What Happens When We Treat Anonymous Stories Of Sexual Assault Like Gossip Items

For many victims who want to publicly tell their stories, anonymity for themselves or their assailants seems like the safe, smart decision. But as recent cases have shown, anonymity is no guarantee of protection from an increasingly hostile internet.

Like many sexual assault victims, Ariel Norling didn’t go to the police after her alleged attack. Instead she wrote everything down — described being sexually harassed by one man and assaulted by another at a technology conference — and hid away the draft.

A year went by, and then Elliot Rodger killed six people and wounded 14 in Isla Vista, California, on a spree motivated in part by his hatred of women. #YesAllWomen was lighting up Twitter, and Norling, then 22, said she watched as the man who allegedly harassed her joined in on social media to voice his support for women. Prompted by this — “I lost my shit,” she later explained — she published her story on Medium on June 2, 2014.

In the piece, Norling recalled going out for drinks with an exhibitor one night at the conference. After a few rounds she felt drunk and sick, and the man offered to take her somewhere nearby for coffee. “I know a place, just trust me,” Norling remembered him saying — but the open coffee bar he promised to take her to turned out to be the coffeemaker in his hotel room. While Norling waited, disoriented, for the coffee to brew, he allegedly began kissing her:

“I repeated ‘no’ as he kept attempting to undress me, with each ‘no’ he became more aggressive. ‘Can’t you just take your skirt off?’ he asked. I refused. He climbed on top of me — straddling me — and fumbled with my skirt some more. I kept repeating ‘no’ … I turned my head during the whole encounter so I couldn’t watch him and he couldn’t watch me cry. After what felt like an eternity, I started feeling more sober and forceful. I mostly composed myself as I started repeating ‘you have to stop.’ He finally relented right before he finished.”

Norling also details the night before the conference began, where at a party, another man allegedly pressed her to go home with him and she repeatedly declined. The next day, when they ran into each other in a hallway, the man suggested they take a nap together, Norling said. “What is this, church camp?” he allegedly asked when she declined. When Norling said plainly that she wouldn’t sleep with him, he said, “Why not? I would rock your world … Come on.”

Norling didn’t identify either man by name in her essay. But that didn’t stop someone else from doing it.

Norling isn’t the first person to tell her story of alleged sexual violence or harassment while deliberately holding back names; the practice is as old as publicly talking about these encounters.

When it comes to victims keeping their identities anonymous or semi-anonymous, “there are a ton of reasons,” Jessica Valenti, a Guardian columnist and founder of Feministing, told BuzzFeed News. “Maybe you don't want your friends to know, maybe you don't want your parents to know, maybe you don't want your church to know,” Valenti said. “But most of them come back to victim-blaming and societal pressure. It's not a safe world for a victim to come out and talk about these issues.”

Sometimes — as in the recent debacle surrounding Rolling Stone’s discredited investigation into Jackie, a University of Virginia student — alleged victims choose to speak out with only their first names. Still, many continue coming forward with their real, full names, carrying with them a determination not to be shamed. Often, though — as in Norling’s case — they’ll still keep their assailants anonymous. The reasons are equally varied; there’s fear of retribution, for some, or a wish to forestall professional consequences. UVA’s Jackie reportedly refused to give journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely her alleged attacker’s name because she was still afraid of him. Rolling Stone gave him a pseudonym without verifying his existence, a decision that contributed to the story’s much publicized retraction.

More recently, however — as a result of swelling national attention on sexual assault — an increasingly common motivation for both kinds of anonymity has become to make the story more about systemic cultural problems, rather than individuals. Norling said that was her goal; she wanted to include enough detail about their careers to highlight “the kind of power structure, trust, and celebrity we put on those people,” she said. “That felt worth it.”

But as more of these anonymous or semi-anonymous stories are released into the world, the more people have begun treating them as if they were blind items — snippets of celebrity gossip that don’t name names but tease out identities for speculatory readers. Both anonymous victims and assailants face “doxxing,” or the malicious exposure of personal information, like addresses and phone numbers and parents’ names, splayed out in dossiers along with their social media histories. But the result of this practice — arguably part of a larger trend of public shaming — is rarely in service of either party. Because once these guesses are made, the whole foundation of the story can change — for better or, as Norling learned, worse.

You can’t easily find Norling’s story online today. Three days after publishing it, she deleted it. Not because of vile comments or threats — now an expectation for sexual violence victims who go public. She deleted the piece after a new blog post was published by someone she’d never met, naming the man who had harassed her, which the blogger had narrowed down using scattered details in her essay.

"I think people kind of enjoy it, like it’s a game — trying to identify the people,” Norling said. “But when anonymity is treated like bait, it can twist into something more sinister.”

While sexual violence victims have long deployed anonymity in retelling their stories, the act of retelling them on the internet is relatively new. Not that the internet has become a completely safe space for survivors — trolls spring eternal. But it seems like there was a moment when the floodgates began opening — when support began to eclipse the shame and disbelief victims had for decades fled or deliberately avoided through silence. But whatever optimism that created within circles of survivors left just as it came: ungracefully.

“I think the last two years has seen this incredible backlash against feminism and particularly online feminism,” said Valenti. “There was always hatred and backlash, but it feels more organized now. It feels less random and more conscious and done by groups.”

Much of the initial reaction to Norling’s essay was positive. The harassment she received was fairly standard — strangers texted her, and people tried to log into her Twitter and email accounts, she said. But many more people called her brave than tweeted messages to her like “love me long time,” or “getting drunk at a bar with a man and going back to his hotel room means sex.” Still, there was a certain anticipation for the names of the men to drop. There were anonymous Twitter accounts telling her they guessed the identities of the men she described and asking Norling if she was prepared for a lawsuit.

This kind of guessing-game reaction isn’t just afforded to online essays. As the drama of Rolling Stone’s discredited campus rape story unfolded last fall, a consistent effort began to identify the full name and background of Jackie, the subject of the story whose account of being gang-raped at a fraternity party was questioned along with the reporter’s methods in outlets including the Washington Post and Slate. These reporters discovered Jackie’s full name in the course of their work, though they didn’t disclose it while the facts remained unclear. But on Twitter, blogger Charles Johnson notoriously offered a $500 reward for Jackie’s identity (a trick he’s repeated since), then published the name he believed to be correct. He’s called her a “lying con artist” and “psychopath who should be in a padded room,” displaying her Pinterest page as if it were a guilty confession. (Johnson declined to comment for this story.)

In December, more than two months after her book Not That Kind of Girl was published, Lena Dunham — subject of actual celebrity blind items — wrote about how a chapter on her college sexual assault attracted a similar response, albeit a much louder one.

“Reporters have attempted to uncover the identity of my attacker despite my sincerest attempts to protect this information,” Dunham wrote. “I have been made to feel, on multiple occasions, as though I am to blame for what happened.”

A week earlier, Breitbart News had published a 4,000-word story on the identity of “Barry” — the name Dunham gave her alleged attacker, a Republican campus radio personality. This “investigation” was purportedly motivated, at first, by concern that a sexual offender was on the loose.

“The thing we found very compelling wasn’t just the fact that she’d been raped — which of course was horrible — but that the man who she alleged was her rapist had hurt two other women,” Breitbart News writer John Nolte told BuzzFeed News. “Who in god’s name is this guy? These sexual predators are recidivist. Are they going to get him him off the streets? Is she going to press charges? Because there’s obviously going to be another victim out there.”

But after Nolte and other writers identified a man they believed was Barry — via Google, using Dunham’s description of him in the book — and this man denied that he was the Barry of the book, Nolte changed course.

“I don't know Lena Dunham, but that was a terrible thing for her to do,” Nolte said. “She knowingly left an innocent man twisting in the wind while she shipped out those books.” (Dunham later apologized “about all [the misidentified Barry] has experienced,” calling the similarities “an unfortunate and surreal coincidence.”)

No men were named in Breitbart News’ story. Nolte said if he had been able to identify the man Dunham was actually writing about, he still wouldn’t have named him — despite the alleged altruism behind his initial interest in the story. “I don't know if it would have been appropriate in that situation,” Nolte said. “You can’t prove that he's a rapist. You can only prove that he's the guy she's talking about.”

Later that month, Gawker did name the man, in an effort to disprove those who had suggested or concluded Barry was made up. “Following the clues in the published text, Dunham’s antagonists have declared that the rape story is a hoax, one that falsely implicates a fellow student,” J.K. Trotter wrote. “But the investigators aren’t just distasteful. They’re wrong.”

For a certain groups on the internet — often those affiliated with the men’s rights movement, but not always — debunking “rape hoaxes” has become a crusade, the first step of which is to take away the victim’s anonymity, if she retained it in the first place. But while this has become common practice for those who believe campus rape is a kind of liberal conspiracy, they’re not the only ones doing it. On the local Virginia forum Fairfax Underground, threads were devoted to the Rolling Stone story, with several posters making guesses about the identities of its characters. Still, the first impulse wasn’t to name Jackie, but rather the man who, according to the magazine’s discredited investigation, “gave instruction and encouragement” to her alleged rapists. (The existence of this man remains unverified.)

“We should be able to track this scum down,” one poster wrote. “Once his name is public, the walls will come down.”

Somewhere between the desire for justice on the victim’s behalf and the desire to protect innocent men fell Justin Baeder, the man who named Ariel Norling’s harasser, he said.

The day after Norling published her essay, Baeder, an education leadership consultant, posted on his blog an open letter to the profession at large. He called Norling’s essay “brave and disheartening,” and the behavior of the man in question “disgusting” and “wrong,” urging people in the industry to not hire him. He named the man, showing how he used Norling’s descriptors to narrow a group of five or six men to one.

Norling’s allegation, Baeder told BuzzFeed News, “was professionally embarrassing, and as a member of that profession, and I wanted to make sure any embarrassment happened to the right person … My desire was never to make this story go viral. It was just to clarify her story was not about person A, B, or C, it was about person D.”

Baeder said before he published the man’s name, he didn’t think about what Norling wanted or what “blowback” she might receive. His reasoning was that Norling didn’t actually keep anyone anonymous — her harasser was clearly identifiable, even if his name wasn’t used.

“It wasn’t my understanding that she had anonymity for the men as a goal, but simply that she wanted to keep the focus on what happened and raising awareness of the issue,” Baeder said. “There really is no anonymity. If there were more than two people there, it wasn’t anonymous.”

In her Medium essay, Norling wrote about the year that passed after the conference, when she began declining "almost all invitations for coffee," working only from home.

"I actively avoided dating and shunned any scenario that might entail emotional or physical intimacy,” she wrote. “The line between my professional and personal lives had been crossed and my physical space had been so violated that the shockwave made me a shell of who I was in every sense."

Norling deleted her piece, including this passage, shortly after Baeder published his blog post — mostly out of intimidation, she said, from her harasser’s friends. One of them allegedly told Norling she could be sued by the man Baeder had named, and that a group of people were ready to write responses disputing her story.

“I don’t know how much truth there was to that,” Norling said. “In retrospect, I don’t know if I made the right decision, but I did the best at the time and I did it all by myself.”

Norling said on some level, she understood Baeder’s intentions. But more so, she found his actions “way above and beyond a reasonable reaction.” She asked him to delete his post after hers was gone; he obliged and apologized to her, explaining that he felt like his profession “was dragged into it.” Norling wrote a new post on Medium to clarify she did “not support the witch-hunt for naming them or attempts to sully their names and careers based on one incident.”

“I’m also incredibly disgusted that the focus has been on the individual who legally did nothing wrong, yet I saw no mentions of the man who clearly violated me,” she wrote. “I think both were unaware of the objectifying connotations of their actions. Apologies have been made and I believe them to be sincere. Targeting these men is simply uncalled for; it disrespects the people involved in the incidents and disregards the point of the post and my message. It was never my intention to hurt, discredit, or demonize these men.”

Norling doesn’t mention in the follow-up post she was told there was the possibility of a lawsuit. But the question over whether it was a legitimate threat can still keep her up at night, she said.

Defamation lawsuits have certainly been used to fight rape, assault, and harassment claims before. These cases are often complicated; the defense against defamation is truth, and truth is difficult to prove in many sexual misconduct cases. But it’s not always about the results when it comes to these suits — rather, that they were even brought in the first place.

“I think there are a lot of efforts out there to intimidate women from coming forward, and I think threatening lawsuits is one way people do that,” said Lara Kaufmann, senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center.

Victims who formally report their assaults — through the criminal justice system or, for college students, through Title IX — have a legal safety net, experts say. Ariel Norling didn’t. Neither, for that matter, did Lena Dunham, who was threatened with a lawsuit by a man mistaken for her alleged rapist.

“Survivors who want to speak out but still want their privacy are put in a really tough position,” said Laura Dunn, a victims' rights attorney. “They are at risk. They are exposing themselves to liability.

“You really have to think about what your goals are. There’s nothing wrong with speaking out, but if you are going to identify the person in any way, you really should consider a formal procedure.”

If Norling's story is about the pitfalls of anonymity becoming "bait," Sophia Katz's story may be about the rewards.

In September, Katz published an essay — also on Medium — about being repeatedly sexually assaulted by someone she called Stan. The next day, a fellow writer outed Stan as Stephen Tully Dierks, the editor of an influential alternative literature magazine. More women came forward.

When she published the essay, Katz said, naming Dierks herself never felt "necessary."

"I never wrote the piece to get justice or to create a legal battle or to even make myself feel like I had settled something," Katz said.

Like Norling, she said she had no interest in ruining her assailant's career. Like Norling, Katz's revelations blazed through her community. But their stories diverged in a crucial way when it came to the outing of their assailants. Katz said she didn't see people on the internet publicly speculating about Stan's identity — though she suspected those conversations might have happened verbally, in person. She also gave explicit permission to her friend, the writer who named Dierks.

When Baeder outed Norling's harasser, Norling felt her industry’s focus shift from the misogynistic atmosphere she wanted to expose to an individual. Katz didn't feel this shift — the focus stayed on the community, particularly when new statutory rape allegations were brought the following week against another major alt-lit figure. Dierks said he was going to leave public life, but more broadly, the boys club of alt lit began to show signs of disintegration.

When the risk of anonymity pays off, it can embolden more victims to come forward, or provide a jumping-off point for the media to investigate wrongdoing. After Mikaela Gilbert-Lurie wrote an essay for xoJane about her alma mater’s predatory English teacher — not naming the teacher or her school — BuzzFeed News' Katie J.M. Baker reached out to see if the recent high school graduate wanted to share more information. Baker went on to not only report the teacher's name, Joe Koetters, but interview other former students he allegedly preyed on, prompting Koetters' resignation. In February, Koetters was arrested on charges of "having a sexual relationship with a female student for more than a year.” The case is ongoing.

Alexandra Brodsky, co-founder of college anti-sexual-violence campaign Know Your IX, recalls working with a newspaper in 2012 to run an anonymous college victim's story. The editors, Brodsky said, "needed enough details for this to be compelling and real but not enough for people to figure out who either party is.”

The trouble with anonymity is that it purports to provide something it can’t guarantee. Victims who use it on themselves have no guarantee of not being “hunted”; victims who use it on their assailants have no guarantee their stories, however well-intentioned, won’t become other peoples’ witch-hunts.

“And if people feel like they can’t come forward in a way they know is going to be safe and fair for them,” Brodsky said, “they're just not going to come forward.”

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