Who Are We Scrolling For?
Reflections on anonymity and abuse.
By Kelsey Kitzke
Content warning: This essay contains discussions of sexual violence response.
In February of 2018, on the heels of the recent rise of the #MeToo movement, Jia Tolentino published an article on the findings of a study on the present state of campus sexual assault. The Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT) study, conducted by Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, collected ethnographic data and interviews from hundreds of undergraduates at Barnard and Columbia on their experiences with sexual assault on campus between 2015 and 2017. SHIFT found that 22% of students reported they had experienced a sexual assault at Columbia— 28% of women, 12% of men, and 39% of gender non-conforming students.
Tolentino describes how Jennifer Hirsch, one of the study’s lead researchers, had become frustrated with the constant focus on punishment and adjudication instead of on how college environments could be changed to prevent sexual assault from happening in the first place. Her main idea was that the individual punishment of perpetrators could never replace the larger project of changing a culture that enables, if it does not encourage, assault and abuse.
Since #MeToo has grown increasingly prominent in public discourse, our rhetoric about believing survivors primarily manifested in a slew of headlines detailing the exposure, public shaming, and inevitable disappearance of abusive men once lavished with celebrity. In a way, it’s a revolution—seeing powerful men and institutions being held responsible for the wrongs from which their fame once sheltered them. But for many, this approach has always reeked of a first step mistaken as a final solution: the abuser as the movement’s center of gravity instead of the abused.
Three years later, all of the students who participated in the SHIFT study have graduated and left campus, but sexual assault has not. At Columbia, summer and early fall 2020 were saturated with very public censures of campus organizations for their complicity in sexual violence. Bwog reported on leaked Phi Gamma Delta (FIJI) group messages that showed fraternity members making sexual jokes about a Black Lives Matter protester who had been sprayed with pepper spray and referencing previously made jokes about sexual assault. Although Bwog claimed that its intention in publishing the screenshots was not “to malign or pinpoint this issue to a few individuals,” its practical outcome was exactly that. FIJI responded by saying it had asked the members involved to disaffiliate. But though the organization uprooted the individuals whose unsavory actions had been exposed for public scrutiny, they made no comment about addressing the structural racism and misogyny within the organization that had cultivated the soil in which the seeds of such behavior grew.
Months later, stories about the marching band’s environment of racism, manipulation, and abuse began to appear on Columbia Confessions, to the point that the band itself acknowledged wrongdoing before dissolving. Again, these personal stories of abuse were overshadowed by generalized headlines in such high-profile publications as the New York Times. When the Spectator reported on the band’s downfall and longstanding, pervasive toxicity, they ended their two-part series of articles not with sentiments from those the band hurt, but with a statement from the band itself. Following in the footsteps of national coverage of such issues, the campus spotlight shined on the wrongdoings and hidden toxicity of once elusive organizations. The ultimate interest of conversation was, as ever, the downfall of power.
Publicity-wise, survivors and their stories are more often than not passed over in favor of the perpetrators of their abuse. Frequently failed by journalists, survivors have found an audience for their stories on anonymous posting platforms. The well-known campus Facebook page Columbia Confessions brims with posts divulging intimate stories of trauma and abuse at Columbia and detailing their emotional aftermath. The Instagram account @cusurvivors also appeared in July with anonymous stories and data on sexual assault in student life. Another Facebook page called Columbia Whispers made a short-lived debut last year, dedicating itself to posting anonymous survivor stories and calling out specific abusers. These are among a long list of anonymous confession accounts that popped up online at colleges across the country last summer, many explicitly focused on sharing student experiences of sexual assault. It seems that, far from the physical campus grounds, murmurs of the dark side of what college life once was are growing ever louder—perhaps loud enough that we’ll listen.
Reading through these stories is a visceral experience. It’s hard to pull your eyes from the screen as you scroll through words filled with so much hurt and pain and anger and trauma. Consuming these emotions through a screen, without knowing their source, is both brutal and surreal. The stories are at once proximate to campus—maybe they happened literal feet from where you are right now—and unimaginably far away, separated through Google forms, page admins, and the endless space of the internet.
Despite the distance, literal and figurative, between in-person campus life and what pops up on anonymous pages, Columbia Confessions’ role in dissolving the marching band indicates the page’s capacity to effect concrete change beyond the digital bounds of the internet. The world of anonymous posting pages elevates what once remained in the comments section to the status of a headline. In turn, the features of campus publications spur even more anonymous discourse; the leaked FIJI messages prompted a flood of confessions about violating experiences with its members along with many others about the toxicity of fraternities and Greek life in general.
Anonymous stories themselves also prompt more stories posted online: Many confessions cite previous survivor stories as inspiration for sharing their own. One Confessions post from August thanks @cusurvivors, saying “had it not been for them I would have never acknowledged that some of the sexual/intimate experiences I had in the marching band were traumatic.” Some speak directly to other posters: another post from June acknowledges and empathizes with a previous victim by saying, “Thank you for sharing your story. I don’t think the first time I had sex was wholly consensual either. Like you, I also tried brushing the issue under the table and forgetting about it.” There’s a conversational quality to these posts, the tone of friends sharing their trauma one night while sitting at the kitchen counter. Except, in the world of anonymous online confession boards, these revelations come with no interpersonal contact. The intimacy of knowing the person disclosing is replaced by the vulnerability of knowing only their disclosures.
The strength of this kind of anonymity is its universality. Its power lies in the possibility that it could be anyone—your roommate, your best friend, your classmate. And, because it could be anyone, it is everyone. The surge in confessions pointed out the same thing as the numbers culled from surveys such as SHIFT, expanding upon credible facts and statistics by voicing their emotional truth.
At the same time, without a name or face to ground survivors’ words, the abuse itself and the person or organization at fault for it become the most recognizable part of the confessions. Many directly called out organizations like the marching band or other groups that have become prominent figures of campus life. @cusurvivors posted statistics about the percentage of their anonymous stories that involved fraternities (37.4%), athletics (22.5%), performance/political groups (14.4%,) and other groups (10.7%). In one instance, @cusurvivors posted multiple slides of anonymous submissions connected to Columbia Debate Society alone.
It is compelling to focus only on the named organizations responsible for cultivating and concealing environments of manipulation and abuse. In this anonymous ecosystem of online reports, however, viewers can’t see the structures and cultures that allow this to happen. We can’t even see the people it happens to. We see only the eye-catching name—a frat, a club, a sports team— the hurt itself, and an absence. These posts have a straightforward logic: The name caused the hurt to the nameless, and that seems simple enough.
How our campus has dealt with the surge of sexual assault accusations lines up with how the country has dealt with the recent years’ broader reckoning with sexual misconduct, harassment, and gender-based violence: Understanding survivor stories as more of a means to an end than an end in themselves. We need to ask ourselves if we intend to listen to the survivors who risk themselves to tell these stories, or to make faceless martyrs of them, blasting organizations online in lieu of actual accountability.
In the midst of bigger, louder, and flashier incidences of sexual violence in campus conversation, Columbia Health’s Sexual Violence Response (SVR) has worked to extend conversations around sexual violence beyond the headlines. SVR runs a 24/7 hotline as well as in-person office hours where survivors of sexual violence, intimate partner violence, and all other forms of gender-based violence and harassment can meet with advocates to discuss and understand their options. These may include accessing mental health resources, finding medical care, or reporting the misconduct, among many other things survivors need in the days, months, and years following their abuse. When I asked what the central purpose of advocacy is, Survivor Advocate Emma Reynolds said that it was to empower survivors “to make the decisions that are right for them”—not to decide on their behalf.
It is important to believe. But, at a certain point, we start confusing believing someone with supporting them. After the listening is done, after the believing is internalized, after the organizations in the headlines fall, there is still hurt. After the scrolling ends, there is a person that exists on the other end of the post. The trouble with anonymity is that we can only conceptualize the anonymous person as long as we are reading their story; once we are done reading, they cease to exist in our minds. But they don’t cease to exist in the actual world, the world that lasts longer than the internet, the world where the things that get talked about online actually happen. In the punishing of abusers, we forget to consider the abused.
Care is the critical step forward. Not often mentioned in the stories of campus sexual assault is the work that Columbia Health’s Sexual Violence Response does for survivors: running a 24/7 hotline (amongst other operations) to hear the stories of the harmed and then help with the repairs—a good example of what it means to think of survivor stories as the first step instead of the last. Care is what comes after listening. It means a continued presence, not a fleeting headline; it means thinking with those harmed rather than for them;—in short, it means doing whatever is needed without being the one to determine what is needed or not. This subtlety is easy to miss because it is not as loud as the cries of outrage that so often grab our collective attention. The need speaks softly, in the gentle tones of asking, “What can I do for you now?” and not harboring any pretenses about the right answer.