Whitney Milam is a writer and digital producer based in Los Angeles, whose short films and web series have been created in collaboration with Lionsgate, Legendary, Skybound Entertainment, New Form Digital and more. Whitney is a recent UCLA graduate and frequent traveler who has previously lived in Alabama, Arizona, Idaho, Tennessee, Germany and Japan. She is currently writing her first novel.
On a warm Los Angeles night in March 2014, I opened an apartment door to find ten other women waiting. There was a volatile energy in the room: electric and kinetic, ready to ignite and flare up into flame. All of us were already sorting through charred wreckage in our lives, the remains of an emotional forest fire.
Some of us had lit the matches ourselves.
This was no ordinary girls’ night. This was a demonstration, a therapy session, a political summit. Every group selfie we posted that night was a statement, every Tweet was a manifesto, and they all conveyed the same defiant message: We are together. We are united. We are speaking and we’re never shutting up. None of us were strangers to social media as weapon, as amplifier, as release.
Over the course of one week prior, over fifteen popular internet personalities with young, mostly female fanbases in the thousands to the millions were accused of abuse or assault toward those fans or toward their girlfriends. We — the girlfriends — either watched the allegations against our exes and close male friends pile up in a teeming, tortuous throng of tearful Tumblr posts and tough-to-watch YouTube videos, or added to the pile ourselves.
The secrets being confessed, the off-camera behavior being exposed, the friendly, handsome masks being so suddenly ripped away to reveal such hideous truths — it was all too much, too fast. The relatively insular community of people who made a living off the creation of YouTube videos and people who made that living possible by watching was thrown into chaos. Reeling fans demanded answers. The accused and their friends issued hurried, ineffectual public statements clearly written without the guidance of a publicist (or, perhaps, a conscience).
Online masterposts were curated to collect and organize all the dozens upon dozens of accusations, growing longer by the hour. For every girl that stepped forward to share a story implicating a YouTuber, another three girls soon followed with corroborating sequels. A dam had burst, a floodgate had opened, and an irrepressible surging tide of female voices was drowning every man who had ever tried to keep them silent.
In the weeks that followed, the public displays of support — I believe you, I acknowledge your pain, I am sorry this happened to you — were overwhelming.
The public attacks and incredulity — you lying bitch, you life-ruining whore, you deserved everything you got — were overwhelming, too.
I read them all.
I scrolled compulsively through every pulsating wave of mentions on Twitter and Tumblr and Instagram with obsessive, single-minded urgency. I clicked on every link to every gossip forum that every anonymous tip placed in my inbox, watched strangers dissect the most miserable moments and agonizing realizations of my life with detached disdain or outright cruelty, relived it all again and again through panic attacks and nightmares. I stared at screens until my eyes were hard and bloodshot, until every tear had dried and shriveled into skin, until the entire cacophonous frenzy of words and voices had transformed into catharsis and relief where terror and tears had been.
There was nothing else to write or read, and only one thing left to do: I sought out the other women, the other girlfriends, friends and acquaintances and colleagues and manipulated, manufactured former rivals — the only people who could fully and completely understand. When every woman in a friend group shares a version of the same harrowing story, and all those stories are shared in the same harrowing week, alliance is inevitable. It would have been next to impossible for any of us to have gone through such personal tumult and public emotional evisceration alone.
Banding together and bonding together, we clung to a quietly radical mantra: Believe other women. Support other women.
Online brigades of women naming, shaming, and blaming the men who have violated them aren’t new, exactly, but they are increasingly effective. They are incendiary. They are growing. Even as I wrote to thousands of people about things I could barely talk about out loud, as dozens of female accusers felt safe stepping into the light and the men they accused were shouted back into the shadows, a larger cultural shift was already underway — larger than our YouTube bubble, larger than subcultural scandal, larger than anyone had foreseen or could contain.
It is over fifty women with near-identical testimonies finding validation in the public disgrace of Bill Cosby after vocally putting an end to decades of silence. It is the courage of those women directly inspiring Jackie Fuchs to reveal her own rape. It is CBC firing Jian Ghomeshi and the porn industry rejecting James Deen. It is society finally realizing that women with social media megaphones are difficult to pit against each other, difficult to harm without consequence, and difficult, at last, to ignore.
In a world where RAINN informs us that in the United States, 68% of rapes are never reported and 98% of rapists will never spend a day in jail, where convictions are nearly impossible and he said is given far more legal weight and credibility than she said, where victims are effectively put on trial, too: is it really so surprising that so many women now seek convictions from the court of public opinion rather than a court of law?
Still, exposing men with any measure of fame is never easy — not when this culture we’re attempting to change has always placed more value on the reputation of one powerful man than the physical and psychological welfare of multiple women. These sorts of difficult, inconvenient truths are willfully ignored or deliberately disbelieved. And why not, when there are plenty of easy victim-shaming narratives — the crazy bitch, the attention-seeking liar, the jilted ex — and plenty of detractors ready to fit you into one of them?
Fans perform extraordinary feats of mental gymnastics to explain why their hero cannot possibly be a rapist. Strangers feel entitled to your name and to your story, an unwelcome development for anyone who has already experienced entitlement to her body. Your scars are seen as scandals; your trauma is seen as drama. In the words of one of Cosby’s accusers: “Who would want this fifteen minutes of — not fame — shame?” Shame has always protected abusers and silenced their victims, but public disclosure — public refusal to be ashamed — forcibly puts that shame back where it belongs.
As any girl raised on fairytales knows, womanhood and victimhood go hand in hand. The prince kisses the unconscious princess and it’s romantic. The wolf eats Red Riding Hood and it’s her fault for straying off the path. Bluebeard’s wife should have known better than to marry a predator, better than to open the door he would kill to keep shut. We outgrow the fear of monsters under our beds but later grow to fear they might be in our beds — their arms already wrapped around us, their teeth already at our throats, their legs already entwined with ours.
“He who fights monsters,” says Nietzsche, “should see to it that he himself does not become a monster.”
But she who fights monsters knows the truth: to those we are fighting, we are already monstrous.
Simply by virtue of being women who speak out and demand that others listen, who give credence to each others’ stories and demand ownership over our own, who insist that others who have been silent observers, passive bystanders, or complicit accomplices in our pain acknowledge it and take action against those who have wronged us, who loudly and angrily demand whatever kind of justice we can wrangle, who do all of it together in numbers too large to overlook — we are tipping the scales of a delicate balance of power that has for too long determined who is heard and who is silenced. We are a disruptive menace to the patriarchal status quo.
We are threats.
Consider the Furies: the Erinyes, ‘the angry ones’, mythological embodiment of female rage. Vengeance spirits who punished wickedness and wrongdoing; three furious sisters with an army of harpies at their bidding, whose shrieking, hellish voices drove men mad. The scorching, accusatory anger that twists and claws its way out of the vocal abuse survivor’s mouth is not pretty, not palatable, not pleasant — but it is powerful.
It is beyond vindictiveness. It is vindication.
Consider Medusa: maiden turned monster. Ovid has Athena reacting to Poseidon’s rape of Medusa in Athena’s temple by punishing not the rapist, but his victim — by cursing her with lethal snakes for hair, ensuring that any man who so much as looks at her is turned to stone. But is that punishment — or is it, perhaps, protection? Perhaps Medusa found power in the monstrous, in becoming deadly. Perhaps Athena — goddess of justice and wisdom — intended her to.
It’s a nice thought, at least. Much like Persephone — another raped mythological maiden, kidnapped and dragged into the dark — actively deciding to stay with Hades, to become the feared Queen of the Underworld, to knowingly consume the pomegranate seeds, to make a choice. We give agency to helpless fictional ciphers to reclaim stolen agency in our own lives; we reinterpret powerless victims into dangerous survivors to feel some measure of salvaged power in ourselves.
If the stories we tell ourselves and others are what create the plots of our lives, then we can choose to effectively write out a particularly painful chapter by never speaking of it, and attempting never to think of it, or we can write it down like we would anything else of significance before moving on to the next page. For most of us, the self-identification of ‘abuse victim’ doesn’t fit into the personal narratives we’ve carved out for ourselves.
That’s not a story anyone wants to star in, and it certainly wasn’t a story I wanted to tell. But the truth is: it is part of the story.
And with the voices of other women amplifying mine, with the knowledge of young girls listening compelling me to speak louder — I told it. Eventually, our psychological wounds all fade to scars, and maybe — eventually — to bruises. The misery passes, but the rage is warranted. Shifting from victim to victor requires leaning into that surge in our veins, that fury at the injustice, that awareness of our own worth — requires finding inner strength and fire not from the horror of what has been done to us, but from the promise of what we ourselves will do.
And what will we do?
We will not bend or plead or shrink for anyone. We will wear our pain like armor and use it to our advantage, to our credit, to our strength. We will reassemble, rebuild, and remake ourselves. We will survive.
“Are you afraid of him?”
There was no need to clarify who he was, but the question — spoken by one of the hosts of our uncommon girls’ night, one of my most courageous and distinctly brilliant friends, whose past anguishes closely mirrored my own, on a night filled with questions we were all finally brave enough to ask — gave me pause.
Months ago, the answer would have been automatic and authoritative: yes, a world of yes; a raw and primal kind of fear. Fear of his retaliation, his malice, his uncanny talent for manipulation of people and of truths.
But now, having exposed his private evils and forced a public reckoning, having rejected shame and silence and received support and solidarity in turn — I no longer felt that inexplicable terror. His power had dimmed and faded: he couldn’t hurt me anymore.
I thought of the communities he and his kind could no longer exploit, the people they could no longer deceive, the doors that would now be closed to them. I thought of the thousands of young female fans whose eyes were now wide open, smashing the digital graven images of the men they once called idols.
I thought: maybe he should be afraid of me.