Listen to me for a second, just one or two. Can you? Can you hold off on your immediate rebuttal, your furious response, your self-defense for just long enough to hear me say this?
Almost every single woman I know has been the victim of sexual assault.
I wish I were exaggerating. But since I turned fifteen and sixteen and seventeen, I have been holding these stories. I was thirteen years old when the first friend stretched out her hands and offered me her story — a boy from summer camp a few years older, a car, a hand over her mouth — and asked me to hold it for just one second. It was heavy, shaping my palms into a circle, a mirror of my mouth asking her, Are you sure? I’m sure, she said, and I knew it was true because I could taste it like a copper penny lodged at the top of the back of my mouth, leaking hard metal into my bloodstream until all of it felt too heavy to carry.
After her there was another, and another. In high school, our sleepovers were still juvenile, cuddled together in a bed too small, making lists of hopes and dreams, eating donuts picked up by our fathers in the mornings. But we were already women. In my bed, five girls confessed their suffering like it was a sin they’d buried so deep they had to dig to find it themselves, hauling it up and exhausted by the time it was out. I’m so sorry, I’ve said so many times. I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.
There’s no right way to report a sexual assault because every way is wrong. Tell no one, and your assaulter continues his life scot-free. Tell the police, and face an invasive physical exam followed by even more invasive questions, and still maybe no one believes you. Tell your professor, and you’ll get a mediation session. Tell HR, and maybe your abuser gets a rebuke and stares at you across the boardroom table for longer. Tell a reporter, and you might receive some support but eventually the tide will turn, and by the time you’re strong enough to weather it, the statute of limitations might be up. This is why the whispers exist. To hopefully, if your abuser abuses enough, give you an army.
Have you ever watched videos of dams breaking? It starts with a leak, some space in the wall that hasn’t been patched well enough or made thick enough to hold a trickle of water. One woman is the trickle, and in her path more can follow until the wall falls down, crumbles under the pressure of all that water, and nothing can be held back any longer. I’ve watched this happen in diners, in classrooms, in small booths at dirty bars like some kind of twisted icebreaker. One person shares, then another, and then the dam breaks. This is what it means to grow up. This is what it means to become a woman.
We call it a whisper network, this information that gets passed from woman to woman like a bong of misery. The network carries the worst nights of people’s lives and the morning after, but it also carries warnings. Sirens that sing names or locations or groups. These places, these people, are dangerous. Too many women have said the same name aloud as they cried or shook until it became a prediction.
Everyone knew, people say, when a man with too much money and too much power is revealed as the terror that he is. Everyone knew because of the gossip blogs. Everyone knew because of the hush money and the NDAs. Everyone knew because so many women whispered until their voices were hoarse and their heads were throbbing. Everyone knew but no one could do anything. These whispers are not admissible as evidence in a court of law, and the jury of public opinion does not actually bring justice.
This week the dam broke. The truth became public. I should say alleged truth because no one has been tried in a court of law. But it’s hard to say alleged sexual assault when 29 women are telling the same story. Twenty-nine women saying that a single man, Harvey Weinstein, forced them to have sex, or threatened them. Twenty-nine women who have sat with their terror for years, some for decades, and who still aren’t fully believed.
But every time a dam breaks, every time a name like Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby or Woody Allen or R. Kelly or Bill O’Reilly or Donald Trump leaks through that wall and into the public, there is a moment of hope that maybe something will be done. That there won’t be a hung jury, or a settlement, or a mistrial, or a new album, or the oath of office as president of the United States of America. That hope hangs in the air, dangling for a second in front of all of us who already knew. We’ve already felt the disgust, processed our shock, moved from the innocence of believing people to be good long ago. We see that shining hope and wait, because someone will pull it back eventually and swing it until it hits us in the face.
There it was this morning, the slap. Rose McGowan was deemed by the men in power to be a little too loud. In 1997, Weinstein reached a settlement with the then-23-year-old actress for $100,000. The settlement was “not to be construed as an admission” but to “avoid litigation and buy peace,” according to reporting by the New York Times. But peace for whom? Certainly not McGowan. “Now am I allowed to say rapist,” she tweeted Tuesday. “Ben Affleck fuck off,” she wrote, after the actor posted a tweet supporting Weinstein’s victims despite failing to acknowledge his own past, much less his brother’s. “Bob Weinstein is a POS. They allllll knew,” she tweeted yesterday with a screenshot of an email she sent refusing a role because of her past.
One of these tweets got her suspended. Or maybe it was another, quieter tweet. Maybe it was just that she thought she could say what she wanted, and needed to be put in her place by the powers that be. According to her Instagram, posted at midnight early this morning, her account “violated the Twitter Rules” and the company barred her from tweeting for twelve hours. (Twitter has since unlocked McGowan’s account, stating a tweet that had included a private phone number, a violation of Twitter’s terms of service, had since been removed.)
Here is a brief list of things men have tweeted at me that, when I reported them, I was told were not in violation of Twitter rules: “you’re a dumb cunt,” “I am going to find you,” “I have your home address,” “This article is a terrible. I hope you get raped.” None of these were violations. The only tweet I have ever reported with success was one very detailed thread about how a man/troll/account planned to kill and dispose of my body. I still had to read them, and report them all individually.
In its explanation for why it had suspended Rose McGowan’s account and not, say, the president’s personal account for tweeting potential threats at a dictatorship, Twitter said that “among the considerations is ‘newsworthiness’ and whether a tweet is of public interest.” The implication, of course, is that a woman at the height of a headline-generating, newsworthy event does not count. That the men she is accusing have feelings that matter more than her ability to speak honestly about what happened to her, and what happened to women she knows.
Why didn’t you say something if everyone knew? Why didn’t anyone report him? Why haven’t these women filed a police report? This, this morning, is why. Because the people who need to hear this — men in powerful positions, men who stand silent when they overhear sexist comments, men who do not report abuse they know is happening, women who brush off these warnings — aren’t listening. You cannot return all of this knowledge to where it was before, stuck in the whispers and the warnings of women. But watch carefully as Twitter suspends Rose McGowan, and questions begin to float, and blame is shifted from the serial abuser to female celebrities. Watch them rebuild the dam, so that we have to break it again.