It’s March 10, 2016, my 21st birthday and my first time going downtown. It’s a clear, warm night, with the promise of spring budding from the newly defrosted grass around the town fountain. My friends and I are laughing, sharing jokes and stories as we walk to BJ’s to begin the birthday bar-crawl.
He’s standing outside the bar, a man that I knew from the theatre department, but with whom I wasn’t very close. He calls me over to wish me a happy birthday, hugs me and grabs my genitals through my jeans.
“Uh, hey, you know you’re grabbing my-,” I start to say.
“Oh, I know what I’m grabbing,” he whispers in my ear, squeezing harder until it hurts. “Happy birthday, James.”
I break away from him and tell my friends what happened as we walk inside, laughing it off as if it were a joke and not an assault that I would grow to regret not doing more about. Since then, I’ve heard enough horror stories about him that I’ve come to realize that my experience was comparatively lucky. I tried to push him out of my mind until earlier this month when his name appeared on a list titled “Abusers at SUNY Fredonia,” which blew up on Twitter.
The list was a simple column of names but grew over the course of the day as more and more names were added in accompanying tweets. Almost all of the names were familiar to me, many of which I had already heard substantiating stories of assault or rape, but a few came as a complete shock. Although many came out on Twitter with stories of their own about names on the list, many more expressed their concern that the list seemed to be sourced anonymously, a disbelief and discomfort reminiscent of last year’s anonymous ‘rape list’ scribbled on the bathroom wall at BJ’s.
The author of the Twitter list, sophomore psychology major Opal Kelly, composed the initial version based on the stories and experiences they had heard from survivors, adding names as more people came forward with their stories, or asking for a name to be put on for somebody else.
“I would rather take the backlash for not giving a name of the victim or a survivor than for them to put their name out there and get told that they’re lying,” said Kelly, “or to get invalidated, because that’s a seriously traumatic event and not one that I want survivors to have to put up with.”
Kelly clearly had great intentions, but there are still legitimate concerns about the efficacy of their method. I’ve always been a proponent of victim-first activism, elevating the voices of victims that choose to share their stories, and I struggle with the end results of anonymously sourced lists.
Do they make it easier to discredit those who share their stories directly? Do they make it easier to make activism the enemy? Do they urge the friends of the accused to lash out at the lists, rather than to confront the accusations proactively? Do they risk false accusations being lumped together with true ones, despite the miniscule rate of the false reporting of sexual violence? Do they rob the victims of their power to share and control their own stories when people place names on the list instead?
I’m not sure, but I think it’s our duty as people to believe those who share their stories. I see a lot of good coming from the list, but also a lot of anger and confusion. I see a lot of people being called out for shaming and attacking others on social media, but I’ve also seen people with legitimate concerns about the effect of this method of activism unfairly labeled as rape apologists.
“It might have not been the right way, but it’s the way I chose to get the awareness out there,” said Kelly. “I don’t need people to believe it. The whole point is that the names are out there, so that people can be aware and be careful when they see these people or engage with these people.”
I talked with an individual whose friend asked for a name to be put on the list for her, who declined to press charges after her experience with the accused due to fear of retaliation. She currently has a ‘No-Contact’ order with him, and feels conflicted about the direction that the list went.
“It was really triggering for me, because a lot of these [people responding to] allegations saying ‘He’d never do this’, or ‘you’re slandering him,’ was exactly what I went through when I came out about my abuser,” she said.
She feels that the conversation surrounding the list went in a malicious direction as time went on, but acknowledges that the list has done some good. She stresses that it’s vital that we believe the stories of victims and that we view the act of sharing their experience for what it is: an effort to protect potential victims rather than to somehow destroy the lives of the accused.
“People say that their lives are being ruined,” she said, “they’re being kicked out of their major. I changed majors, I changed instruments, I almost dropped out of my fraternity, I tried to take my own life. I’m not trying to ruin lives, I’m just trying to get mine back on track.”
She urges victims of assault to talk to anyone who they feel that they can, whether it be a counselor, an RA, the Police or Fredonia’s chief diversity officer and Title IX coordinator, Bill Boerner, who helped her get the No-Contact order.
In a conversation with Boerner, he expressed what he felt were the pros and cons of this type of anonymous publication, sharing his own personal preferences in victim advocacy and activism.
“One of my ground rules for everything I ever do whenever I’m presenting or doing trainings is that stories are for their owners to share,” said Boerner. “If you wanted to write on your personal thing, ‘I was sexually assaulted by this person,’ I would respect your choice to do that. I would support your endeavor as a friend. I would never then take your story and publish it for you or on my own. That’s against my belief system too.”
Still, Boerner believes that the list has the potential to bring about some good and serves as a learning opportunity for all those involved.
“How could [Kelly] have done this differently,” said Boerner, ”and still gotten the same level of engagement? [They’ve] created a lot of conversation and dialogue on this campus, and really reinvigorated this. So, are there other ways for us to boost awareness and make a movement without hurting others? That’s not the perfect way to phrase it, but it’s an important conversation to have with ourselves and with each other.”
As we work to come to terms with the outcomes of the list I remain hopeful that those who have been affected by the list are able to start that conversation in a meaningful and constructive way. In regards to those who have seen their name on the list, I hope they also talk to Dr. Boerner or a counselor and engage in a proactive way rather than attacking accusers. I also hope that this serves as an opportunity for us all to examine our different outlooks on effective activism, and to come to the conclusions about ethics and efficacy that are right for us and for our campus. As for those who see accusations being put forward against their friends, I think Kelly has a reasonable outlook.
“It’s up to them completely,” said, Kelly. “They can choose to not believe the list and remain friends with the person who was on it. They can bring it up to them, say ‘Hey, I heard this happened, do you know what they’re talking about?’ There’s a chance that someone will bring up the fact that their friend is on the list to their friend and their friend won’t remember assaulting someone because they didn’t know it was coercion, they didn’t know it wasn’t consensual. That doesn’t change the fact that it was wrong and they should have known better in the situation.”
In the end, I do hope that we can learn and grow as a community from this incident, and that we can move forward and keep the wellbeing of the victims of sexual assault foremost in our minds. I don’t think anyone involved in the conversation surrounding the list has the whole and complete answer for the best way to proceed, but I think that we can find one together. I want to leave off with a message to survivors from a woman whose friend put a name on the list for her.
“Your story is always valid,” she said, “no matter when you decide to come out about it, or if you decide to come out about it. You could come out about it in 20 years and that doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen, just that this is the time where you’re able to confront that it happened. The easiest thing to do a lot of the time when it just happened is to put it out of your mind, forget it happened, tell yourself it wasn’t sexual assault. But if you know that there’s something wrong, deep in your heart, then there was probably something wrong that happened against you that literally stripped you of your humanity. When you decide to come out about it, if you decide to come out about it, you are valid.”