On November 22, 2016, the two-year anniversary of the day I met my boyfriend, we celebrated by spending the afternoon apartment hunting – searching for a place that would accommodate the life we were beginning to build together. With a small list of properties to view, we stood on the front porch of my parents’ house, ready to set out into the late-November day. But as I typed the address of the first apartment into my phone, a sexually-explicit text message from an unknown phone number appeared on the screen.
“Hi there… Saw your post on CL… Are you still up for some fun?” the message read. It was quickly followed by another: “I want to fuck your ass.” I could feel the blood drain from my face. I looked at my boyfriend, and back at my phone. “I have no idea who this is,” I told him, showing him the messages. Three more aggressively sexual messages appeared on the screen.
“It must be a wrong number,” my boyfriend told me. “Just delete it.” I took his advice, quickly deleting the messages and blocking the unknown number. But the messages didn’t stop. Instead, they continued coming from different numbers from different cities all over the country. In the following weeks, I received assault threats, pictures of genitalia, and countless degrading messages, all responding to Craigslist sex ads I never posted.
As a woman who writes about disfigurement and medical trauma for a living, I never thought sexual harassment would be a hazard of my profession. Yet, just two weeks after I wrote about equality for individuals with disfigurements in a national paper, the abuse began. It was as though I was being punished, and I had no idea who was trying to take revenge on me or why.
As weeks turned into months, my boyfriend and I settled into our new place, but the harassment didn’t stop. Texts continued pouring in from unknown numbers. I searched Craigslist and Google for anything related to my phone number, but my contact information didn’t appear anywhere. Still, I was harassed by men of all ages, each one detailing the sexual acts they wanted to do to me.
“Hey you. I’m answering your ad on Craigslist. I want to lick your pussy and ass before I smash it,” one man texted.
“I am ready for you bb,” another man sent, followed by a selfie. “My dick is throbbing for you,” he said. “Does that excite you?”
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“Not in the slightest,” I responded, before blocking his number.
Another man thought I was a sex worker. “When are you available?” He asked me. I deleted his message without responding, but the man continued. “I saw your ad on Craigslist looking for oral. I’m available tonight,” he wrote. “I have a job, car, cash, and can meet you at Starbucks then go from there. I’m available today, tomorrow, and Friday.”
The next text came from a man old enough to be my father. He called me sweetie and sent me selfies and pictures of his dick. After dozens of unanswered texts, I told him he had the wrong number, that I didn’t have an ad. He told me I was beautiful, and sent me a screenshot of a picture he had of me. When I asked him how he got it, he responded by asking for naked photos.
With no idea how the man had my picture, I started asking everyone who texted me to send links to the ads they were responding to. Only two men obliged. The first man apologized profusely and immediately agreed to send the link. The other expressed concern, telling me how awful my situation must feel and encouraged me to contact authorities – before asking me to send him a naked photo as a thank you. “Not to sound weird,” he said, “but your hot in a unique kinda way.” I didn’t feel “hot,” though. I felt powerless and exposed.
In addition to texts, men called incessantly and sent lewd messages to my Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn accounts. After continuing my method of asking each responder for links to the ads, and searching Google for my phone number, I found over a dozen personal ads someone had created, all impersonating me. One ad referred to me as a “weird-looking virgin and mediocre writer with a rape fantasy.” Another said I need to learn to keep my mouth shut. Even more unsettling was the ad that claimed I wanted to be tied up and repeatedly sexually assaulted. “I want you to rape me,” it read. “Don’t take no for an answer.” The ads appeared on Craigslist in major cities across the country, including every major city in the San Francisco Bay Area, surrounding the town where I live. Each time I reported a post and had it deleted, another one appeared.
I began to fear for my safety every time I went to the grocery store, refueled my car at the gas station, or went hiking. I prayed I wouldn’t be assaulted every time I left my house.
In 2014, I was raped in a house on Loomis Street in Burlington, Vermont. I was 22-years-old and fresh out of college. Even though most of my friends moved away months earlier, I stayed. I enrolled in graduate school and got a job at a small world music label in a rural Vermont town. But I was lonely. That winter, I met the man who would later assault me. I didn’t know him. Not really, anyway, but he was funny and interesting. We talked about everything. We talked about nothing. When he invited me to his place for a movie night with his friends, I hesitated. “I’ll introduce you to everyone,” he told me. “I promise it’ll be fun.” I agreed.
On the day of the gathering, a storm overtook the city – nothing but fresh white powder for miles. I tried to cancel our plans, to say the roads weren’t safe, but he insisted, offering to leave his friends to pick me up. Within minutes, he was parked outside my door. When we got back to his house, the lights were off. “I thought your friends were here?” I asked. “Oh, they couldn’t make it,” he shrugged, as we walked through the door. Inside, black sheets hung over the walls and windows. Though I knew I should leave, I stifled my urge to run. Instead, I sat at his kitchen table and let him make me a drink – something with whiskey and maple syrup. When I tried to politely call it a night, he blocked the door with his body. I had no way out and no way home. Nobody else was coming.
That night, the man fucked me beneath two rifles hung on his wall in a giant ‘X’ above his bed. “‘X’ marks the spot,” he whispered as he spread my legs. I cried, begging him to stop. Because it was more of an ‘X’ like a target. ‘X’ like draw a line through it. ‘X’ like cross it out, because it doesn’t matter. ‘X’ like the shape his hands made when he used them to cover my mouth. “Are you having fun yet baby?” He asked. My blood decorated his sheets, but he smiled and laughed, whispering “I’m almost there.”
When he finished, he pointed to the bathroom, and told me to go clean myself up. I cried as I quickly slid my jeans over my bloody thighs. The man was still naked, passed out on his bed, so I ran for the front door. Snow outside was piled even higher and the frigid temperatures were well into the negatives, but I walked the two miles home anyway – the smell of blood trailing me the entire way.
After I was raped, I didn’t report it. I didn’t even tell anyone it happened until eight months later, when I tried to love someone new, but cried every time he touched me. When I mentioned the assault, he asked why I never reported it. Because I thought it was my fault. Because that’s what I get for going to his house.
Though it’s been three years, as a victim of sexual assault, every vile message I received in response to the ad I never posted, forced me to relive my nightmare.
In the United States, cyber harassment laws vary state-by-state. Though there are 34 states with laws in place, policies have simply failed to keep up with technological capabilities. This became evident in early January, when I finally contacted my local police department. The officer I spoke with was sympathetic, but since I didn’t have the name of the person posting the ads and nobody physically threatened me, nothing could be done.
I couldn’t just do nothing though, so I took to the internet for research. I reached out to internet hackers, activists, and other victims.
In early February, I spoke with Dr. Charlotte Laws, a renowned cyber harassment and revenge porn activist, who referred to cyber harassment as “the new frontier for women and feminists.” Known as the “Erin Brokovich of revenge porn,” she began fighting cyber harassment in 2012, after her daughter’s computer was hacked and a personal photo was posted on a pornographic website. When we spoke on the phone, she was tough, but stern – the kind of woman you’d always want on your side. I asked her about her experience and told her about mine.
“Cyberspace has been a men’s club for a long time,” she told me. This is why many women are not as successful in their attempts to stop their cyber harassers. A large part of this stems from the fact that the internet, which Laws calls “bigger than life,” prioritizes free speech over the safety and protection of women. “I think there would be huge backlash if you wanted to change the laws in that way,” she told me.
“I still have a guy who has been stalking me for seven years,” Laws confided. “He’s never physically threatened me, so there’s nothing I can do.”
It was comforting to speak with someone who understood that these Craigslist ads weren’t just words on a screen. That cyber sexism isn’t just verbal abuse, threats of physical assault, and privacy violations; it’s a complete undermining of everything women have worked for. It’s the perpetuation of rape culture through technological advance. As our conversation continued, I told Dr. Laws that I had begun shutting down my online presence. I removed my picture and professional information from LinkedIn, and made sure my other social media profiles were set to private. But she told me that for victims of cyber harassment who have had their reputations tarnished, it’s important to build up an online presence to make the negative content harder to find: “Building your reputation online will help push bad content down. Eighty percent of employers check the internet. Don’t shut down your online presence. Build it up.” Slowly, I began to take social media accounts off of their private settings and got back to work creating more content to help bury the Craigslist ads.
Finally, in March, after nearly four months of constantly looking over my shoulder, the harassment stopped – just as abruptly as it had begun. But in May, it started again, when I received another text from an unknown number – from a man who got my number off Craigslist. When I did a google search for the number, I learned it belonged to a man who was recently released from prison for sexual assault.
I still don’t know who created the ads impersonating me, or why, but after the man convicted of sexual assault began to contact me, I decided to publish this piece under an assumed name. Fear for my safety trumped the advice to build up my online profile and bury the ads. Though my identity has been concealed, I still shudder every time I think of the fact that someone is out there waiting for me to let my guard down, to post another ad. While I will not let the harassment keep me from my love of writing, or prevent me from living my best life, every time I publish something new, there’s a part of me that wonders if this will be the day the verbal threats become physical – if this will be the day that I really am silenced.