A few years ago I was sprawled out on the basement floor of my childhood home in Kansas trying to narrow down 25 years of mementos into a single box. Various odds and ends marked the passage of time — love notes from boys long forgotten, history essays I’d been particularly proud of, the occasional concert stub, and four high school yearbooks.
I started flipping through the edition from my sophomore year, uncertain of what I was looking for. That is, until I saw an acquaintance in the upper-class section that triggered a suppressed memory: A decade before, I had been raped in a bathroom at a high school party by a boy who didn’t go to our school. The person who brought him to the party was staring up at me in black-and-white.
I was only 15 at the time. For a decade I had denied to myself that I’d been sexually assaulted. I thought I could pretend it never happened. I didn’t tell my family, and I never pressed charges. A scroll of the recently trending #WhyIDidntReport hashtag explains through literally millions of points of view why some survivors don’t report, and the terrible ways some have been treated after they did. Like many people using the hashtag, I just wanted to move on with my life.
I had never considered contacting my rapist before that day with the yearbook. But I realized how easy it would be to find him on Facebook, and didn’t hesitate to surrender to the urge to see where life had taken him. I hoped it had been grim.
I’m not entirely sure what I was thinking when I decided to look him up, to be honest, but finding him was eerily simple. I looked up my classmate and searched through his friends for the other guy’s first name. A few clicks brought me face-to-face with him: the man who had taken my virginity without my consent a decade earlier. Though somewhat aged, it was a face I hadn’t forgotten and am sure I never will. He didn’t look like a monster. He looked like the kind of man that I’d swipe right on Tinder.
As I clicked through to get a closer look, detailed memories came flooding back. More memories than I remembered remembering, if you get what I mean (and statistics tell me at least 1 in 5 of you do). I fell limp, as energy fled my body and was replaced with a familiar nauseating fear mixed with a new sensation — guilt.
I discovered that not only was he alive and well, he was thriving. I was deeply disturbed to see that he’s now married and has a young daughter. Immediately, I began to question whether he was hurting them too. What I did next surprised even me: I drafted a message detailing exactly what he had done — not for his benefit; I was going to send it to his wife, then ask, at the end, if she and their girl were safe. But ultimately, I couldn’t click send. What he did forever changed my life, but in that moment I didn’t want to upend his.
Teresa Descilo, MSW, MCT, founder of the Trauma Resolution Center in Miami, says this kind of cognitive dissonance is common among survivors. They think, “If he is doing fine, what is wrong with me? He raped me, but is good to her? I must be unworthy. Is he abusing his wife and children, and should I speak up? But if [he’s not], I could ruin their lives.”
I slammed my laptop shut and ran to the bathroom. I crumpled to the ground and shed hot tears until my eyes were bloodshot. I didn’t anticipate that seeing his face would be so visceral. The terror that pulsed through my body mirrored the horrible sensation I’d experienced when I came to at that high school party. I felt enveloped in darkness. I could barely pick myself up off the floor. These are some of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, a diagnosis I’ve never received because I’ve been too ashamed to seek professional help.
Judy Greenberg, M.Ed. M.A., licensed psychologist, explains that “a psychological trauma is an event that overwhelms us. It always comes along with feelings of helplessness and powerlessness. Being reminded of that traumatic event, as in seeing your rapist on social media, will certainly be a trigger.” Of course, triggers aren’t always as clear-cut as coming face-to-face with your actual attacker (or his avatar). Greenberg describes it as a reminder: “A trigger can be something we see, hear, smell, taste, or feel, that is thematically similar to the event,” she says.
For many survivors, the daily news of late has been triggering. On Thursday morning, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford is scheduled to testify during a hearing as part of the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s pick as the next Justice to join the Supreme Court. In all probability, she will be asked to relive in excruciating detail the day she alleges Brett Kavanaugh held her down and attempted to force himself on her, which was reported by the New Yorker on September 14. It will be hard for her, and for many of us who’ve been following the story since it first broke.
The continuous presence of sexual violence in the media can be difficult to cope with as a survivor. Over the weekend that this story dominated the news cycle, calls to the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline increased by an astonishing 42%. Greenberg explains that “when we’re triggered, it is as if we’re taken back to the event and once again experience feeling overwhelmed, helpless, and powerless.” Some people find power in reporting. Some people find it by reaching out to loved ones. Some want to just look, silently, at what their assailant is doing now.
Michelle*, a 24-year-old survivor in New York, got a follow request on Instagram from her attacker a year after she wrote him a letter about what he had done to her. She keeps her account on private specifically to prevent him from contacting her, and so when his request came through, she denied it. Like me, Michelle had never been connected on any social media channels with her attacker. But she has also given in to that nameless curiosity — that I don’t know why I want to look, but I’m going to look feeling, so she checks up on him, and often. “I look at his social media once a week or when I’m especially down,” she tells me. “I read his public statuses and see his pictures. I’m always looking for evidence that he’s suffering or that he’s not happy. I never find it.”
Survivors have varying logic behind wanting to look up their attackers on social media. “If the traumatic memory of the [assault] is unresolved, this action is most likely the result of needing closure. The nature of traumatic memory is that it feels like the event is still going on, even if it happened years ago,” says Descilo. She does not recommend survivors revisit old wounds in this way — using social-media snooping to drag that past experience into the present. Most of the time we have the news or dusty old yearbooks for that.
I’ve never looked up my rapist on Facebook again. I don’t want to read his name or see his face. Knowing he’s free to live his life and be part of society torments me, and I know I couldn’t handle contacting him. Of course, sometimes social media makes that contact for you.
Thanks to algorithms on platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn, anyone who’s connected to you by even a few degrees of separation is likely to pop up as a “suggested friend,” especially considering some 70% of survivors of sexual assault know their attackers personally. Katy, 30, who’s now happily married and living in Omaha, chose to block her perpetrator in order to prevent the retraumatization that seeing his face or name can cause. “My attacker is the friend of a friend of a friend. He’s popped up as a ‘suggested friend’ on Facebook multiple times,” she says. Before that, she said she “felt ill immediately when I saw his face,” and “shaken for hours afterward.” Greenberg suggests exactly this course of action: blocking people on social media whose images would be traumatizing for you to see. Looking at them? She says, “It’s not helpful and it’s not healing.”
Facebook’s global head of safety, Antigone Davis, had this to say: “We take this issue very seriously. Survivors of sexual assault deserve to feel safe on Facebook. We remove known convicted sex offenders from our platform; we delete the accounts of people who non-consensually share intimate images; and we use technology to protect people from harassment and other abusive or unwanted behavior.” She adds that their tools, policies, and resources have been developed together with the National Network to End Domestic Violence. It would be impossible to task Facebook with ensuring that no sexual predators go on to live fruitful and fulfilling lives, unbothered by their past crimes. So then it’s a question of survivors looking or not.
“The well-being of a rape survivor would be greatly impacted by seeing that their rapist has gone on to live a seemingly normal life. The impact would involve all the symptoms related to traumatic stress — fear, hyperarousal, flashbacks, nightmares,” Descilo says. PTSD forces survivors to repeatedly relive their trauma. We might be able to block our assaulters from our social media channels, but we’ll never be able to block the tortured memories they’ve left us with. Especially not when so much as turning on the news brings up rehashing of story after story just like ours. Or like ours with a few small changes. Or not like ours at all. That’s just how triggers work.
In the weeks since Dr. Ford’s accusation against Brett Kavanaugh surfaced, politicians, media, and nameless naysayers on Twitter have attacked her memory, credibility, and reasoning behind bringing forth her testimony now. I believe Dr. Ford and Debbie Ramirez and Julie Swetnick, who recently released similar allegations of sexual misconduct against Kavanaugh.
So far, Kavanaugh has denied any allegations, citing that he was a virgin in high school, and anyway, there’s no sexual assault listed on his now-published day planner from 1982. This rote dismissal of these women, who’ve overcome tremendous personal obstacles in order to share their stories, is shameful. These women have endured the pain that comes with surviving sexual assault for over three decades and transformed it into power by bravely coming forward, even when it means reliving those traumatic memories on the world’s stage.
As Dr. Ford takes the stand to share her testimony this morning, we must do more than just believe her. We should support her and other survivors unconditionally. One in five women in the U.S. carry the weight of surviving sexual assault day in, and day out, through their “mindless” Facebook scrolls, through the halls of their high schools and of our major governing bodies. The point is, these stories are everywhere, whether we’re choosing to look or not.
*Name has been changed in order to respect the privacy of the survivor, otherwise last names and some identifying details have been withheld.
If you’re a survivor of sexual assault and need to speak to a trained counselor call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 or chat online, both are available 24/7.