Professor Christine Blasey Ford was a teenager when she says Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh tried to rape her. You know the story by now. She didn’t report it at the time, but has come forward now that Kavanaugh is close to being confirmed as a justice to the highest court in the land. On Friday morning, President Trump tweeted that he had “no doubt” that if it had happened, Blasey Ford would have reported it right away.
That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works. I know this because this is my story, too, and the story of millions of people. Don’t believe me? Look at Twitter today. Look at the hashtag #WhyIDidntReport. Read the cacophony of stories—each different but the same. Stories of assault by strangers, friends, family members, teachers. The hashtag exposes the sheer banality of rape in America. Sexual assault is not rare. It’s common. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, there were 320,000 sexual assaults in the US in 2016. And 77 percent of people who experienced rape or sexual assault say they did not tell police.
That number is likely much higher. Though the NCVS data is the best the US has for now, critics have long warned that in addition to suffering from the risk of underreporting that befalls all self-reported surveys, its methodology specifically discourages reporting. In a study from five years ago, the National Academy of Sciences found that the government’s survey was probably vastly undercounting sexual crimes. That report found that a separate survey devoted to sexual assault and rape would have more accurate results.
Tweets are not a replacement for this data. But they can augment it. The stories told today give texture to the statistics that tell us this is common. Three hundred and twenty thousand—even if that number is low—is too big and abstract a number to really fathom. But the tweets shared this morning are real, and individual, and impossible to forget.
In an era of misinformation and bots on social media, when we have daily coverage of the pain that can be inflicted by social media, this hashtag is a reminder of how powerful these mediums can be in bringing people together. (Of course, it was also Twitter that the president used to share the tweet that so startled sexual assault survivors this morning.)
But it’s also worth remembering that a hashtag doesn’t tell the whole story of sexual assault in America. Not everyone is on Twitter, and many people aren’t comfortable sharing their stories—even vaguely—in such a public place. But for some, it’s a crucial outlet to validate our identities at a time when it feels like those in power would like us to be silent. Or invisible.
I say our, because I am included in this. When I read Trump’s tweet this morning, first I stopped breathing. When the most powerful person in the land denies your lived experience, it feels like someone punching you in the diaphragm.
When I breathed again, I paced the room, thinking about when I was a teenager, one year older than Ford at the time of her alleged assault. I was in college, and a boy I trusted date raped me in his room. I told a few friends and then didn’t mention it for years. I didn’t report it. I had a lot of reasons not to, but chief among them was: I didn’t think anyone would care. Why were you in his room, I thought they’d ask. I had previously reported a much less serious sexual assault—groping—in high school, and nothing had happened. Why go through the public embarrassment of that again? I didn’t even tell my family about it for 15 years.
This morning, I picked up my phone and tweeted about that incident. I wanted to speak directly to the president, or anyone reading his tweet and thinking it sounded right. Like the women and men who took to Twitter this morning, I wanted to declare: I exist, here is my story.
Reading through the tweets on the hashtag drives home the innumerable reasons people do not report these events. Chief among them is that they won’t be believed, and then they’ll be punished by whoever has an interest in protecting the status quo. Yet, the collectivism in a hashtag gives us all solidarity. Though it is at once the most public airing of our most personal story, it somehow feels less intimate to tweet about this kind of experience than to sit across the table from a family member or friend and tell them.
Why don’t people report? Here’s what some said.
I’m a man and it would make me seem weak.
It would ruin my career before it had even begun.
Nothing happened the first time I reported.
The person who raped me is the person I would have needed to report to.
They were a friend and I was in denial.
He told me he’d kill me if I told anyone.
Men are tweeting about how, for them, the stigma of coming out and reporting their sexual assault was too much to bear. That’s in line with research that’s been saying the same thing for years. People are sharing about how they didn’t report professors or bosses who had power over their professional lives. Or how they didn’t report family members on whom they literally depended for everything. They’re tweeting about police officers and administrators whom they did tell, but who doubted and blamed them.
This hashtag has power. After I had tweeted and I later saw the trending hashtag, I felt like my story was a raindrop in a lake, at once singular but part of something bigger. I was grateful. I was floored by what so many people have gone through, even while not being surprised. The specifics of their pain: “He held my face so I couldn’t breath.” “He was stronger than me, and my cousin.” “I was 13.”
Every woman and many men I know have a story. Or many stories. In 2016, in the weeks after the Access Hollywood tape came out, I wrote a list of the sexual assault and harassment in my life that I could remember. It wasn’t exhaustive, but it was exhausting. It had never occured to me to write them down before because that kind of experience is so much an accepted part of life for women. “After we are leered at and groped, we get off the train, and go to work, and we don’t mention it, because why would we? This is part of being a woman,” I wrote at the time. I assumed everyone knew.
But everyone doesn’t know. That’s what the #metoo movement, and the backlash to it, has taught us. And that’s why so many people are reliving their own assaults today to share their stories. It hurts to educate people about the ordinariness of sexual assault. It means having to think about something someone might not want to think about. It means remembering the reasons you felt stifled from sharing in the first place. For many of us, it means remembering how violated and embarrassed and guilty, and above all, alone we felt.
I hesitated to tweet this morning. Even though I’d already written about my experience and told my family, and even though I really don’t feel as traumatized by it as I used to, I worried it could in some way seem unprofessional to tell my story. But this thing that happened to me when I was 18; it’s a truth I carry inside me every day.
Even now, telling feels dangerous, despite the fact that the story being told is so universal, which is exactly the point. These are our stories to tell.