Warning: this story contains information about sexual assault which may be triggering to survivors.
Zoe was sexually assaulted the first time she went to a nightclub, but she didn’t realize it until nearly a decade later. (We’ve changed her name at her request.)
Now in her mid 20s, Zoe recalls the night she was celebrating her graduation from high school at a club in Montreal. As she danced with her friends, a man began grinding up against her. He didn’t ask if she wanted to dance, but she went with it. They swayed together to the music for a bit, and soon his hands were on her waist. They slid down her hips, then underneath her dress, until suddenly his fingers were inside of her. She pushed his arm away, thinking maybe he misread her signals. But then he touched her again. She quickly spun around, putting as much distance as she could between herself and the man. The dance floor was tightly packed, but she managed to turn her body toward her circle of friends so she could feel more protected. The man disappeared into the crowd, and Zoe never saw him again.
“After it happened, I told my friends and we all were grossed out. We’d never been in a situation like that before,” she says, remembering back to that night, her hands shaking. “It was my first time at a club so I just dismissed it as a disgusting guy doing things that sometimes happen when you’re partying.”
It wasn’t until recently, as she scrolled through Canadian writer Kelly Oxford’s Twitter feed, that Zoe realized she had in fact been assaulted.
As a response to the leaked audio of Donald Trump bragging about grabbing and kissing women without consent, Oxford invited her 700,000+ followers to share their first sexual assaults on Twitter using the hashtag #NotOkay.
Oxford went first: “Old man on city bus grabs my ‘pussy’ and smiles at me, I’m 12,” prompting an avalanche of replies.
Women: tweet me your first assaults. they aren't just stats. I'll go first:
Old man on city bus grabs my "pussy" and smiles at me, I'm 12.
— kelly oxford (@kellyoxford) October 7, 2016
Personal stories from all over the world poured in, with Oxford estimating at least 50 responses per minute at one point—including stories from women who had experienced nearly the same thing as Zoe.
women have tweeted me sexual assault stories for 14 hours straight. Minimum 50 per minute. harrowing. do not ignore. #notokay
— kelly oxford (@kellyoxford) October 8, 2016
“I kept thinking, Wow, that’s so horrible, as I read the tweets,” says Zoe. “Then the memory of the incident at the club came roaring back to me, and I started questioning it.”
That’s when she began to feel the full weight of what had happened. “I’m a feminist who speaks out against violence against women, yet I couldn’t even see how what had happened to me was not okay,” she says. “It was the first time I looked at what that stranger on the dance floor did and labelled it as ‘sexual assault.’ And that was a scary realization.”
Reading through the thousands of #NotOkay tweets, Zoe also realized that she wasn’t alone in recognizing, long after the fact, that she’d been assaulted.
#notokay thank you for sharing stories of sexual assault and to those still sharing. We don't have to carry their shame anymore.
— kelly oxford (@kellyoxford) October 9, 2016
As one Twitter user summed it up: “The #notokay tag and @kellyoxford timeline has triggered so many bizarre memories. Adapting to #rapeculture should not be the norm for women.”
Understanding incidents, like what happened to Zoe, as assaults can come down to seeing the right message at the right time, says Erin Crickett, the public education coordinator at SACHA, a sexual assault centre based in Hamilton, Ont. She says sexual assault should be talked about regularly and in multiple different ways—as opposed to, say, a one-time seminar—to increase overall awareness.
“Survivors may have heard messages about sexual assault many different times and in many different ways, like in a health class or during welcome week at university or in a sexual harassment seminar at work, but sometimes it just takes something said on the right day at the right time to make it actually click,” says Crickett.
Trump is now facing multiple allegations of sexual assault. He vehemently denied all of the claims during a recent rally in Florida, calling them “preposterous” and “ludicrous” and saying that they “defy truth, common sense and logic.” Meanwhile, more than 30 million people have read or contributed to Oxford’s #NotOkay campaign.
Zoe chose not to add her story to the hashtag. She’s still coming to terms with the assault and didn’t want her colleagues, former classmates and family members who follow her on Twitter to know. But she did quietly acknowledge her recent revelation by retweeting Oxford: Sexual assault is a universal truth for women. No one is alone. #notokay
Sexual assault is a universal truth for women. No one is alone. #notokay
— kelly oxford (@kellyoxford) October 9, 2016
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