A Room of Our Own

The thing is, it’s not just the nudes.

It’s not just the pictures of Jennifer Lawrence, splashed across my screen when I clicked her name on my Twitter sidebar to find out what the hell was going on, splashed across everyone’s screen without her permission, without her consent. It’s not just the men who stole them, on the run from the FBI, loudly and confusedly contesting that they’ve done nothing wrong, not really. It’s not just the nickname– “the Fappening”, a joke, a way to laugh about the whole thing, a reminder of what the theft of the photos was ultimately about.

It’s not just Anita Sarkeesian– though it is Anita Sarkeesian, in a much bigger way than it is Jennifer Lawrence. It’s Anita Sarkeesian receiving daily death threats, being driven out of her house because of how serious they had become, it’s Anita Sarkeesian’s being harassed and bullied and going through things no one should have to go through just because she’d said sexism is real. It’s Kelly Weill, too, who I wrote about a couple weeks ago, a girl my age who I might know– who I might be– getting gory, sexual pictures, and yes, death threats, because she’d written an article about a damn Facebook page–

Look: let me tell you what it was like to grow up on the Internet.

I was a geeky kid. I’m a geeky adult, I’ll be fair, but like most adults who were once geeky kids I’ve developed actual social skills since the age of 12. 

But back then I was a geeky kid, a kid who knew more about Harry Potter than she did about how to hold a conversation, a kid who had more books than friends. I tended to tuck myself away in corners of the library with a notebook and pen and write long, terrible stories that were usually very thinly veiled versions of Lord of the Rings. I had the fashion sense of a blind hippopotamus and a bad case of preteen acne. I got straight A’s in all my classes, my favorite thing in the world was Shakespeare Club, and yes, I was always, always picked last in P.E.

None of this is a recipe for happiness for even the most cheerful and well-adjusted 12-year-old. Me, I was more or less continually miserable from 2004 to 2008, which is when I got my act together, made some damn friends, stopped talking about books all the time, and chanted 6 whole Torah portions at my Bat Mitzvah (not necessarily in that order).

And when you’re a miserable 12-year-old (“miserable 12-year-old” is almost certainly a tautology, to be fair), no matter how geeky you are, you need to talk to people who aren’t in books. You need to talk to people your own age, or at least near your own age– people who aren’t teachers or parents or grown-ups. You need friends.

I was awkward, shy, pimpled, and bookish. I did what every awkward, shy, pimpled, bookish kid has done since the 1990s onward: I made friends on the Internet.

Sometimes it was on sites specifically designed for kids, like Neopets. Sometimes it was in the comments section of a webcomic I was reading. Sometimes it was on websites devoted to posting fanfiction, or posting original fiction, or talking about books– it was a revelation to discover that there were people out there who cared about Harry Potter even more than me

It was a revelation to discover that I didn’t have to be the geeky kid with the braces and the old jeans who could probably do your algebra homework for you. That I didn’t have to be the kid who stuttered, the kid who made awkward comments and shrank into her seat, the kid who couldn’t catch a softball and who didn’t seem to know how to talk right. That I didn’t have to be twelve years old.

I can just see my mother making concerned faces at her laptop screen and I want to assure her that yes, Mom, I’m aware of how unhealthy that is, I did eventually grow up and make real-life friends and become a more or less well-adjusted adult, you remember, you were there.

So yeah: when I was twelve, the Internet wasn’t a healthy place to be. That wasn’t the point, not really. It was, more than anything else, a place to run away to; a place like the library, where I could hide, where I could be comfortable, a place I didn’t have to apply myself to the continual, painful work of growing up. It wasn’t a healthy place to be. It was a safe place to be.

And so it happened that even when I did properly grow up and turned 13 and lost the braces and the acne and the shyness, I was still pretty active on the Internet– mostly in spaces for people my own age, at this point– and though I had safe spaces offline, online was a safe space. And I was able to balance things, and it was good, and I was more or less happy.

It’d be hard to pinpoint the place where feminism happened to me. Maybe around sophomore year of high school, when I tentatively came out to a few of my friends and was hit by a cheerful barrage of words like “genderqueer” and “intersectionality”; maybe later, when I actually started talking about it in class, senior year, and got myself thoroughly labeled as “that irritating feminist [insert gendered slur of your choice]”; maybe way back when I was seven years old and read Tamora Pierce for the first time and spent all day on the playground running around with a fake sword yelling “Girls can do anything boys can do!”

Maybe when my American history teacher said, “Feminism is the belief that men and women should be equal– that’s it, nothing else,” and suddenly I understood: this was not a radical political position, this niggling feeling in my heart that I deserved the same opportunities as my brother and my cousins and my male classmates, this was not outrageous, this was not ridiculous, this was not absurd. This was human decency. This was common sense.

This was okay.

And after that they mostly blended together, feminism and the Internet; LGBTQ activism crept in, anti-racism activism crept in, it was all part of one great blur. And there were other women talking about the experiences they’d had, the unhappinesses they’d lived through, the injustices they wanted to stop; I learned slut-shaming, I learned rape culture, I learned third-wave.

And it was the same thing as it had been back when I was twelve– here we were, a bunch of people who cared about the same things, talking to each other, building a safe space in our friendships. We had important things in common, and we had found each other, and it was good. It really was good. I was happy.

I still am.

So let me explain this to you:

It’s not just about the nudes.

It’s not just about Anita Sarkeesian. It’s not just about Kelly Weill. It’s not just about every woman who’s been harassed on the Internet, it’s not just about every woman who’s received death threats on the Internet, it’s not just about MRAs, it’s not just about #YesAllWomen, it’s not just about the nudes, it’s not just about the nudes.

It’s about me.

It’s about my friends. The kids, I mean. The women who were once geeks with braces and pimples and no fashion sense. The girls who still are geeks with braces and pimples and no fashion sense– because there are always more 12-year-olds whose hearts hurt, there are always more 12-year-olds who are miserable, and being 12 is something no one should have to go through alone.

The girls who are going to be writers one day. The girls who are going to be artists. The girls who are going to make comic books and video games. The girls who are going to be politically active, and change the world, and maybe be President. The girls who are going to be physicists, and inventors, and engineers, and programmers. The girls who are going to be lawyers, the girls who are going to be teachers, the girls who are going to be journalists, the girls who are going to be grown-ups, the girls who are going to survive, the girls for whom it will get better

They deserve a safe space. We deserve a safe space.

We deserve a space where we can speak freely. We deserve a space where our bodies are not nearly as important as our minds.

We don’t get that kind of space a lot, out in the real world.

Virginia Woolf said:

Give her a room of her own, and five hundred a year; let her speak her mind and leave out half that she now puts in, and she will write a better book, one of these days.

And so it’s not just about the nudes; but it is the nudes that break my heart, the nudes that make me sit down and cry at my kitchen table, for the girl I once was, and for the woman I’ve become, and for the girls around the world that I can’t help but see myself in. I cry because this is the place we’ve hungered after– a room of our own— and it always, always hurts when I’m reminded that, because of my gender, there is no real place where I can be totally safe.

Not even the place where I grew up.

Tomorrow I’ll pick myself up and do what I’ve learned to do since I turned 13, which is shrug it off my shoulders, make some coffee, and start working towards a better tomorrow. But today I’m going to do what I need to do, which is curl my hands into fists and say, very quietly, to no one at all: it’s not fair.

It’s not fair.

It’s not fair at all.

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