I have a Twitter habit. It’s the first place I check the news and where I browse to find current information and debates on my hobby horses of counselling, education and dogs doing surprisingly human things. I have curated a timeline of wry, gentle souls; they form an imagined community who broadly reflect back to me my world view and add evidence to support it. There are a few outliers (well, one – Donald Trump) who adds extremist grist to my liberal mill. My own tweets are few and far between and are usually noticed by a tiny coterie of friends and family.
A couple of weeks ago, on the day that Julian Assange emerged from the Ecuadorian embassy, I did some Twitter ‘whataboutery’. There was a post from Jeremy Corbyn, pleading that Assange should not be extradited to the US. Whilst I was not disagreeing with that sentiment, to me the most prominent aspect of Assange’s story was that he had sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy when facing extradition to Sweden to answer charges of sexual assault. I replied to Corbyn’s tweet to that effect, in the way that when I’m on my own I sometimes say what’s in my head out loud; not in the expectation of a reply, but just to externalise a troubling thought. I wrote: ‘He was arrested for skipping bail on sexual assault charges. Does that not matter?’ Naively, I thought what I’d written would go unnoticed and was not controversial. It wasn’t and it was. For a couple of days, my two sentence tweet came back to me in Twitter mentions and replies which fell into three categories: broad assent (yes, the assault charge matters); disagreement – he wasn’t charged, the charges were dropped, it wasn’t rape, it doesn’t matter, it was a smear, women are all the same; and entreaties that I shouldn’t believe ‘the MSM’ and that I should ‘do some research’ to find the truth (by following the sound of rustling tin foil?). My favourite was the man who ‘outed’ me as a Liberal Democrat because I’d previously posted a picture of a new yellow cushion. I’m glad to report that that’s the worst he could find in my social media trail.
It was an unnerving experience and I’m writing about it here to recover my nerve. I know social media is bursting with misogyny and conspiratorial thinking but I was taken aback when that seeped into my normally benign Twitter feed. I warily squinted at the replies, didn’t engage in any arguments (though others did, as though I wasn’t there) and just let the ‘debate’ peter out. I felt, by turns, foolish, exposed, vulnerable, outnumbered and silenced. As I belatedly realised, Assange has a following whose raison d’etre is to induce such feelings and plenty of other women who spoke up faced more personal and hostile responses. But if just naming an issue that it is on public record (that Assange sought asylum from extradition to Sweden where he faced charges of sexual assault) can provoke such a backlash, what courage must it take to speak up about one’s own experiences of sexual assault? I am not making some trite comparison between my two-day twitter upset and lived experiences of sexual assault. This episode simply reiterated to me was that there are many ways for perpetrators of sexual violence to belittle, undermine and silence survivors. The bigger shock is that there are so many bystanders willing to join in, to tell us ‘there’s nothing to see here’, that the ‘important, real thing’ that must be addressed first is ‘over there’. Uncomfortable though speaking out can be, we mustn’t let theirs be the only voices. Survivors of sexual assault do matter and perpetrators and those charged with being perpetrators must be held to account. In case anyone’s in any doubt, those are facts, not matters of opinion.