My eleven-year-old daughter had a message passed to her at a Christian kids camp yesterday. She was told that, in the middle of the night, this eleven-year-old boy was going to break into her tent and rape her.
I nearly threw up when I found out. I am a balanced, sensible woman. I know he wasn’t actually going to do it. I guess he probably didn’t really know what he said. I imagine it’s just a phrase he’s heard bandied around at school, or seen on social media, or in the news in the last few weeks. I suppose he thought it was just funny.*
My daughter didn’t. She didn’t find it funny; she found it frightening. So frightening that she didn’t want to sleep in the tent with her friends that night. She was so unsettled that she had to come home for the night and be held tight so that she could feel safe. She doesn’t even fully understand why she is frightened – she can’t put her finger on why she ‘doesn’t feel safe’. My baby got hurt and that kills me.
There is a hero in my story though, two actually. One is my eleven-year-old and the other is her ten-year-old sister. My ten-year-old is a force to be reckoned with and she, outraged at her sister being spoken to like this, spoke out and made her sister do the same. I LOVE that she did. I LOVE that she knew not to take that lying down, not to let the fear silence her. I LOVE that she brought the issue into the light and demanded it be dealt with.
And my eleven-year-old is a hero because she has gone back to camp. She’s not going to sleep there but she has decided that one silly little boy is not going to spoil her fun. She is not going to withdraw from a space that she loves, a space where she connects with other people and with God because of a bully who thinks it’s funny to threaten people. She has set up boundaries that enable her to feel safe and has returned to the campfire to cook her own sausages for lunch. I couldn’t be prouder.
Over the past few weeks, situations like this have been hitting the headlines. Men have thought it was funny to threaten to rape prominent women, to insult and abuse them over twitter and other Internet spaces. These ‘trolls’ do it for the ‘LULZ’; they think it’s funny. These women are not my babies but I still feel sick reading the vile threats they have received.
No one should be spoken to like that. No one should be made to feel unsafe and frightened in a place that they love, no one should feel so unsettled by a nameless menace that they are forced to retreat to a place of safety.
But there are some heroes in this story too. Heroes like Vicky Beeching who spoke live on TV about her experience of trolling; how three years ago she had to be taken from her home in LA accompanied by police when the threats became too severe and why she wants to stand up to these bullies who, once again, are targeting her for speaking out. I LOVE that she knows not to take that lying down, not to let the fear silence her. I couldn’t be prouder.
Caroline Criado-Perez mounted a wonderfully successful campaign to keep women on British banknotes. Within days of the celebration she was receiving death and rape threats on twitter, her (incorrect) address had been tweeted and she was forced to leave her home for her own safety. But she’s not in hiding – far from it – she is scared but she is speaking out and she’s pressing charges against those the police have arrested; even though she knows there may be repercussions. I LOVE that she brought the issue into the light and demanded it be dealt with.
Some people ask why these women don’t just close their twitter accounts, leave the ‘unreal’ world of social media and get on with their lives. They question the wisdom of women who retweet the abuse and bring it to the attention of the world. They suggest they should take it on the chin and do nothing more to antagonise the trolls.
I don’t see why they should do that any more than my daughter should leave the fun of camp. I don’t see why men (and to be honest some women) should be allowed to say what they want without there being repercussions for them. Twitter, Facebook and the like have given people who would never dare say these things out loud a new kind of ‘courage’. A ‘courage’ that feels big, brave and clever hiding behind a pseudonym and an avatar in the mists of the Ethernet. That ‘courage’ often evaporates when the person behind the twitter handle is brought into the light. Not always, but often.
You see I believe that light overcomes darkness. Every time. Sometimes it’s painful, often it’s scary but cowering in the corners, letting fear overcome us, allowing threats to take away our power, enabling others to dictate what space we can inhabit and what words we can say and when, that will never be the answer.
Standing in the light, speaking out and choosing how we want to respond . . well, that’s freedom; the kind of freedom worth fighting for.