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The voices behind a movement: how students began the conversation on sexual violence

From creating a group chat to starting a movement on Twitter, survivors tell their stories of sexual violence. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

While some believe that the conversation on sexual violence at USF began when a series of tweets gained thousands of reactions over the past few weeks, the ongoing dialogue actually began over a month ago when a Black woman created a group chat for women to share their stories of sexual violence.

However, some people highlighted the lack of attention and representation women of color were receiving when the conversation first started. 

“I may have been the first person to tweet about my experience, but the first thing I noticed as stories poured in was that Black women were the only ones being attacked for coming forward,” an anonymous alumna tweeted on July 2. “They weren’t supported as loudly. They were openly harassed for putting together resources.

“I do care about making sure Black women’s voices are not erased and properly supporting them since they’re always on the front lines for everyone else.”

Others were disappointed, but not surprised. Samantha, a current student, described it as a “black and white thing.” 

“Just look at the support that Black women are getting and compare it to the support that every other survivor is getting and you see a stark difference,” Samantha said. “They’re getting thousands of retweets, they’re getting quotes and stuff like that.”

While recent sexual violence allegations received a lot of attention in the past few weeks, the conversation began in late May, when current student Zaynab Salahuddin created a GroupMe to spread awareness about sexual assault cases on campus as well as create a safe space for women to share their stories.

In the group, women would share their personal experiences as well as stay informed about alleged perpetrators within the USF community. Less than a week after it was created, the group gained more than 200 members. 

Salahuddin, who was sexually assaulted on campus her freshman year during finals week, said she wanted to create a place where women wouldn’t be scared to share their stories and to prevent other women from having a similar experience.

As the group received more attention, the stories shared in the group chat, which were supposed to remain confidential, started leaking and reported directly to the victim’s perpetrator. To ensure the victim’s safety and control of the situation, Salahuddin decided to delete the group chat.

“Some women were coming into the chat with the wrong intentions …. to just come into like look at it like a gossipy thing, but in actuality, you know, it was a very sensitive thing,” Salahuddin said. “These are women’s stories and stuff that’s actually happening to them.”

Salahuddin, however, said she didn’t expect the conversation to get the attention it is currently receiving.

“I’m just really happy that people are starting to realize that this is a very big issue in our community and that changes do need to be made,” Salahuddin said. “Something does need to get done because it happens way too often to way too many women.”

After seeing the impact the group created, Salahuddin said she created a more private group chat, with less than 100 members, focused on women empowerment.

Although the conversation began within the group chat, a more widespread conversation was sparked on sexual violence at USF when an alumna decided to take it a step further and share her story publicly on Twitter.

The alumna, kept anonymous to preserve her identity, said she was inspired to share her story after participating in a Twitter thread where people would share their age when the assault happened and the relationship with the abuser/perpetrator. 

She then went into details of her story in a separate tweet on June 2, without revealing his name except for his affiliation with Lambda Upsilon Lambda fraternity. After receiving support from the community and hundreds of likes on the tweet, she felt comfortable enough to share his identity and expose his actions.

“I cried myself to sleep for days,” she tweeted. “I felt betrayed by someone I once considered a friend.

“[I] literally suppressed this for so long because I didn’t want to start any drama. [I] tried to make myself forget it happened.”

After overcoming barriers in her way, she decided to offer help to students going through a similar experience.

Through a Google Drive folder, she created documents to serve as resources for survivors when beginning to come to terms with their trauma. From offering a fraternity directory to a template letter to send it to organizations, she hopes to help survivors with “one less barrier that they have to overcome.”

“On top of everything else the survivors are going through, just even trying to gather the energy to put together the email can be really difficult because you’re so overwhelmed and just overcome with so many things at once,” she said. “You’re just exhausted and drained, so I thought this would be one way to be able to help people.”

Aside from kicking off the conversation surrounding sexual assault within the USF community on Twitter, her tweet consequently inspired more women to share their stories, including current student Samantha.

Samantha became involved in the conversation after joining Salahuddin’s first GroupMe group chat in early June. After sharing her story and realizing that she wasn’t the only one hurt by the same man, she felt compelled to post it on Twitter as well.

“I wish that this chat was made early during my freshman year or early sophomore year because … like five other girls went through the same thing as me. I felt comforted that I wasn’t alone in my victimization by that individual and in general, but I was also sad and disappointed that I wasn’t alone in this experience.”

However, as more women started sharing their stories, she said that some individuals attempted to discredit the movement or not give it enough support, especially within the Black community.

“We’re Black women, and it’s called intersectionality,” Samantha said. “We’re not just Black and we’re not just women – we’re both. So if you want to fight both fights, then that’s it because in my opinion, Black women are getting it from all sides like it’s not just Black Lives Matter for us as well. Black women’s lives matter as well. 

“We’re getting attacked on all sides and on all angles so if you want to call attention to something because you guys are saying ‘Black Lives Matter,’ then we should call attention to everything.”

Samantha said the group chat inspired her to tell her story and cultivate a safe space for survivors to speak up.

“You have a story, you’re telling the truth and we’re choosing to believe you,” Samantha said. “That was the train of thought behind [the group chat].

“It was like a woman empowerment movement, but we were also supporting male victims as well, like it was with everybody … if you were a victim, we believed you.”

Senior Christine Njiri was also one among several other women who shared their story. She was raped in 2018 by a member of the Zeta Delta Chapter of the Iota Phi Delta fraternity.

While healing after the traumatic experience, Njiri said she lost a “tremendous amount” of weight and started attending therapy sessions.

“I was internalizing everything and folding this secret that was affecting me in such a negative way, but had I just said something or had I just told someone … it would have lifted this weight off my chest and my shoulders which I definitely feel now,” Njiri said.

“It’s been a wild ride, to say the least. [It has been] very emotionally taxing.”

Njiri said she has been dedicating the past six months to heal while staying at her home in South Africa. After she was raped, she was scared of speaking up and, as a result of what she called the “toxic human culture” present at USF, started missing classes and not leaving her apartment.

“I grew a very deep resentment for Greek life and the celebratory culture that surrounds it,” Njiri said. “Not because I didn’t understand the benefits of it, or the way that it was helping people, but it bothered me tremendously because I believe that if you’re going to be loud about something or if you’re going to praise something then let that be praiseworthy.

“I believe in accountability, I believe in holding people accountable.”

Her tweet, posted on June 24, received more than 350 likes and 170 retweets as of July 7. 

“At the end of the day, one thing I rest assured is that no one can ever come and fight me, I know that for a fact,” Njiri said. “You can’t come in and be fake about me. I don’t tolerate fakeness at all. It’s not something that I’ve ever been about.”

As more attention was being drawn toward sexual violence, several other women also started sharing their stories on Twitter, including student Martaz’Shia Gibbs.

Gibbs was sexually assaulted in 2017 and, at the time, she filed a report through Title IX. When contacting friends and family members, Gibbs said she wasn’t listened to and didn’t get “fair treatment.”

“I was victimized and it was very hurtful. It was hard to deal with it, so, eventually, you lose hope,” Gibbs said.

As Gibbs saw the conversation around sexual violence growing, she decided to speak up and share her story publicly.

“I felt like, ‘you know what, I’m going to say it again and even if nobody’s listening, I just want to say it and I want to name these people so that way [other] people can know,’” Gibbs said. “That’s my truth that I’m telling, but also because I want people to know that I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid of people who may want to silence me.”

Gibbs said she filed a report against the student and Title IX reached out to start an investigation. During the process, she felt as if the staff didn’t believe her and, consequently, she lost hope in the investigation. 

“I felt like I was doing what I was supposed to do,” Gibbs said. “I went to the Counseling Center. I reported it to our campus police and then I also reported it to Tampa Bay police. I told a university official in which they said that you should be telling Title IX. 

“After my experience with Title IX, I eventually lost so much hope that I just stopped going [to the office] because this investigation is taking so long. This semester will be over before we even get anywhere.”

At the time, Gibbs said she was labeled as a “liar” and had her story discredited by people who supported the abuser.

Moments after posting her story on Twitter, she quickly received messages of support from other survivors as well.

“When I spoke out, it was the same exact story, my same truth. The only difference between now and then, is that sexual assault, sexual [mis]conduct, rape and sexual harassment has become more knowledgeable, so people have done more research and they understand the topic,” Gibbs said.

As several survivors started sharing their stories and coming forward with their abusers’ names, a few students decided to create a Google Sheets spreadsheet as a resource for women.

The list, created by students on June 30, was based off a thread on Twitter, listing names from individual stories. As of July 12, the list contained more than 160 names.

Among the people who helped create the list, a current USF student and owner of the Twitter account @talkyoshxt has been on the front line to guarantee that all survivors’ stories are heard.

“I can’t even take credit at all, simply because it wasn’t my idea,” they said. “The list originated from a Black woman … And she knew a lot of stories and a lot of survivors were comfortable to tell her their stories.

“None of this would have been possible without her … I started using her list, and just basically trying to match up people with social media and then it literally just evolved into me creating a whole spreadsheet with their names.”

The list also includes names of organizations the accused men are part of, their current student status and social media accounts.

They said the purpose behind the list was to provide a resource, “where women or queer folk can look at all the men that are in our area to keep an out eye for,” as well as initiate the conversation on sexual violence.

“I want people to start learning what sexual harassment is and what sexual assault is,” they said. “This whole big umbrella it’s not just about physical violence and rape, it’s making people feel unsafe.” 

As the list started growing and gaining attention, some tried to discredit it by making false allegations.

On June 30, a former student received a text message from a friend to let him know that he was accused of “sexually assaulting and taking advantage of drunk women” while at USF. His name was then added to the Google spreadsheet.

As a gay man, the post took him by surprise, especially after sharing his story when he was sexually assaulted by “someone from the gay community and Greek life.”

“My friend sent me a text that morning that my name was added to some spreadsheet as somebody who sexually assaulted women,” the former student said. “It was less than 24 hours after I had outed my fraternity brother as my sexual assaulter. 

“Somebody, anonymously, put my name onto this list in retaliation because the person who sexually assaulted me was very well liked and so me coming out against this person caused me to have enemies I otherwise wouldn’t have.”

The former student posted on June 30 a statement where he addressed the allegations against him. Moments later, his name was removed from the list.

The student behind @talkyoshxt said if someone feels there’s a problem or a mistake was made on the list, they are “open to talking to people.”

“I’m destined to always believe in the survivor first,” they said. “So, when I read these stories obviously I’m thinking they’re all true to begin with, but I have to take everything into consideration … at the end of the day, who am I to tell survivors that they are wrong?”

Despite the false allegation against him, the former student said his case should not be used to discredit the list or the other survivors who are sharing their stories.

“My intention isn’t to discredit anyone, but to sound bite on the fact that retaliation is real,” he said. “After you come out against somebody, retaliation is definitely a thing that can happen … and that’s a fear of everyone who has been sexually assaulted. They’re afraid that people will turn on them, things will be said about them, and it’s a big reason why a lot of people don’t come forward.”

He also emphasized the fact that sexual violence can happen to anyone, including within the gay community.

“I think it’s easy for people to forget that, not just women get sexually assaulted and not just straight men get sexually assaulted and that ended up happening to me, unfortunately,” he said. “I try to deal with it in a more private matter, because going out publicly is just so scary because you know you’re afraid of retaliation and unfortunately that is something that happened to me.”

As more survivors share their stories and advocate for change within campus, students emphasize the importance of shedding a light on sexual violence within the campus community.

“A lot of times people ignore and suppress the memories, but the survivors are left with the trauma and the emotional burden of keeping it a secret and never sharing this with anybody and I think people are just kind of sick of that honestly,” the alumna who sparked the conversation on Twitter said.

“I think survivors have come to a point where they want to reclaim their power and they want to tell their truth, and they’re doing that unapologetically. And I think that’s amazing.”