Lindy West Brings Light to the Darkness of Sexual Abuse

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The fabulous and fierce Lindy West

Nearly everyone has stories of abuse that transcend a horrific spectrum, men and women, adults and children. Playground teasing that escalates into groping and coercion. Repeated clandestine rape by a family member or “friend.” Jokes and remarks with a subcurrent meant to sexually humiliate someone in the moment, but stay with them forever.

It took the ragevision of one woman, Lindy West, (formerly an editorial dynamo at Jezebel, now kicking some minsogynst ass over at GQ) to bring these stories to light, so people can start to bleach out the stain of shame, so that nobody feels alone in this struggle, so that maybe, just maybe, someone can read something that makes them realize that it doesn’t have to be this way. Sparked by a story of a pre-teen girl pressured into lifting her shirt, then feeling shamed after she reported it, West jumped into action and started i believe you | it’s not your fault, a clearinghouse for tales of abuse.

I submitted one, a story about my neighbor in the building where I grew up. I was humbled and surprised by the outpouring of support I received from friends and family members. It even sparked conversations among mothers and daughters I know.

Here’s an interview with the woman brave enough to lift the sun and shine it into the darkest, deepest places we know as humans.

“What you really get when you read IBY/INYF is the cumulative weight of all these stories. They are relentless. They are everywhere. There are more of them than we could ever put down on paper. And inside of each story is just so much pain.”

Swerve: Why was it important for you to start IBYINYF?

Lindy West: Well, the most immediate impetus, at this point in my life, was that I’m the soon-to-be-stepmother to two pre-teen girls. They’re just getting to the age where some of these issues–sexual harassment, sexual assault, abusive relationships, drugs, drinking, and so on–stop being scary abstractions you learn about in health class, and start affecting their peers’ lives in tangible, devastating ways. (Obviously there are some kids who are confronted with those issues much, much earlier and in much more violent ways than anyone ever should be–a frequent, heartbreaking theme at IBY/INYF.) 

So they’re getting to that age, and I know they have questions, and I also know that sometimes it’s hard for kids and parents to communicate with the candor and detail that these issues really need (if kids have any sympathetic adult to talk to at all, which they often don’t). Parents want to believe that their kids are innocent and carefree, and kids can feel the pressure of that expectation. Kids don’t want to shatter their parents’ illusions, don’t want to disappoint them. Plus, talking about sex is awkward. IBY/INYF provides a buffer–kids can ask anything they need to ask, and adults can give frank, non-sugar-coated advice. I want to do whatever I can to make sure that no kid is sitting alone, in pain, full of questions.

It’s therapeutic for both sides, because a lot of our adult contributors have never told these stories to anyone before. We’ve all grown up in this culture of silence–where being a victim is shameful, and perpetrators are given the benefit of the doubt–and you don’t realize how massive that silence is, how many stories are out there, until you give people a safe space and say, “I believe you. It’s not your fault.”

Swerve: What do you hope people will take away from it?

LW: I hope–and this has already been happening, which is gratifying–that people will open their eyes to just how ubiquitous sexual assault and sexual harassment are in our culture. Every single woman I’ve talked to about this project has a story. Multiple stories. Every single one. And they also carry around a lot of confusion and doubt and self-hatred, because we tend to downplay certain violations as not “real,” as oversensitivity. So the most common question I get, probably, is, “Does this count? Was this assault/rape/harassment/boundary-crossing? Am I allowed to feel bad?” As though you need to be violently assaulted by a stranger in an alley in order for your trauma to be justified. As though being, say, insidiously groomed and molested by someone you love isn’t “as bad.”

Every trauma is “bad,” and every trauma “counts.” 

Swerve: What’s been the reaction from men, and do you have any fears that some might use it in the opposite way it’s intended?

LW: The reaction from male readers so far has been really heartening. I’ve heard from multiple men who’ve said, “I had no idea it was this bad.” Because of course we know that rape is bad, sexual assault is bad, domestic violence is bad–we can process these bad things individually, case by case, person by person–but what you really get when you read IBY/INYF is the cumulative weight of all these stories. They are relentless. They are everywhere. There are more of them than we could ever put down on paper. And inside of each story is just so much pain.

A lot of us feel that cumulative weight all the time, and–for example–it’s what makes feminists react so fiercely to seemingly benign issues like “anti-rape nail polish.” No, the nail polish itself in a vacuum wouldn’t be an outrage. It’s being asked to say thank you for the nail polish, to be satisfied with ineffectual security theater that puts the onus on victims to prevent their own victimization, while all these accumulated stories, all this accumulated pain and victimization, is ignored, actively silenced, and stigmatized. My hope is that IBY/INYF makes that burden visible in a way that’s educational for people who are privileged enough to be blind to it.

We’ve also heard a fair amount from male victims, and their stories are just as heartbreaking. More so, in certain ways, because there’s so much shame compounding the pain. Female victims are shamed too, but, to a certain extent, victimhood is coded as female. Male victims are taught that they shouldn’t cry, they shouldn’t be vulnerable–that reporting and processing their trauma undermines their gender identity. I hope more men find our site. I hope they know that they can talk to us anonymously, without shame.

Of course there are always concerns that people will exploit the site, harass our contributors, send us bad-faith “gotcha” questions to prove some anti-feminist point. But that hasn’t happened so far, and our contributors know the risks of writing publicly on the internet. To me, at least, the risk is worth it if we can help people who are alone, confused, and hurting.

Swerve: What’s been the most surprising result of this project to you so far?

LW: The energy, the enthusiasm, people’s eagerness to help. I can’t remember the last time I felt so inspired by a project. I have to restrain myself from spending all my free time on it. Community-building is powerful.

Yes, Lindy. Yes yes yes yes. Thank you for all you do. You are a hero in the truest and most pure form.

Vanessa McGradyLindy West Brings Light to the Darkness of Sexual Abuse

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