don’t talk about it at all.
In fact, I’d forgotten one friend had been sexually assaulted at all until she texted me saying, “It’s been a hard week.” She’d only mentioned it to me once before, but as soon as I read her message the memory comes flooding back. I was the first — maybe the only — person she’d told. She said she didn’t want it to be part of her identity.
I text her back and turn my phone over so I won’t see it flash with new messages. I try to focus on my work, but my mind keeps getting away from me.
I give up and get on Instagram to scroll through dozens of aspirational posts about Grecian vacations and beautiful architecture and even a meme or two. A friend tags me in a video of a puppy swinging in a hammock. That’s always been the appeal of Instagram for me — it’s a momentary getaway, a safe space on social media. It’s the only app where I have a positivity rule:
I get a notification that my friend has sent me a post; I tap over to my DMs without a second thought. It’s just a white background with text: “Men are scared of women now? We’ve been scared of them for thousands of years.”
I wonder a lot about this fear men feel, the one that’s been all over the news cycle lately. I wonder if it’s similar to what I feel when I’m out walking late at night and a strange man approaches me. If it’s similar to the nervous buzzing in my gut when I realize I have to tell a guy I’m just not interested in them, or when I feel a foreign hand groping my ass and I whip around, flustered and unsure if I’m supposed to be furious or frightened. If it’s the same kind of fear I felt being pinned down by hands much stronger than mine as I breathlessly repeated, “Please, stop, I need to leave.” I couldn’t make out his expression in the dark. Did the terror in his eyes match mine?
I exit out of Instagram and get back to work. I’m supposed to be writing an article about the professional benefits of Instagram, but my mind keeps wandering back to that post. So much for safe spaces.
I get on Facebook to post something for work and the first thing I see is a glaring yellow photo, uploaded by my aunt. “#HIMTOO” it says in giant, black capital letters. “No man is safe. #ConfirmKavanaughNow.”
It’s a strange sight to see, coming from the relative who I had once sworn was the coolest person on the planet. She used to sneak me out of family gathers and take me to get ice cream at McDonald’s in her shiny red convertible, the roof left down so the wind could comb through our hair. If anyone had asked me then who my favorite relative was, I would have said her name without hesitation. But it’s been years since those days, over a decade, and now I can only stare at the blinding yellow-and-black poster assaulting my vision.
I think about hiding her posts from my newsfeed but I can’t seem to click the “unfollow” button. I get a weird, masochistic jolt of adrenaline every time one of my childhood heroes falls from their pedestals. I like to watch their descent, even as it makes my hands curl into fists, my jaw clench in anger. I stare on, fascinated, as they are stripped of their superpowers right before my eyes, becoming human so quickly I can’t help but wonder if I’d imagined their divinity all along.
“That’s going to make for an awkward Thanksgiving,” my friend messages me when I send her a screenshot on Slack.
But will it? I get the gut feeling that when we’re all together, no one will speak a word. Everyone talks but nothing ever seems to come out of their mouths. It’s only when they’re hidden behind their screens that everything comes tumbling out.
I scroll through the comments, pick out the keywords: . “Why would she only say something now?” another relative writes, and my stomach tangles into knots. My fingers flex toward the keyboard but I don’t trust myself to take the bait anymore. I self-destruct in the face of arguments that hit too close to home, have to hold myself back from begging the question, “But what if it had been me?”
I exit out of Facebook. I forget why I logged on in the first place.
I think a lot about deleting social media. It’s a fantasy of mine — I imagine the thrill of watching a decade of posts disappear, permanently deleted, and with it all of the nerves pitted in my stomach like rocks. I know deep down I could never do it, though. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, it all makes me feel connected — not just to my job, not just to my friends, but to the world.
“It’s a weird balance,” my coworker says to me when I speak to her about it. “I feel this weird obligation to be informed? And to be up-to-date? But I am also very, very drained.”
It’s how I feel. It’s how a lot of people feel, I think. Deleting social media feels like shutting ourselves out of something important, downgrading our statuses as a well-informed, conscientious readers. We live in a world where information is available at the touch of our fingers — wouldn’t we be fools not to utilize it? And yet there’s a heaviness to it I’m not sure how to describe. I feel obligated to drown under the weight of everything happening in the world.
It’s 3 a.m. again and I get on Twitter. All I can do is hope that this time I’ll find something better.