The Vigil: A Social Medium for Outrage

By Ava Cohen


Recently, I was sexually assaulted. Again. And this time, I brushed it off, again. 

I wanted to play the role I prefer, and choose for myself. helpful, understanding, warm hearted. It’s funny; there’s that trend now on Twitter of all the different silly little red flags that one might see in a potential partner. I’m never unaware of those red flags anymore, it’s just something I’ve begun to ignore at certain points. 

To many men, they’re maybe pet peeves or irritations that they want to steer clear of in a partner. And yet for me, sometimes all those posts serve to remind me that because I was born with female anatomy, red flags are more than irritants. They could signal whether I am to be traumatized by that individual, assaulted by them, or even whether my life is at risk. And this time around, I have decided again to give someone the benefit of the doubt. To want to see the better in someone.

I told my abuser I would let people know who they were, that I would post screenshots of their messages to me. In response, they threatened to post videos they had taken of me (without my consent) during intercourse. 

Illustration by Yuchen Xiao/The Guardsman

Different Scales

Even as I sit here, I am immersed completely in the consequences of a situation I let happen, one that I let snowball, and I do not wish them harm. When I let the anger flash before me, overtake my sadness, I begin to imagine scenarios where I could make them feel even a fraction of the pain they have contributed to in me, and yet I know that underneath that rage, there is a very hurt, vulnerable individual. Underneath the both of us. 

Last semester, I took a course at City College called Politics of Sexual Violence. In it, I learned about the differences between carceral, transformative, and restorative justice. Carceral justice involves shoving people in prisons without healing for either survivors or abusers. Restorative focuses on the healing of the survivors, whereas transformative justice focuses on both the healing of survivors and their abusers. The emerging transformative justice movement generally involves a process where abusers are held accountable, and while survivors’ healing is priority, also leaves space for abusers to learn and heal from their own traumas. 

I became obsessed with this idea, engrossed in the concept that not only could I leave room for myself to heal, but that those who had hurt me could receive rehabilitation and no longer harm others in the ways they had harmed me. 

Social Media Vigilantism

A few months ago, I was following an Instagram account that made posts with pictures of abusers to watch out for; oftentimes including their victims’ stories, anonymous for their sake. Initially, it was empowering to see. It made me feel less alone and thankful to have a community. In time, however, I began to see posts of this account’s messages with anonymous burner accounts. I remember one message specifically where a user with a burner account claimed they didn’t know the accused and that this person hadn’t ever treated them that way, as detailed in their posts. My immediate thought was that they were being manipulated and abused, and that they had not yet come to see their situation entirely. 

And yet, the account posted it, calling the complainant an apologist and following with the admin committing to find out who it was. When I let them know in a message, “hey, it seems like they’re being abused by this person and haven’t yet realized it,” the account said that that seemed true and that they hadn’t even noticed. I brushed it off, and yet I had this lurking feeling, a feeling that forced me to remember when people had told me my ex was no good and I hadn’t listened, when I thought everyone hated me for it. 

Some weeks pass, and then I see the same account posting an artist’s work, one that features lots of children’s entertainment characters in pornographic situations, including characters from Sesame Street and Sailor Moon engaged in sexual interactions. The slides in the post included photos of the artist. The caption implied he’s a pedophile for this, and the casual accusation didn’t sit right with me. 

I realized that if I said something, I would likely face a fair amount of backlash. So I sat on it, spoke to friends about it, and then finally decided to draft a long, respectful comment. 

What’s so ironic to me about it, to this day, is that I posted that comment on my way home from work where I encountered real, and unrelated, harassment as I worked through my response. 

A man asked me for a cigarette at the BART station, and then started to walk with me. He immediately began talking about sex, how women always think that’s all he wants from them. I tried to lose him, and he followed me all the way home, and then paced back and forth in front of my apartment, which is on the first floor. I ended up speaking to my property manager, who was luckily right outside, and he let me inside to go around the back to get to my place without the man seeing where I lived. 

I was shook up all over again, and I couldn’t fathom that a community that’s supposed to be a safe space was trying to cancel someone for their art, when events like these happen all the time in offline reality. 

I checked my comment, and of course I was already receiving a copious amount of angry replies. And yet some people were liking my comment, too. I kept trying to reason with them, to no avail. It took so much effort not to insult them back. I was accused of gaslighting, and of being an apologist. 

Throughout it all, I got private messages from people who agreed with me, but who didn’t want to say so publicly for fear of being treated the same way. 

What this account failed to realize was how triggering those things were to hear, being someone who has gone through the real harm caused by gaslighting and abuse. Gaslighting is not when someone shares their opinion online, it is when your boyfriend rapes you, but when you eventually realize what it was and call it out, he says you liked it, or had asked for it. It is when your partner hits you, and when you tell them they were wrong for doing that they say it never happened, or was justified. It’s when a woman comes out publicly with their side of the story, that they were violently raped and attacked, and the perpetrator makes it about college drinking instead of sexual assault. 

Rage and Healing

Over time, I have gained more understanding and sympathy for whoever is behind that anonymous account, and I have realized that they are doing what they can to heal in the ways they know how to. I don’t think their idea was a bad one, I just wish that there were more ways for us to come together and heal. I wish that there were ways for all of us survivors to heal in ways that don’t focus on trauma bonding and anger. Anger is a more than reasonable reaction, but from my own personal experience, it only gets us so far before we are confronted with the pain that still lingers behind that rage. To allow ourselves to feel only that anger is a disservice to our own healing and wellbeing. Rage begins to be too heavy a burden to carry, for any one of us.

In certain situations, such as deplatforming, in the of case of those who have continuously inflicted harm upon others without consequence or remorse, I think the only option we really have left is often to ‘cancel’ them, to remove their megaphone and the tacit implication that there is validity to what they are saying. In situations where people, typically men, are in positions of power over others and they take advantage of that, I don’t think it is so much a matter of a knee-jerk trauma response as it is a reaction to an abuse of power.

Regarding those people who we must coexist with, abusers or apologists who live in our communities, I think it is helpful to our own wellbeing as well as theirs to remember to have some empathy for them, even if they cannot have that for us in that moment; a balance of empathy that does not require us to sacrifice our own wellbeing and growth. When we respond to that violence with more violence, we desensitize ourselves to it all as a whole, and such action should be reserved until it is our very last option. 

And while I realize that throughout history, a lot of progressive changes have been made through ‘violent’ retaliation and that it is absolutely necessary in some cases, I think we often forget that a lot of those individuals who are inflicting pain upon others are doing so in response to their own pain, in response to the ways that our capitalistic world works to encourage us deeper into our own self interests. When we exile and demonize them, we leave little room for them to seek healing and to break their cycles. That said of course, we must focus first on the healing of ourselves as survivors, before we are able to do anything to help abusers. 

I think one hurdle that is hard to find a solution to is how we come together and make sure everyone, particularly survivors, feel safe, as well as spreading this empathetic understanding. The internet is a place where we can often express our rage, however justified, with the world on anonymous platforms. It is not always a place to be constructive, and it becomes easy to fall under the influence of what other social media users are saying without critically thinking about our own opinions. I have certainly been guilty of this behavior, I’m sure most of us who use social media have, but it is not enough to simply avoid the perpetration of pain if the rest of us are determined to respond to it with perpetuation.

The Guardsman