I was 12 years old and had just come home from school. Still wearing my uniform, I dropped my bag on the floor, picked up some fruit from the kitchen and turned on the ‘dial-up’ connection of the computer in our family’s TV room. I logged into “Hi5”, the pre-precursor to Facebook and logged in. Hi5 (for those of you 90s kids who remember) allowed you to message people, leave testimonials and share stickers and medals with people.
Normally, a half-hour on Hi5 was spent messaging school friends, and exploring the new medals, in the days before MSN messenger had become a teenage obsession.
When I logged into the computer, there was a private message from a boy who had once been in my school. He had left after year four (when the school became an all-girls school) and I hadn’t spoken to him or heard from him since.
The message began by calling me a ‘slut’ and a ‘bitch’, and went into graphic details explaining how he would rape me. In it, he said that because I hadn’t spoken to him, he had turned gay and that was all my fault. He explained that I was a whore and said something like “if I ever see you, I’ll make you pay.” Over and over again, he hurled abuses at me, in a long and complicated message that made no sense at all.
I was terrified.
I remember my hands shaking and my heart pounding. I had never seen or heard anything like it before. I shut down the computer and never went back on Hi5 again. I didn’t tell anyone, not my parents, no teachers and not even my friends from school.
It’s been a long time, since the incident occurred, and yet for years after, whenever anyone mentioned the words, ‘slut’ or ‘whore’ or ‘gay’, I would have a nervous reaction to that message, shaking again at what that reminded me of the fear I felt at the time. I would check over my shoulder when I went out and avoided anywhere where I knew he might be.
For years, I lived in fear that he would show up outside the school gates or hurt me when I was alone somewhere. I felt like the anger in that message was so complete, so tangible that it was almost like it was pulsating through the screen, waiting to reach out and grab me.
It wasn’t just that the message was abusive – it was the feeling it left me with. It left me painfully conscious of my body, it made me scared and shaken and constantly afraid that he would follow through on the threats. This was the early 2000s and we had only just begun to use the internet. No one I knew had even heard the word cyber-bullying.
Years later, I told my friends about the message one night. I was an adult, it had been a long time since the message and yet, I was still welling up with tears. It had left me with this feeling that it was my fault, that somehow I had caused it and that I was responsible for this. I was so scared and ashamed, that I had no idea what to do with it.
It’s only after I was married, when I told my husband one night, that I realised it wasn’t my fault. I had done nothing to invite or warrant this. Threatening to rape someone over the internet is cowardly and criminal. But it does make me think how many other children are exposed to this when they were younger?
The internet has made it possible for us to share our opinions across time and distance. But there isn’t enough of a handle on how we make that space safe. As an adult, sometimes I’ll see an occasional unwarranted comment, or someone saying something unnecessary but I feel so much more able to handle it. But to have that as a child was nothing short of traumatic.
Now I see that that message is a small piece of a much bigger problem, where young people have warped ideas of how to interact with each other. The fact, that I didn’t bring it up with anyone means that likely no one else spoke to him about it. For all we know, he may never know the effects of that message and what it left behind. It contributes to a growing rape culture, one where women are objects and men have control over them.
The staggering number of incidents of gender-based violence continues to exist because we haven’t yet found a way to have these conversations, both online and off. But speaking out about it is the only way things can change. Hopefully, that will create a safer internet space for 12 year olds in the future.