Here’s a quick story: one day, a 12-year-old girl goes to school, where she is sexually harassed by a group of boys. The girl is upset, but she doesn’t really want to talk about what happened, and on top of that there doesn’t really seem to be anyone she could talk to anyway; her parents are conservative evangelicals, and they’ve never had a conversation with the girl about boundaries, consent, rape culture, victim-blaming or slut-shaming. It’s possible they don’t even know what these concepts are, and almost impossible that their daughter does either.
And so without access to knowledge or resources, the girl’s story ends with her assuming some responsibility for the harassment and going back to school to play along. Or, her story ends a different way: with her hearing from someone else who has been through a similar experience, and gaining the tools and vocabulary she needs to understand that the harassment she experienced was not unique — but that it was also not okay, nor the result of anything she did. Maybe this intervention comes in the form of letters from older women of all ages, which tell this girl — and other kids of other ages and genders — exactly what she needs to hear: “I believe you. It’s not your fault.”
That’s the outcome that writer Lindy West is trying to help young girls experience with her new blog, I Believe You | It’s Not Your Fault. West, a staff writer for Jezebel, explains in the blog’s FAQ that the project arose from a conversation between women writers, responding to precisely the situation described above. The woman who shared the story, about a friend of her daughter’s, wanted to do something to help the girl, but wasn’t sure what that something could be. Another writer suggested writing letters — maybe not directly to this one child, but to all the other children just like her. To all the other children who need to read them.
West volunteered to accept the letters and post them on what would become IBYINYF, and immediately had her inbox flooded with people’s stories. In addition to posting contributor’s letters, essays, videos, memories and advice on the blog, West has also turned the blog into a safe space where young people can ask questions and find the answers and help they need. She recently spoke with Salon about the project, its contributors and the young people she hopes to reach.
What has been the most surprising part since you started IBYINYF, in terms of the people who have responded to the blog or contributed to it? Have you received any backlash, or have responses mostly been positive?
Oh man, the whole thing has just been a series of really incredible, inspiring surprises. The biggest one, for me, was just how quickly it exploded. Within hours of registering the blog I had an Inbox full of stories. As soon as I started mentioning it on social media people were coming out of the woodwork with stories. Stories everywhere. Some people are saying, “I’ve never told anyone this before,” and I’m getting a lot of “I wish I’d had this 20 years ago,” which is kind of the whole idea, so that’s gratifying. And it’s really rewarding to see people feeling safe like that. Feeling supported and heard and eager to expand that safe space for other people.
As far as the response goes, nothing on the internet gets a 100% positive response — there are always detractors — but, honestly, we’re at 99% right now. It’s been incredibly positive. I think we’ve gotten, maybe, two trolls so far? But regardless, this project isn’t about them. They aren’t going to be heard here. This is a space for people to tell their stories unquestioned, unjudged, and untrolled. So troll away, but I’m moderating this scene with an iron fist.
How are you doing emotionally with all of these stories? Are they hard to read or is it comforting, in a way, to know that so many women are facing such similar struggles?
It’s definitely difficult to get through my Inbox right now. There’s a lot of pain and fear and violence and anger in there. But at the same time this is the most inspiring and galvanizing thing I’ve ever been a part of. There’s so much common ground between women of all ages when it comes to dealing with the trappings of rape culture. I try to tell my step-kids, you know, I know you think I’m an old lady who doesn’t understand what it’s like to be 12, but I still feel like 12-year-old me sometimes. I remember boys sexually harassing girls in the hallways, I remember creepy men in passing cars, I remember getting an obscene phone call when I was home alone and how violated and petrified I felt — all of that seems like it happened just, like, 15 minutes ago. But it can be hard to bridge that age gap in person and talk candidly about these really difficult, uncomfortable subjects. It’s awkward for parents and it’s awkward for kids. But we can talk candidly on the Internet, woman to woman, person to person, stranger to stranger. Like how you can tell things to your cool aunt or uncle or big sister that you can’t quite tell your mom. We want to fill that role as best we can.
These issues are so massive, entrenched, and seemingly immovable, they really breed a sense of hopelessness. So getting the chance to actually DO something — even if it’s as small as telling stories and answering questions — feels hugely comforting.
I want to make sure to add — I’m editing, formatting, and queuing up the posts, but it’s our contributors who make the project happen. I’m so grateful for their tenacity and bravery.
Have you noticed any trends in the stories or issues that seem to be common to most women’s experience? Are these experiences really “shared” or are they all unique?
Obviously everyone’s experience is different, but a few themes come through in these stories over and over again. Not being believed. Not being listened to. Being told not to “make a scene.” Being told to be “nice.” So many people are put through the dual trauma of being victimized and then being blamed/doubted/scolded for speaking up about your victimization.
What are your hopes for the growth of the blog? (I know it’s brand new, but given the importance of a project like this, I can only imagine you want it to spread to all of the Internet.)
It’s really still so, so new and I feel like we’re definitely still figuring out what the site is — I mean, the e-mail address for submissions is still just my personal e-mail address, which is goofy — but obviously I’d love for it to keep growing. I hope submissions and asks keep coming in, I hope it reaches the people who need it. I’m working on a “resources” page for readers who might need more immediate and serious mental health/abortion/safety assistance than our pool of contributors can provide (we aren’t mental health or legal professionals). I’d love for a book to come out of this eventually — something more tangible than a URL that you can actually put in a person’s hands. You don’t need electricity or WiFi to turn pages. Plus, there are no trolls waiting to gut you at the end of a book. After that, who knows? Honestly, right now I’m still trying to teach myself how to use Tumblr.