If I’m Friends With Your Abuser DM Me

With the success of TV drama ‘I May Destroy You’ and an influx of survivor experiences shared on social media, Maggie Scaife speaks to the womxn creating safe spaces, cultivating positive discourse and learns how to be a better ally to victims.

WORDS Maggie Scaife
IMAGE Courtesy of Ellie Softley and SHAG

TW: this article will include themes of sexual abuse, sexual trauma and rape

If you, like me, have spent any amount of increased time aimlessly scrolling your social news feeds during lockdown, you’re likely to have seen the phrase ‘If I’m friends with your abuser DM me’. 

Since June, an influx of womxn have come forward online to recite painful and personal testimonies, flooding their Instagram stories, live streams and Twitter feeds with specific details that some hadn’t ever disclosed to their closest friends.

As stories continue to spread online, with the number ever-increasing, the parallels that make up these deeply personal instances become striking, woven together to form a patchwork blanket of psychological and sometimes physical pain and suffering. This blanket is weighty, and with that weight comes immense power. 

Despite the political and social changes made to aid sexual abuse survivors thanks to the momentum of the #MeToo movement since its virality in 2017, there still remains an undercurrent of taboo-ness surrounding sexual abuse and rape – it is to remain secret, kept private, hush hush. It isn’t deemed appropriate to confidently retell these stories, being loud and proud doesn’t socially sit well.

In response to this movement, allies have posted the phrase “If I’m Friends with Your Abuser DM me” in an attempt to show support for survivors and halt their unconscious complicity. This phrase acknowledges that we are often not privy to a wealth of information, that we are all multifaceted and that the version of a person you know and love can easily juxtapose the version they present to another – the idea that good, bad and ugly can all co-exist at once inside one human being. It ensures that survivors are made to feel heard, that their stories are to be taken as fact and without questioning. Most importantly, it ensures that once new information is learned it is acted upon autonomously, going against this commonly recognised herd mentality of preservation.

UK-based charity The Survivors Trust reports that for every five minutes that passes by someone is raped inside the United Kingdom, that’s 288 people daily. Survivors UK estimate that 12,000 men are raped in the UK every year. Statistically however, we know this to be much much more commonly experienced by females. One in every four womxn have experienced some form of sexual violence and 15% of girls have experienced it once they’ve reached the age of 16. The Survivors Trust website includes a cohesive list of easily accessible resources for survivors including guides for the LGBTQ+ community, adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse and more.

Some would argue that the current UK climate is slowly improving, that consent is beginning to be understood and represented more fairly by law officials. The divisive ‘Rough Sex’ defence was officially banned inside all courtrooms this month, according to the newly published Domestic Abuse clause. This clause categorically outlaws anyone from being pardoned for murder when sex ‘goes wrong’.

While positive steps forward can suggest a changing landscape for sexual abuse survivors, we’re not there yet. Race certainly plays a part in the statistics, as @context.project recently explained in an Instagram post: “In the US 38% of Black women experience sexual violence other than rape in their lifetime, and 35% of Black women experienced some form of contact sexual violence during their lifetime. Misogynoir refers to the racist misogyny that Black women experience. People associate both hypersexuality and hyper masculinity with Black women.”

Michaela Coel stars in ‘I May Destroy You’

In the wake of Michaela Coel’s semi-autobiographical BBC drama ‘I May Destroy You’ coming to an end its cultural relevance and timing could not be more pivotal. As the multi-hyphenate director/writer/protagonist of the twelve-part series Coel has set high standards for wannabe female screenwriters everywhere. The awful circumstances in which her 5-year hiatus between series’ is explained by the premise of ‘I May Destroy You’. It addresses themes of rape, consent and coercion, referencing a real-life event in which she was spiked and raped by a stranger on a night out, governing her day to day life thereafter.

Co-hosts of The Higher Priestess Podcast, Persephone Deacon and Erin Emirali believe ‘I May Destroy You’ is the “perfect example of how the entertainment industry can help tackle sexual violence, and in particular, violence against black womxn”. They think that providing people like Coel creative control and positions of power is essential. “When it comes to alleviating and resolving the issues surrounding sexual violence and amplifying the voices of survivors, the more inclusive and diverse entertainment can be, the better” they reiterate. These are the stories that are most valuable to society, that provide proportionate representation of the female experience.

When it comes to alleviating and resolving the issues surrounding sexual violence and amplifying the voices of survivors, the more inclusive and diverse entertainment can be, the better.

Persephone Deacon and Erin Emirali of Higher Priestess Podcast

The London-based podcasters are self-proclaimed ‘Professional Feminists’ and also make up part of the city’s rich creative industry, Deacon as a writer and Emirali a working digital creative. Together, the 23-year-olds founded the podcast in 2019 and have since self-published two popular eBooks.

Available to listen to on Spotify and the Podcast app, the duo have cultivated a 9K and growing community of listeners and followers. Deep into their second series now, they aim for Higher Priestess to function as both “a podcast and online space for womxn to engage in conversations surrounding intersectional feminism that restructure their own perceptions and encourage critical thinking, a hub for self-acceptance and personal development”.

The pair think that the key to being a better ally to sexual assault and/or rape survivors is to “prioritise establishing a sense of security and safe space for conversation and healing.” Ensuring they do not feel alone. Individuals can “listen and build a dialogue free from shame or judgement” particularly when online momentum is snowballing, “amplifying the voices of survivors is invaluable”, they say.

Deacon and Emirali believe that men shy away from having these conversations in fear of saying the ‘wrong thing’, which they think highlights male privilege and the lack of consensus between genders. When asked how men could productively bring this topic up with their male peers, they answer: “in our own lived experiences, both on and offline, men have been overwhelmingly defensive when confronted with the realities of sexual harassment, abuse, and violence against womxn. Proactive and personal education is necessary for anybody who is struggling to understand the gravitas and severity of the topic, and maybe only once that lens and scope of understanding has been widened, can productive conversations be had.”

They feel that “sexual violence is so often rooted and bred within the patriarchal structure of internalised misogyny” and that it would take an “upheaval from that system” to make space for perpetrators reform. “If we could focus on interrupting those circles of misogyny, for example the online Incel culture, perhaps the chains of violence and sex-based crimes against womxn could be tackled” they continue.

If we could focus on interrupting those circles of misogyny, for example the online Incel culture, perhaps the chains of violence and sex-based crimes against womxn could be tackled

Persephone Deacon and Erin Emirali of Higher Priestess Podcast

The etymology of ‘Doxing’ derives from ‘dox’, an abbreviation of ‘documents’ used in a similar way to ‘receipts’, as in evidence, such as screenshots. Defined as ‘the Internet-based practice of researching and publicly broadcasting private or identifying information about an individual or organization’, this could entail actively searching for publicly available information on social media or databases such as text messages, direct messages or voice notes.

When it comes to online call out culture and doxing, the Higher Priestess’ opinions are pretty clear: “accountability is undoubtedly incredibly important, and the narrative of the need to ‘do better’ within call out culture has in many ways upheld new standards for public figures.” But they believe that cancelling individuals will “only slow us down on our own fight for progress. It’s complex and precarious, but it isn’t a binary ‘good’ or ‘bad’”.

The podcasters agree that as a society we must all acknowledge our “responsibility to teach children about consent and sexual welfare from an early age”. By not addressing the fact that our mainstream sexual education is failing they say, “we do the younger generations a huge disservice” and “further perpetuate the stigma and, ultimately, protect rape culture through our silence”.

It’s interesting to flag here that Coel’s newest programme has a 16+ age restriction placed upon it and how this may have an impact on younger audiences and those that aren’t legally allowed to view it yet. There isn’t a sufficient alternative currently. The British education system is beginning to show signs of progression with initiatives such as the Schools Consent Project which “empowers young people aged 11-18 in England, Wales & Northern Ireland with the skills, confidence and knowledge they need to make safe, healthy choices around sexual consent”. Their team of five however are all female, which could have an effect on the success rate of their messaging. If their team included some men, influencing young boys may prove easier. 

SHAG is a platform for young adults to express, engage and educate one another in sexual health, sexual politics and sexual mental health. Founded by creative Ellie Softley in 2017, she felt the need to make room for those suffering in silence: “Shag is whatever you need or want it to be. It’s fluid, it’s constantly changing, and it reflects a generation that demands more.”

The 21-year-old Londoner currently studies Politics and Theatre at Goldsmiths University in New Cross. Alongside SHAG, Softley is a Political Consultant for Drill artist Drillminister who is running for London Mayor and Platform Manager at Digital Holdings in South London. She believes that this movement has come about during the pandemic for multiple reasons; “because of COVID-19, we have learnt to have more of a community online. We have learnt to depend on the sharing of information over the internet, behind our screens and we have realised the potential of this space.”

Despite high profile cases such as notorious Hollywood director Harvey Weinstein’s long-awaited downfall, the creative industry evidently still remains a breeding ground for the abuse of power and status amongst predominantly cis white men. Working conditions in the field are treacherous, with those at the top of the metaphorical pyramid easily able to gain power over vulnerable women in search of mentorship under the guise of career support.

The SHAG founder explains that she has been doing work around sexual harassment and abuse for approximately three years now. “I have watched every single documentary, spoken to almost every single person I know about sexual abuse, sat in on police interviews, read through hours of transcripts, completed training session after training session and still every time I hear someone’s story I’m flooded with emotion” she divulges. 

Softley describes the hundreds of stories she’s been sent over the last month as “crushing” stressing that repeated exposure to them doesn’t normalise it. “It becomes my job to be strong, to fight, to not let the sadness eat away because it’s not mine to have. It chips away at us every single time we hear it, but it also motivates us more than you could imagine…right now we are fed up. We have had enough” she says. 

Image courtesy of SHAG.

SHAG runs in a constant state of change and evolution. It aims to follow trends and controversies by moving the conversation surrounding sex and youth to the forefront of the media (or the top of newsfeeds). As of late, the collective has prioritised their London-based creative community as “it is clear to us that there is an abuse of power going on and our priorities have to change with this recognition” says Softley. 

She believes that many everyday interactions and behaviours promote rape culture; “the way we are viewed in class, at parties, the way our male friends speak about us, the language and jokes that we sweep under the rug thinking it means nothing.” Softley thinks that if these things are addressed and corrected, we can realise the part we have to play in perpetuating dehumanising and hypersexual notions.

“Education and communication first and always. We know who they are. They are men who work within creative positions of power in London circles. They are men who grew up in elite boarding schools. They are the men who can’t even acknowledge the idea that at some point they could have done anything wrong. We know their names; we know what they have done and that is power. For now, though, education is our priority.”

The benefits of anonymity online are plentiful, explains Softley, as it allows survivors a space to express themselves and offload their experiences from their shoulders whilst remaining unknown to their reader, and in turn can encourage others to come forward. 

However, Softley acknowledges that anonymity has its downsides, explaining that “the ability for anonymity and community is liberating but it can give way to the wrong type of people as well. False accusations are real and prevalent and probably the biggest hindrance to the conversation around consent and justice for victims. False accusations completely undermine what we are fighting for and devalue every experience of a woman or man who has been through sexual assault and abuse.” She confirms that these instances remain rare.

The only thing I remember was glow-in-the-dark condoms. My sexual education was brief, clinical, boring and embarrassing.

Ellie Softley, founder of SHAG

In the past, sexual education has often shied away from taboo topics in an effort to ensure it wasn’t advertising a way of life that wasn’t the norm. Softley thinks educators should be using the opportunity to teach young adults about the law, sexual mental health and all sexual identities. “We should have 18-year-olds teaching sexual health education. Holding smaller workshops with boys and girls, speaking through difficult issues, talking about body image, how to communicate your feelings to someone etc” she thinks. Championing the Dutch; “teaching consent from the age of four through hugging, they have got it fucking right. They always get shit right.”

She describes her own sexual education, or lack of, in detail: “The only thing I remember was glow-in-the-dark condoms. It was brief, clinical, boring and embarrassing. I couldn’t quite get my head around the idea that the boys and girls were separated. At that age in my head, boys and girls were the only people that really had ‘proper sex’ so why weren’t we having the conversation together. I never remember a moment of my sexual health education telling me that I was meant to enjoy it. Telling me about touching, feeling, expressing. Different sexualities or fluidity. We weren’t taught about the fact we would sometimes change our mind a thousand times in one night, not want to have sex for months, not being able to cum, being into things that feel wrong but are perfectly natural.”

The education activist encourages us all to continually “ask questions, implore, strive to learn and help us work together to change our ways and fix the broken system.” She thinks it’s counterproductive to do this through naming and shaming or cancel culture, as “It doesn’t work and it’s not what we stand for,” she says. 

SHAG are at the beginning of developing a support group alongside @everyones_invited in which survivors can find solace, creativity and companionship. They plan to set up a buddy system between women who are actively dating or going to parties and need lifts home. They hope to provide experienced team members to “walk them through the reporting process if they choose to do so.”

‘If I’m friends with your abuser DM me’ is just a small piece of the puzzle. The more open we are about the complexities of sex, the better. Discussion and exploration can only be a positive thing and the more space these conversations take up, whether that be virtual or physical space, the more likely we are to somewhat alleviate and lower the harrowing statistics. But, in order to be successful these conversations must involve everyone at every level, we all play a part in the movement towards revolutionising sexual education.

If you are UK-based and in need don’t hesitate to contact The Survivors Trust. They have 124 specialist agencies and in the last year roughly 80,000 people have been supported by them in some shape or form. More than 800 people have been trained to give survivors the specialist help they need, there is no shortage of people willing to lend a hand.

Both the Higher Priestess and SHAG shared some sexual educators with us that we would like to pass on too: 

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